the culture code book review

It may seem like a strange time to be reading this book when things that traditionally make us think of company culture – a full beer fridge, mission statement nailed on a wall somewhere and colourful beanbags in games rooms – may no longer be of any consequence or impact on how we work together, if they ever really were.

The words ‘corporate culture’ can make the skin crawl a little, but what we’re really taking about is humanity and community and how to project meaning and purpose into those teams and groups. Pulling a team together to achieve a common aim was always a challenge. But in this fully remote world, the difference between a dynamic and engaged team or a toxic and dysfunctional one can make or break a business.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic the world was changing, remote work was already on the rise. Half of all Americans were already doing at least part of their work from home. Now in the lockdown, remote working is a given for most so, the search for what makes an authentic and powerful culture in a fully remote world is essential.

The Culture Code: The Secret of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle was a significant find to help in that search and raised some excellent points as well as providing some essential tips and actions for leaders and teams alike. It asks the question, ‘What makes a team more that the sum of its parts?’

The Culture Code Daniel Coyle Book Review

The Culture Code: Top 5 takeaways

Create a safe environment and nurture a sense of belonging

To build a team that is far greater than the sum of its parts we need to clearly communicate our expectations that people cooperate with each other, that we not only need the help of other people but that we are reliant upon it. And the only way that this level of vulnerability can be reached is if your team feels safe and that they belong.

As Coyle says, group performance depends on behaviour that communicates one powerful overarching idea, that we are safe and connected. Words matter much less than we think, we believe that team performance correlates with the individual’s ability to communicate complex ideas, but this is wrong, words are just noise. It’s actually the quality of the interaction that determines the outcome. A strong group culture nurtures the sense that there aren’t unseen dangers hidden behind every corner, and that feeling of safety bolsters individual performance.

Make sure people know they are being listened to

The book makes clear that to build powerful teams you need to let people know you are listening to them and that you know you aren’t perfect, this then allows them to be their authentic selves and that it’s okay to make mistakes, of course it is!

One of the key and prescient points that Coyle puts forward within the book is to embrace the messenger. In these strange and challenging times there will be bad news, some days there may even be a lot of bad news, but we must resist shooting the messenger, we must listen – “…in fact it’s not enough to not shoot them. You have to hug the messenger and let them know how much you need that feedback. That way you can be sure that they feel safe enough to tell you the truth next time”

Encourage vulnerability and allow teams to learn from mistakes

Sharing your vulnerabilities is vital if you want your group to perform at its highest level. As colleagues or business leaders we can think we need to look confident and powerful all the time but, conversely, it’s usually the person who takes the first step in admitting they’re not perfect, that’s perceived as a leader, not the competitive individuals who belittle others for being weak.

Saying out loud that I cannot do this alone and I need help is what teams need to see to really co-operate and help each other. It’s normal to make mistakes, they are part of the learning process. Giving teams a safe environment in which they can make mistakes and work together to fix them and solve them is key to a high performing team. If you are a business leader we must lead by example and wear our mistakes and vulnerabilities on our sleeves and encourage others to do the same. This is what creates a culture of cooperation and therefore a highly performant team.

Clearly defining and communicating a purpose through a common goal is the key to unlocking team performance

Group culture is one of the most powerful forces on the planet and a critical component to well-functioning groups is purpose. A purpose is the reason you’re all doing what you’re doing. It’s the sum of the beliefs and values of the team and how they align with achieving your collective goal.

Your purpose should be like a bridge between the now that your team exists in and your future goal. You need to tell a story of how your purpose will help you go from today to tomorrow and reach that goal, if you do this, you’ll be able to engage your team members, colleagues or line reports at a fundamental level.

One area that Coyle articulates beautifully is the idea that highly successful cultures are happy environments: “They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together.” Personally, this was a real light bulb moment for me. The happiness of a team is a by-product of how well they work together to solve hard problems and follow their purpose, not the other way around.

A crisis can be the very thing that takes your team from good to great

The world right now is most definitely in crisis, and there will be many businesses that are staring into what looks like a very bleak future. So, it’s heartening to read Coyle give example after example of many successful teams and world-beating company cultures that were forged in moments of crisis just like this.

The difference with successful teams is that they used the crisis itself to crystallise their purpose. When those leaders reflect on those dark days now, they express gratitude for them, for those moments were “…the crucible that helped the group discover what it could be”

The Culture Code: Top 5 quotes

“Spotlight Your Fallibility Early On—Especially If You’re a Leader: In any interaction, we have a natural tendency to try to hide our weaknesses and appear competent. If you want to create safety, this is exactly the wrong move. Instead, you should open up, show you make mistakes, and invite input with simple phrases like “This is just my two cents.” “Of course, I could be wrong here.” “What am I missing?” “What do you think?”

“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”

“Building purpose in a creative group is not about generating a brilliant moment of breakthrough but rather about building systems that can churn through lots of ideas in order to help unearth the right choices. This is why [some companies] have learned to focus less on the ideas than on people—specifically, on providing teams with tools and support to locate paths, make hard choices, and navigate the arduous process together.”

“We have a place in our brain that’s always worried about what people think of us, especially higher-ups. As far as our brain is concerned, if our social system rejects us, we could die. Given that our sense of danger is so natural and automatic, organizations have to do some pretty special things to overcome that natural trigger.”

“One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are 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.”


If you liked this, and you want us to send you the best CX and business thinking from around the web each month, sign up for our monthly email here.

No spam, no nonsense, just the 7 best things we’ve seen, once a month.

Looking for a few more relevant book reviews?