Question and Answer

Dan CoyleWhat’s The Culture Code about?

It’s about the science of successful groups: how to build cohesive, high-performing culture.

Why did you write it?

Basically, I got obsessed with a mystery. While writing The Talent Code, which is about individual performers, I kept bumping into these amazing groups: championship sports teams, successful businesses, super-achieving schools. They all felt eerily like the same place. They shared the same warm vibe, the same fluid cooperation, the same cohesion. Everybody behaved like family. The question is, why? And, how does it work? 

We know that culture is powerful: a Harvard study of more than 200 companies found that strong culture improves revenue 765 percent over an 11-year period. Yet when you ask how culture works, the answers are always vague. People explain it with mystical phrases like, it’s in their DNA… it’s in the oxygen… it’s special sauce… it’s magic.

I started visiting the cultures like the San Antonio Spurs, Navy SEALs Team Six, Pixar, IDEO, Zappos, and going behind the scenes to see what makes them tick. I looked at how they prepared, how they thought, how they communicated, and how they approached each day. And I also explored the science of social cohesion.

Why is this important now?

You know that old saying: culture eats strategy for lunch? It’s never been more true than right now. Strong culture dwarfs strategy, execution, technology, and everything else because culture has the power to affect everything a group does. Culture can be your most powerful asset, or your biggest Achilles heel. So you need to know how it works.

In addition, today’s challenges are more complex than ever, no matter what field you’re in. They require a level of group intelligence, speed, problem-solving, and collective learning that only culture can deliver. To put it simply, the old top-down, authoritarian models of culture don’t work anymore. Great cultures are the most powerful form of human software, and so it’s essential that we learn how to use them — instead of being used by them.

What did you find when you visited the world’s most successful cultures?

First, great culture doesn’t happen by accident. It looks effortless, but behind the scenes people are working hard to create the kinds of interactions that drove their culture. The best analogy is with athletics. They work like organizational athletes, creating the kinds of behaviors that drive cultural performance. Their cultures aren’t luck — they’re a skill.

What does the skill of culture-making consist of?

First, creating safety. Strong cultures flood the zone with belonging cues — simple, short signals that create a sense of connection and future. They show care, commitment, and create a strong, deep connection.

Second, sharing vulnerability. Strong cultures have a set of habits that helps them share risk and weakness. This is the one most groups simply don’t get. In good cultures, people continually share uncomfortable truths with each other. Those hard truths might have to do with their own shortcomings, or with a group performance, but they have the same function: they wash away all the distractions of status, and create a shared truth around which the group can work to improve.

Third, establish purpose — a set of super-clear shared goals that they put in the group’s windshield. Strong cultures work to unearth and expose the core narratives of their group, then drastically overcommunicate those narratives, using every possible mode (story, artifacts around the space, video, slogans, you name it). All that signaling works like emotional GPS to constantly orient the group, and to help them navigate problems together.

What are some quick takeaways for business?

Originally, I didn’t set out to make this book a how-to, but it turned out there were so many takeaways that I added three chapters’ worth!

For starters, leaders should signal their fallibility. This is hard to do — most of us are allergic to it — but it can have a powerful effect on the group because it sends the signal: it’s okay to admit failure. We are here to learn. In the book, I tell the story of Navy SEALs Team Six commander named Dave Cooper, who trained the team that killed Osama bin Laden. Cooper uses the phrase “backbone of humility.” I love that phrase, because it captures the discipline with which good groups open up to each other, and tell each other the uncomfortable truth.

Second, get rid of brilliant jerks. Their benefit is never as high as their cost to the culture. Research shows jerklike behaviors can diminish group productivity by 30 to 40 percent. In addition, removing them sends a galvanizing signal: the culture comes first.

Finally: at employee orientations, make sure you build time to ask new employees about themselves. Creating a simple conversation — tell me about your best day? Your worst day? if we were stranded on a desert island, what special skills would you provide? — has been shown to massively impact long-term retention because they send a simple signal: you are safe here.  

Did you research any bad or dysfunctional cultures?

Probably the most memorable was the nuclear missile officers of Minot Air Force Base, the group in charge of maintaining much of our nuclear arsenal, and which has generated mostly scandal and misbehavior for the past decade — we’re talking dangerous levels of carelessness, cheating, drugs, you name it. It’s not easy to achieve these heights of dysfunction, but groups like this are proof that culture despises a vacuum. You will have a culture in your group. The only question is, will your culture be determined by chance, or by choice?

What about all the culture problems in big companies lately?

When you dig beneath these scandals — whether you’re talking about Uber, VW, Wells Fargo, or the massive endemic problem of sexual harassment — you usually find unhealthy culture. Unhealthy cultures follow a toxic template. They channel power to a select few. Their leaders tend to be isolated. They do not listen to all voices, they avoid difficult conversations, and lack mechanisms to share problems. Ironically, unhealthy cultures often appear to be well-oiled machines when observed from a distance, because everybody avoids conflict at all costs. 

Healthy cultures, on the other hand, distribute power the same way a healthy body distributes energy: they channel it throughout the organism. They employ mechanisms to ensure that the weakest voices have a place to express themselves without fear of reprisals. They aren’t immune from problems, but they have ways of bringing those problems to light, and dealing with them swiftly and fairly.

How can I tell if my group’s culture is strong or weak?

Take this quiz. It was developed in consultation with the Wharton People Analytics group, and it measures your group’s level of psychological safety — in other words, how connected your group is.

Has writing this book changed your life in any way?

It’s been like learning a language — you tune into a new pattern of signals. It’s made me appreciate certain people in my life who have extraordinary power as leaders, because it’s let me understand why certain signals are so powerful. It’s also made me a lot more aware of small things I do that send the wrong signal to people — and of small things I can do to send the right signal.