The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle

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I really enjoyed Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code, so when I saw he had written a follow-up book on organizational culture, I picked it up from the library.

Subtitled “The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups”, Coyle investigates successful groups from the Navy SEALs to the San Antonio Spurs to a band of jewel thieves to figure out what the groups have in common, and how they maintain success even as individual members come and go. In other words, if it’s not individual excellence that make an organization successful over the years, what is it?

As you can guess from the title, Coyle thinks the answer is culture. Coyle goes on to say: “Yet the inner workings of culture remain mysterious. We all want strong culture in our organizations, communities, and families. We all know that it works. We just don’t know quite how it works.”

He shares three skills from his deep dives with these high-performing organizations that he believes creates successful cultures:

  1. Build Safety
  2. Share Vulnerability
  3. Establish Purpose

Skill 1, Build Safety, is important because human beings are social creatures that take our cues from those around us. When we feel safe and secure, when we belong, then we can relax and not be using our energy to be hyper-vigilant for signs of danger. This is reflected by Google’s research on team building, where they discovered that “psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”

Coyle identifies three qualities of cues that signal to us that we are safe and that we belong:

  1. “Energy: They invest in the exchange that is occurring.”
  2. “Individualization: They treat the person as unique and valued.”
  3. “Future orientation: They signal the relationship will continue.”

Coyle is careful to note that psychological safety does not mean there is no critical feedback. These organizations would not be successful if they were not constantly seeking to improve. The difference comes when members do not feel threatened by the critical feedback; they believe they will continue to have a place in the future of the organization. He illustrates this by a phrase that researchers deemed “magical feedback”, because using this phrase with feedback was so effective at improving student performance: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” The phrase illustrates the three belonging cues above – the person receiving feedback feels the attention and energy of the feedback giver, they feel they have value in the giver’s eye, and they feel part of a community going forward with high standards.

Coyle then has a chapter on actions that can help to Build Safety, which I’ll just list here for my own future reference: Overcommunicate your Listening, Spotlight your Fallibility early on especially if you’re a Leader, Embrace the Messenger, Preview Future Connection, Overdo Thank-Yous, Be Painstaking in the Hiring Process, Eliminate Bad Apples, Create Safe Collision-rich Spaces, Make Sure Everyone Has a Voice, Pick Up Trash, Capitalize on Threshold Moments, Avoid Giving Sandwich Feedback, and Embrace Fun.

Skill 2, Share Vulnerability, builds upon Safety; when we feel safe, we are able to let our guard down and be more vulnerable and authentic. And when we are not spending our energy on hiding our weaknesses, we can devote more energy to performing at our highest level together. As Coyle puts it, if vulnerability becomes the norm, “you can set the insecurities aside and get to work, start to trust each other, and help each other” instead of covering up your weaknesses and insecurities. He later describes how “exchanges of vulnerability, which we naturally tend to avoid, are the pathway through which trusting cooperation is built.”

Coyle similarly describes actions to Share Vulnerability: Make Sure the Leader is Vulnerable First and Often, Overcommunicate Expectations, Deliver the Negative Stuff in Person, When Forming New Groups, Focus on Two Critical Moments (the first vulnerability, and the first disagreement), Listen Like a Trampoline (don’t just absorb, but respond actively), In Conversation Resist the Temptation to Reflexively Add Value, Aim for Candor; Avoid Brutal Honesty (which reminds me I should write up Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor at some point), Embrace the Discomfort, Align Language with Action, Build a Wall between Performance Review and Professional Development, Use Flash Mentoring, and Make the Leader Occasionally Disappear.

Skill 3, Establish Purpose, is the reminder that organizations achieve greatest success when they become more than the sum of their individual members, such that they are a true team striving together for a mutual purpose. As Coyle puts it, “high-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal. They provide the two simple locators that every navigation process requires: Here is where we are and Here is where we want to go.” These reminders of the organization’s purpose “flood the zone” to remind people why they are working together, such that they receiving “steady, ultra-clear signals that are aligned with a shared goal”. This can include catchy phrases that might sound cheesy at first, but when repeated enough, become part of what binds the organization together.

Coyle’s Ideas for Action to Establish Purpose include: Name and Rank Your Priorities, Be Ten Times as Clear About Your Priorities as You Think You Should Be, Figure Out Where Your Group Aims for Proficiency and Where it Aims for Creativity, Embrace the Use of Catchphrases, Measure What Really Matters, Use Artifacts, and Focus on Bar-Setting Behaviors.

The Culture Code is a quick, fun read that summarizes some (not-so) common-sense culture-building practices. It doesn’t have any mind-shattering insights, but it does have fun stories about high-performing organizations, and some useful tips as to how to create cultures in their mold. It mirrors my own experience in that I have noticed that I am more relaxed and my full self in certain communities, such as Overlap and the coaching community at New Ventures West, and this book was helpful to identify that what those communities do well is Build Safety and Share Vulnerability.

What I took from the book personally was how important belonging and security are for me to unlock my full potential, and how I can initiate that cycle of belonging for communities I participate in by being vulnerable. I also found myself reflecting on my coaching practice, as these skills are essential for coaching: building safety for my clients, sharing my own vulnerability to help them unlock theirs, and helping them establish their purpose. I believe that personal development of these skills is valuable even if one isn’t trying to improve an organization, and will continue to work on developing myself in these areas.

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