Review: Culture Code

Review: Culture Code

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

Group culture is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. – Daniel Coyle

Wow. How is that for a strong opening? Daniel Coyle goes on to describe in hard facts just how much more effective strong cultures are. And Coyle is a great writer and storyteller.

Three things matter most

Strong cultures:

  • Build safety and belonging
  • Create shared vulnerability and cooperation
  • Establish purpose in clear and compelling language

The author, Daniel Coyle, visited eight highly effective cultures, teased out lessons learned, and shares those lessons in memorable stories and research studies. Great book for teams and cultures that want to grow stronger.

Skill 1 |  Build Safety and Belonging

Strong cultures create a sense of belonging in many, many, many tiny ways. Those steady signals let us know we are safe, supported, cared for.

How do they do that? 

Strong cultures create a sense of family. Lots of proximity, eye contact, turn-taking. Strong give-and-take without regard to status. Lots of indications that relationships are important. And as a result, employees are well-connected and ideas flow back and forth through the culture.

In one study, asking newcomers what they do best more than doubled employee retention. Why? Because it signals, You are important. We like having you here. You are part of the team.

Great cultures over-communicate their listening

There is good give-and-take in exchanging ideas. It is a safe place to share differing points of view. Leaders are quick to acknowledge their fallibility and invite questions, better ideas, and difficult truths.


  • Hold regular forums where anyone can bring an issue.
  • Ask individuals, one-on-one, what they like most, like least, and would like to change.

Skill 2 | Shared Vulnerability = Trusting Cooperation

Trust is built one small moment of vulnerability at a time. Vulnerability builds trust.


Three pilots did the impossible. They landed a plane with no controls after an engine failure cut through the control lines. They did it one tiny moment at a time: I’ve got it. No, I don’t. Tell me what you want, and I’ll help. How do we get the landing gear down? Anybody have any ideas?

They asked for help. Paid no attention to rank. Shared information.

Embrace problems

In many ways, large and small, great cultures signal, We need each other; we can’t do it all on our own. Navy SEALS use After Action Reviews to analyze problems and face uncomfortable questions head-on. Pixar knows that their early attempts will be awful, and schedule weekly review sessions to make them better. When I offer an idea, I feel like people are really listening. Hearing what I say…and don’t say. Helping me getting really clear. 

Great cultures:

  • Combine strengths and use skills in a complementary way.
  • Find safe ways to share weaknesses with each other.
  • Figure out ways to help the group function more effectively.
  • Challenge each other, ask the right questions, and never defer to authority.
  • Invite each other to poke holes in their emerging decisions.
  • Develop the courage to see and speak the truth to each other.


Before making a final decision use these Before Action Review Questions:

  • What are our intended results?
  • What challenges can we anticipate?
  • What have we or others learned from similar situations?
  • What will make us successful this time?

Skill 3 | Establish Purpose

Great cultures have crystal clear credos and core values that point everyone in the right direction.

Core values

Johnson and Johnson survived and thrived in spite of the deaths caused by the sabotage of their Tylenol product. Their credo put customers first. 100s of employees made 1000s of decisions based on that credo. They recalled all of their product, invented tamper-proof products, apologized. And made an incredible comeback that no one thought possible.

Great cultures work hard to:

  • Create small signals that let the team know, “You are safe; we share risk here”—
    connecting people and enabling them to work together as a single entity.
  • Regularly review where we are and where we want to go.


  • Name and rank your top priorities—five or fewer
  • Tell stories that let everyone know how important their work is and why they matter.
  • Create a shared language, with catch-phrases, to let everyone know what is most important.
    Talk constantly about values and priorities—what they look like, why they matter.
  • Create an environment where you can find and address problems. Churn through lots of ideas in order to help unearth the right choices. Take mediocre ideas and find ways to make them better.

Crises make great cultures better.

Successful cultures use crises to crystallize their purpose. The crucible helps them discover what they could become. They refine their core purpose through a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all, learning.

Posted in
Larry Nyland speaking

Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: | 425-418-4398 |