Book notes: The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle book summary review and key ideas.

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The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle


“The author of The Talent Code unlocks the secrets of highly successful groups and provides tomorrow’s leaders with the tools to build a cohesive, motivated culture.

Where does great culture come from? How do you build and sustain it in your group, or strengthen a culture that needs fixing? In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle goes inside some of the world’s most successful organizations – including the US Navy’s SEAL Team Six, IDEO, and the San Antonio Spurs – and reveals what makes them tick. He demystifies the culture-building process by identifying three key skills that generate cohesion and cooperation, and explains how diverse groups learn to function with a single mind. Drawing on examples that range from Internet retailer Zappos to the comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade to a daring gang of jewel thieves, Coyle offers specific strategies that trigger learning, spark collaboration, build trust, and drive positive change. Coyle unearths helpful stories of failure that illustrate what not to do, troubleshoots common pitfalls, and shares advice about reforming a toxic culture. 

Combining leading-edge science, on-the-ground insights from world-class leaders, and practical ideas for action, The Culture Code offers a roadmap for creating an environment where innovation flourishes, problems get solved, and expectations are exceeded. Culture is not something you are – it’s something you do. The Culture Code puts the power in your hands. No matter the size of your group or your goal, this book can teach you the principles of cultural chemistry that transform individuals into teams that can accomplish amazing things together.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

This book is recommended to me by my friend Tiffany and it seemed like a good read for this month. Since I work with teams at my workplace, I feel like this would be a good read to supplement what I do

Key notes:

  • When working in teams individual skill doesn’t matter as much as the interactions 
  • Group culture is one of the most powerful forces on the planet 

Skill One: Build Safety

Chapter 1: the good apples

  • Three negative archetypes:
    1. The jerk
    2. The slacker
    3. The downer
  • The good apples in a group help the team perform better because they make everyone feel safer
  • When you encounter a group with good chemistry, you know it
    • It draws you in
    • It’s a combination of excitement and deep comfort that sparks mysteriously with select groups
  • The key to creating psychological safety is to recognize how deeply obsessed our unconscious brains are with it
    • We require lots of signaling of belonging over and over
  • Team performance is driven by 5 measurable factors:
    1. Everyone talks and listens in roughly equal measure
    2. Members maintain high levels of eye contact and their conversations and gestures are energetic
    3. Members communicate directly with each other, not just through the team leader
    4. Members carry-on back channel or side conversations within the team
    5. Members periodically break, explore outside the team, and bring back information to share with others
  • When we see people in our peer group play with an idea, our behavior changes
    • That’s how intelligence and culture are created
  • Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: we are safe and connected 

Chapter 2: the billion dollar day when nothing happened

  • A study showed on Silicon Valley startup there were three models of founding cultures that existed:
    • Star model (focused on finding and hiring the brightest people)
    • Professional model (building the group around specific skill sets)
    • Commitment model (developing a group with shared values and strong emotional bonds)
      • The commitment model consistently led in the highest rates of success
  • Cues and this idea of belonging needs to be continually refreshed and reinforced because safety is built over time

Chapter 3: the Christmas truce, the one-year experiment, and the misseliers

  • During World War II, there was a Christmas truce and ceasefire between the fighting armies while they were engaged in long-term trench warfare
    • This happened because a couple months back, they started to develop trust through micro-truces to account for all the similar habits and routines each side had
  • Belonging cues have not to do with character or discipline, but with building an environment that answers basic questions:
    • Are we connected?
    • Do we share a future?
    • Are we safe?

Chapter 4: how to build belonging

  • One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they’re happy, lighthearted places
    • This is mostly not the case
    • They are energized and engaged, but at their core, their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together

Chapter 5: how to design for belonging

  • Collisions, as Tony Shieh from Zappos defines, are serendipitous personal encounters that are the lifeblood of any organization
    • The key driver of creativity, community, and cohesion
  • Tony sees himself as the architect to the greenhouse
    • His communication skills are very basic, his approach is to just connect people and have faith they’ll figure it out
  • A study showed a correlation between the distance between workspaces and group cohesion

Chapter 6: ideas for action

  • Over-communicate your listening
  • Spotlight your fallibility early on
  • To create safety, leaders need to actively invite input
  • Embrace the messenger
  • Preview future connection
  • Overuse thank you’s
    • In highly successful cultures, the number of “thank you’s” seem over the top
  • Be painstaking in the hiring process
  • Eliminate the bad apples
  • Create safe, collision-rich spaces
  • Capitalize on threshold moments
  • Avoid giving sandwich feedback
    • Separate these into two different processes
  • Embrace fun
    • Laughter is the most fundamental sign of safety and connection

Skill Two: Share Vulnerability

Chapter 7: tell me what you want and I’ll help you

  • The outcome of the impossible disaster that occurred on Flight 232 was a miracle as the crew that piloted it managed to keep 185 people alive including the entire crew
  • The pilot crew was able to combine their intelligence by communicating effectively and sharing vulnerability
  • Pixar has brain trust meetings that help them improve, and military groups have AAR (after action reports) to improve

