Summary of Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

Photo by Vlad Hilitanu on Unsplash

This is my personal summary of a great book called Culture Code, written by Daniel Coyle. It transforms my thinking about what a culture, how it works, and why it is important for companies to have a strong one.

Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?

There is a method which a group of ordinary people can create performance beyond sum of the individuals. That is called culture.

We all want strong culture in our teams, but don’t know how it works. Successful cultures are created by set of skills :

  1. Build Safety : How signals of connection generate bonds of belongings and identity
  2. Share Vulnerability : How habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation
  3. Establish Purpose : How narratives create shared goals and values

Build Safety

We tend to think group performance depends on measurable abilities, e.g. skill, experience, etc., Yet there are some cases the performance depends on small, easy to ignore, behaviors.

Successful group emit these consistent interactions :

  • Close physical proximity, often in circles
  • Profuse eye contact
  • Physical touch
  • Lots of short, energetic exchanges
  • High levels of mixing; everyone talks to everyone
  • Few interruptions
  • Lots of questions
  • Intensive, active listening
  • Humor, laughter
  • Small, attentive courtesies (thank-yous, opening doors, etc)
  • In other words, chemistry.

There is also a concept called belonging cues : behaviours that create safe connection in groups. Belonging cues signals safety when encountering a group of people.

Are we safe here? What’s our future with these people? Are there dangers lurking?

Three basic qualities of groups that have belonging cues :

  • Energy : they invest in exchange that is occuring
  • Individualization : they treat the person as unique and valued
  • Future orientation : they signal the relationship will continue
  • These cues add up to.a message : you are safe here.

Creating Psychological Safety

Creating psychological safety require lots of signaling, over and over. You can’t just give a cue once. This is all about establishing relationships. How often do you tell your partner that you love them? It may be true, but it’s important to let them know, over and over. Our social brains light up when they receive a steady accumulation of almost-invisible cues : We are close, we are safe, we share a future.

One misconception : Highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. Instead, at their core their members are oriented around solving hard problems together. They involves many moments of high-candor feedback, Uncomfortable truth-telling, and gap-confronting.

Ideas for Action

Creating safety is about dialing in to small, subtle moments and delivering targeted signals at key points.

  • Overcommunicate your listening. Show peers that you really listen to them, and overcommunicate it. Posture and expression are incredibly important.
  • Spotlight your fallibility early on, especially if you’re a leader. Open up, show you make mistakes, and invite input with phrases like “What am I missing? What do you think?”
  • Embrace the messenger. Embrace the tough feedback when there’s a bad news.
  • Preview future connection. Show peers that they will be very important in the future.
  • Overdo thank-yous. Gratitude are crucial belonging cues that generate a contagious sense of safety, connection, and motivation. Tips : publicly express gratitude for one of the group’s least powerful members (e.g. support player)
  • Be painstaking in hiring process. Eliminate bad apples early.
  • Create safe, collision-free spaces. Make space where everyone can be together frequently, danger-free.
  • Make sure everyone has a voice.
  • Pick up the Trash. Show team that you are willing to do menial work — cleaning and tidying, etc. this is called a muscular humility.
  • Capitalize on threshold moments. Capitalize them to show the belonging cues. They can happen everyday. Pause, take time, and acknowledge the person, marking the moment as special.
  • Avoid giving sandwich feedback.
  • Lastly, Embrace fun!

Share Vulnerability

In order to establish a high level of trust, team members must actively trying to share their vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability works in a loop: a shared exchange of openness

  1. Person A sends a signal of vulnerability
  2. Person B detects this signal
  3. Person B responds by signaling their own vulnerability
  4. Person A detects this signal
  5. A norm is established; closeness and trust increase.

We feel like trust is stable, but every single moment your brain is tracking your environment, and running a calculation whether you can trust the people around you and bond with them .

Trust comes down to context, and what drives it is the sense that you’re vulnerable, that you need others and can’t do it on your own.

Ideas for Action

Building habits of group vulnerability is like building a muscle, takes time, repetition and willingness. Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often. “I screwed that up” are the most important words any leader can say.

  • Overcommunicate Expectations. Be expicit and persistent about sending big, clear signals to maximize helping behaviour
  • Deliver criticism in person.
  • When forming new groups, focus on first two critical moments : the first vulnerability, and the first disagreement. These are doorways to two possible group path.
  • Listen like a trampoline. Be active responders, absorbing, supporting, and adding energy to help conversation gain velocity and altitude.
  • In conversation, resist the tempation to reflexively add value. Do not interrupt the speaker. Just say “Please say more about that”
  • Use Candor-Generating Practices like Pixar’s Braintrusts. Make candor-generation a habit in your team.
  • Aim for Candor; Avoid Brutal Honesty. Aim for targeted, less personal, less judgmental, and equally impactful feedback.
  • Embrace the Discomfort. Delivering and receiving candors are almost always not comfortable, but that is the best way to gain trust from the others.
  • Align Language with Action.
  • Build a Wall Between Performance Review and Professional Development. Make them separated!

Establishing Purpose

How can a handful of simple, forthright sentences like “statement of purpose” make such a difference in a group’s behaviour? Because it create cohesion. Cohesion is built on relentless attention to a small set of signals.

Successful cultures do this by relentlessly seeking ways to tell and retell their story. They build what is called high-purpose environments. High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal.

Here is where we are, and Here is where we want to go.

another phrase:

This is why we work. Here is where we should put our energy.

This is also a form of mental contrasting : Envision a reachable goal, and envision the obstacles.

Rethinking motivation. We normally think about motivation as being intrinsic to a person, but based on the experiment, it is rather a result of two-part process of mental contrasting. What matters is establishing this link and consistently creating engagement around it. What matters is telling the story.

Stories are not just stories; there are the best invention ever created for delivering mental models that drive behaviour.

A successful team with strong purpose consists of these elements in the story:

  • Framing : successful teams conceptualized the work as very important, not just add-on
  • Roles: successful teams were explicitly told by team leader why their individual and collective skills were imporant for team success, and why it was important for them to perform as a team.
  • Rehearsal : successful teams did elaborate dry runs, preparing in detail, and talking about communication.
  • Explicit encouragement to speak up : Successful teams were told by team leaders to speak up if they saw a problem; they were actively coached through the feedback process.
  • Active reflection : successful teams went over performance, discussed future cases, and suggested improvements.
  • Note what factors are not on this list : experience, seniority, and organization support.

These signals performed the vital function : flood the environment with narrative links between what they were doing now and what it meant. The value of those signals is not in their information but in the fact that they orient the team to the task and to one another. What seems like repetition, is in fact, navigation. Also, they are less about being inspiring than about being consistent.

Ideas for Action

  • Many successful cultures were forged in the moments of crisis. Those guys use the crisis to crystallize their purpose. Crisis are the crucible that helped the group discover what it could be.
  • Building purpose is not as simple as it seem. It’s a neverending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all, learning
  • Name and Rank Your Priorities. Be ten times as clear about your priorities as you think you should be.It’s necessary to drastically overcommunicate priorities
  • Make a habit of regularly testing the company’s values and purpose. What are we about? Where are we headed? Presume that there are other, better ways of doing things, and don’t afraid of change




Chief Technology Officer at Joyseed Gametribe, a game developer based on Indonesia.

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Fadhil Noer Afif

Fadhil Noer Afif

Chief Technology Officer at Joyseed Gametribe, a game developer based on Indonesia.

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