Daniel Coyle Demystifies Culture in “The Culture Code” (@brandchannel)

My review of Daniel Coyle’s latest book on culture, published on brandchannel. He says:“Culture is by far the most important thing we do. It’s by far most powerful thing driving our performance and fulfillment in our lives, but our understanding of it is medieval.”


Author Daniel Coyle opens up his recent talk at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management with a thought-provoking question: “Think about the best team you’ve ever been on. What did it feel like?”

Research tells us that high-performing businesses have strong cultures, but Coyle believes we need to shift our thinking on what culture is and how we can build it. “It’s the greatest irony in the world,” Coyle said. “Culture is by far the most important thing we do. It’s by far most powerful thing driving our performance and fulfillment in our lives, but our understanding of it is medieval.”

Daniel Coyle - The Culture Code

“The words we use to describe culture, such as ‘values, voice, integrity, teamwork, trust and leadership and cooperation’ sound nice and are true, but not helpful as an actionable model for improvement,” Coyle said. “How do we get better at culture? What’s it really made of?”

In his latest book, The Culture Code, Coyle sets out to demystify culture, which he says culture is often defined as magical, the soft stuff, complex nuances—but it’s not.

To find out what makes highly-successful groups of people, he spent time with leaders from some of the world’s highest-performing brands—including Pixar, Zappos, the San Antonio Spurs, IDEO, and the Navy SEALS—to understand makes them tick and the working methods, art and science behind teams of great performers.

In the follow-up to his  New York Times bestselling book, The Talent Code, Coyle identifies the key factors that can generate team cohesion in any walk of life.

Daniel CoyleHe advocates a new model of group performance and shows a video of a starling mumuration to show how groups should act to solve problems and make decisions that lead to high performance. “For any group to cooperate, they have to do three things: “Signal connection and connect; share accurate information; and have a direction.”

How can leaders be like more like starlings to form more highly successful teams? Here are three key takeaways to consider:

Daniel Coyle - The Culture Code - Safety

1. To get people to buy in, you have to first make them feel safe.

“Safety is not some atmospheric extra thing, it’s not some frosting on a cake,” Coyle says. “It’s the whole cake. It’s everything. If you have safety in your group, you can perform. Safety is more important than smarts.”

Belonging isn’t just chemistry. It’s clarity. Coyle says we must give people a clear signal to let them know that ‘we share a future together. I see you as a whole person. We are connected.’

Coyle suggests four things leaders can do to send clear signals of safety and belonging:
Use the open face – show intense curiosity, awareness, alertness, openness
Send the two-line email: He learned this from Laszlo Bock at Google, who asked employees “tell me one thing you want me to keep doing and stop doing”. This sends the message of: ‘I want to hear from you. I want to get better’
Obey the 2x rule –send signals of belonging, connection and safety twice as much as you think you do.
Over-thanking – high performing teams over thank. He notes the practice of the San Antonio Spurs’ Coach Greg Popovich, who meets regularly with each player one-on-one, and says, ‘Thank you for allowing me to coach you.’

Daniel Coyle - The Culture Code - Vulnerable

2. Vulnerability comes first.

We’ve often been told that trust is needed to have vulnerability. But how can you be vulnerable with someone you’ve just met, or don’t know well?

Coyle says we’ve got it backwards. In his view, vulnerability creates trust. He describes a vulnerability loop – one person signals it, the other person receives it and signals back. The result is closeness and cooperation. Good groups, he says, create vulnerability intentionally. “As humans, when we get a signal of safety, we connect. The safer we feel, the more we can be vulnerable.”

Vulnerability needs to start with leaders. Leaders must be vulnerable first and often. Good leaders send signals of vulnerability, he notes. The most important four words a leader can say is: ‘I screwed that up’.

But what happens when feedback is needed, but people don’t speak out? When there are moments of truth, how can you get people to share accurate information? He says leaders need to aim for warm candor, not brutal honesty. Telling the cold, hard truth doesn’t work. It enforces a culture of brutality. What works is warm candor.

He offers the example of a manager at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern restaurant in New York, who could have told a new employee on her first day that she was going to get slammed. Instead, the manager said: ‘If you don’t ask me for help 10 times today, it’s going to be a disaster.’ This candor made her feel safe, while sending the message, ‘If you need to reach out, I’m ready for you.’

Daniel Coyle - The Culture Code - Purpose

3. Use Purpose to focus and prioritize.

What we aim for determines how we see. Purpose tells you what comes first. It helps you prioritize. But purpose is much more than story. Purpose is about focus and navigation.

In his book, Coyle describes purpose as ‘a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting and above all, learning. High-purpose environments don’t descend on groups from on high; they are dug out of the ground, over and over, as a group navigates its problems together and evolves to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world.”

Purpose can be forged or tested during a crisis situation. When New York restaurateur Danny Meyer had a string of near-disasters, he built a mantra map, focused on the purpose to ‘create raves.’ Then he operationalized purpose with actionable, vivid phrases like ‘mistakes are waves, servers are surfers.’

Good groups oversend that signal of story, purpose, and vision. And they intentionally continually share and seek stories, which are the most powerful way to model key behaviours, embed catchphrases and state priorities in training, staff meetings and communications.

Daniel Coyle - The Culture Code

Coyle argues that great groups don’t happen by accident or based on chemistry alone. While we’d like to think of culture as a magical event, it’s not. Culture is intentional, built over time through small signals. And it’s often created in moments of crisis. When we feel safe, connected and share accurate information, we can accomplish incredible things together. Just like those starlings.

Hear more from Coyle below:

Originally published on brandchannel in April 2018. 

Carolyn Ray is a Toronto-based correspondent for brandchannel, and the former managing director of Interbrand Canada. @thecarolynray




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