Picture of Culture Code book with post-it note markers

[Book Review] The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle

Written by Emily Thornton, Senior Project Leader

I have resigned myself to provoking laughter whenever I show a copy of a book I’m reading to colleagues – without fail, almost every other page is dog-eared or marked with a brightly coloured tab. It reminds me of when I was at university and would end up highlighting whole paragraphs in journals. Rather than demonstrating my inability to filter relevant information, I like to believe that my over-highlighted and tabbed books show how passionate I’ve felt and how deeply I’ve thought when reading them. They are books that provoke a reaction, that have resonated with me on both a cognitive and emotional level – I feel the need to mark it in some way, for fear of losing that connection. I’m pleased to say that ‘The Culture Code’ by Daniel Coyle was no exception.

On the face of it, ‘The Culture Code’ is similar to other books about teams – there are indeed stories about Google and Pixar, not to mention the classic military tales. The ideas expressed in the book may not be complex or brand new, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not revolutionary. Interestingly, Coyle doesn’t focus on the intelligence of individuals, whether cognitive or emotional. He doesn’t identify ‘star performers,’ and in fact, demonstrates how the right culture can transform a low performer into a success. For me, this was where the appeal lies, the fact that it could be achievable for anyone. It’s sometimes easy to blame ourselves when we don’t succeed – or to blame individuals for low performance – but often it can be the culture that’s to blame.

Coyle attributes the success of many varied groups to their ability to do the following:

1. Build Safety

2. Share Vulnerability

3. Establish Purpose

I appreciate the fact that these are clear upfront, that you could read the introduction and be well equipped to provide a summary, as the rest of the book can then be devoted to illustrations, examples and practical advice. Some business books hold back what appears obvious from the first chapter, to the very last, making you feel as though you are being ‘sold’ a concept, rather than being taught one. Daniel side-steps this, and spends time really exploring what these three factors look like in practice. Each section also ends with ‘Ideas for Action’, suggestions for how we as leaders can take practical steps towards building safety, sharing vulnerability and establishing purpose.

Building Safety, in essence, is about belonging. If you want a team to work well together, people need to consider themselves members of that team – that it is part of their identity and that their belonging isn’t under question or threatened at any time. This has to be reinforced through cues, through small, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, indications that you belong to this company/group.

A great example to illustrate this is an experiment that was undertaken at the WIPRO call centre in India, who was suffering high staff turnover, despite competitive salaries, good benefits and high quality facilities. Researchers Bradley Staats, Francesco Gino and Daniel Cable split new hires into two groups (plus a control group). Group 1 received standard induction training plus one hour on WIPRO’s identity, about the company’s success and met a ‘star performer.’ At the end, they were given a company sweatshirt. Group 2 had an additional hour training focused on the employee, rather than the company. They were asked questions to think about how they brought the best of themselves to work, their qualities that led to their happiest times and successes. They were also given a company sweatshirt, this one also emblazoned with their name.

The results were stark – Group 2 participants were 250% more likely than Group 1, and 157% more likely than the control group to still be working at WIPRO. The strong cues from the induction hour that they had worth and value to contribute to the company ‘created a foundation of psychological safety that built connection and identity.’ Sometimes it is the small things that make the most difference.

The next critical factor is to do with Sharing Vulnerability – after the ‘glue’ of building safety through belonging, it’s then about how the members of a group actually work together and ‘translate connection into trusting and co-operation.’ I’ve been a proponent for some time about the importance of leaders being vulnerable, being open around what’s going wrong or when they’ve got it wrong – although this was more of an instinct than anything else. Coyle’s description of ‘Vulnerability Loops’ helped me unpack why I felt that this was so important.

A Vulnerability Loop happens between two people, where the first person shares that they’re feeling vulnerable, perhaps that they’ve made a mistake. The second person recognises this, and then shares their own vulnerability. The first person recognises this in their turn, and through this moment, this shared experience of being vulnerable, their relationship becomes closer and trust is built.

It takes bravery on both people’s part to do this, and also it involves putting our ego, or our ‘work mask’, to one side. I can think of times that I’ve shared my vulnerability, and when someone has responded with a variation of ‘it’s okay, I’ve done that too’, I’ve only ever felt closer to them. The small amount of times someone has responded with judgement, variations of ‘I would never do that, what were you thinking?’, it’s broken that relationship, and I’m much less lucky to approach them, or want to work with them in any way in the future. Ultimately, this section made me realise that we need to stop worrying about being perfect, and realise that it’s the very fact that we’re not perfect, it’s the very fact that we do fail, that connects us to other people, and ultimately makes us stronger as a team.

We then come to Establish Purpose, ensuring that everyone knows why they are doing what they’re doing, and building that purpose into their everyday work. We might occasionally be cynical about mission statements or vision or purpose, but actually Coyle shows the importance of being clear about the organisation priorities cannot be underestimated. He even recommends to embrace the use of catchphrases, which did make my cynicism rear its head, but I know how I felt at AchieveForum when we built out our purpose around ‘bringing the human touch.’ It resonated with me and I frequently come back to it when I think about how I go about my work. Again, it can be something small and simple that can make the most impact.

Coyle sets out the case in this book for us all to focus more on how groups and teams interact with each other, how we treat other people and how we build relationships. This focus, more than skills or intelligence, is going to lead to our success. So often, the areas that Coyle explores are seen as ‘soft skills’, and can even be seen as luxuries when we’re under pressure to deliver more, faster and with less resource – it’s all very well to be nice, but when you’ve got to get results, you can’t worry about how people ‘feel.’ This book shows powerful evidence that the opposite is true.

Success, both personally and professionally, is all about how you treat people, and in the right culture, we can all thrive. 

Leave a Comment