Chapter 8: the vulnerability loop

  • A vulnerability loop, a shared exchange of openness, is the most basic building block of cooperation and trust
  • Studies show that as vulnerability increased, so did cooperation
    • The opposite occurred when feelings of power and invulnerability increased, cooperation decreased
  • Trust comes down to context, and what drives it is the sense that you are vulnerable, that you need others and can’t do it on your own 

Chapter 9: the super cooperators

  • The Navy SEALS, because of their stealth and adaptability, are considered the best of all special forces
    • Their style of cooperation is like “pickup basketball” where less communication is involved
  • Every aspect of SEAL training was team-based
  • Each team had to be self sufficient, and he eliminated the hierarchical structure so everybody had to do it no matter their rank
  • Log PT has the ability to deliver 2 conditions: intense vulnerability and deep interconnectedness
  • In improv, the herald is a group brain workout based on trust, support, and feedback, and in which you experience the pure, painful intersection of vulnerability and interconnectedness 
  • The Panthers were a criminal jewelry robbery group that operated with high levels of efficiency and trust
  • In a team, real courage is seeing the truth and speaking the truth to each other

Chapter 11: how to create cooperation with individuals

  • It takes practice to listen, empathize, and nudge teams in the right direction
  • Powerful questions to answer in a team to help improve:
    • The one thing that excites me about this particular opportunity is…?
    • I confess, the one thing I’m not so excited about with this particular opportunity is…?
    • On this project, I’d really like to get better at…? 
  • The power comes from truly seeing someone from their position
  • Concordances happen when one person can react in an authentic way to the emotion being projected into the room
    • Understanding in an empathic way and then doing something in terms of gesture, comment or expression that creates a connection

Chapter 12: ideas for action

  • Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often
  • Over communicate expectations
  • Deliver the negative stuff in person
  • When forming new groups, focus on two critical moments:
    1. the first vulnerability
    2. the first disagreement 
  • Listen like a trampoline
    • Good listening is about more than nodding attentively. It’s about adding insight and creating moments of mutual discovery
  • The most effective listeners do four things:
    1. They interact in ways that make the other person feel safe and supported
    2. They take a helping, corporative stance
    3. They occasionally ask questions that gently and constructively challenge old assumptions
    4. They make occasional suggestions to open up alternative paths
  • In conversation, resist the temptation to reflexively add value
  • One good AAR structure is to ask five questions:
    1. What were our intended results?
    2. What were our actual results?
    3. What caused our results?
    4. What will we do the same next time?
    5. What will we do differently?
  • Embrace the discomfort
  • Align language with action
  • Build a wall between performance review and professional development
    • These are two separate events with different intentions
  • Use flash-mentoring
    • This is like traditional mentoring but only lasts a few hours
    • These brief interactions help break down barriers inside a group, help build relationships, and facilitate the awareness that fuels helping behavior
  • Make the leader occasionally disappear

Skill Three: Establish Purpose

Chapter 13: 311 words

  • On the surface, the story of the Tylenol crisis was about a large group responding to disaster with an extraordinary cohesion and focus
  • High purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and the future ideal
  • Psychological signaling exercise:
    1. Think about a realistic goal you’d like to achieve. Imagine a future where you’ve achieved it
    2. Picture the obstacles between you and the goal as vividly as possible
      • This is called mental contrasting
  • The truth is that stories create reality that trigger cascades of perception and motivation

Chapter 14: the hooligans and the surgeons

  • One of the best measures of a groups culture is it’s learning velocity: how quickly it improves its performance of a new skill

Chapter 15: how to lead for proficiency

  • You have priorities whether you name them or not
    • If you want to grow, you had better name your priorities and the behaviors that support the priorities
  • Heuristics, or rule of thumb, show us that it’s possible for groups to solve extremely complex problems with ease

Chapter 16: how to lead for creativity

  • The goal should be to get the team right
    • Get them moving in the right direction, to get them see where they are making mistakes and see where they are succeeding
  • To Ed Catmull, management is a creative act. It is problem solving
  • Building creative purpose isn’t about creativity
    • It’s about building ownership, providing support, and aligning group energy toward the arduous, ultimately fulfilling journey of making something new 

Chapter 17: ideas for action

  • Name and rank your priorities
  • Be 10x 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
  • Focus on bar-setting behaviors

Closing thoughts:

Honestly, this book exceeded my expectations. Probably one of the best books I’ve read on building a high performing team by creating a great culture.

I feel like this book would be extremely valuable to people who help improve teams, people who are forming teams, managers, executives, etc. In my professional life, a huge part of what I do is to improve group cohesion and create a strong culture. Because of this, I felt like book was very insightful for me.

Moreover, I think this book is great for anyone who wants to understand how teams with good chemistry work, what the elements are, and how to possibly create one.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. I think most people would get tremendous value out of understanding the principles outlined in the book.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

One of my my favorite takeaways and probably most insightful main idea from this book has to be:

  • Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: we are safe and connected

I think if groups embrace this one idea, and create behaviors that align with this, group culture within the organization would improve drastically.


How to build high performing teams and organizations through creating a great culture that fosters ownership, creativity, collaboration, and effectiveness.

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


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