10 Quotes From The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle
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One of my top books of 2018 was Daniel Coyle’s fantastic The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. As a team leader and communications director at a church of 90+ staff and 7,000 monthly attenders, culture is always on my mind. Below are a few of my favorite quotes from The Culture Code.
The Culture Code Quotes
Kindergartners Outperform Business School Students
In dozens of trials, kindergartners built structures that averaged twenty-six inches tall, while business school students built structures that averaged less than ten inches.
The result is hard to absorb because it feels like an illusion. We see smart, experienced business school students, and we find it difficult to imagine that they would combine to produce a poor performance. We see unsophisticated, inexperienced kindergartners, and we find it difficult to imagine that they would combine to produce a successful performance. But this illusion, like every illusion, happens because our instincts have led us to focus on the wrong details. We focus on what we can see—individual skills. But individual skills are not what matters. What matters is the interaction.
The business school students appear to be collaborating, but in fact they are engaged in a process psychologists call status management. They are figuring out where they fit into the larger picture: Who is in charge? Is it okay to criticize someone’s idea? What are the rules here? Their interactions appear smooth, but their underlying behavior is riddled with inefficiency, hesitation, and subtle competition. Instead of focusing on the task, they are navigating their uncertainty about one another. They spend so much time managing status that they fail to grasp the essence of the problem (the marshmallow is relatively heavy, and the spaghetti is hard to secure). As a result, their first efforts often collapse, and they run out of time. (pp. xvi-xvii)
Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do. (p. xix)
Basic Qualities of Belonging Cues
Belonging cues are behaviors that create safe connection in groups. They include, among others, proximity, eye contact, energy, mimicry, turn taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch, consistency of emphasis, and whether everyone talks to everyone else in the group. Like any language, belonging cues can’t be reduced to an isolated moment but rather consist of a steady pulse of interactions within a social relationship. Their function is to answer the ancient, ever-present questions glowing in our brains: Are we safe here? What’s our future with these people? Are there dangers lurking?
“Modern society is an incredibly recent phenomenon,” Pentland says. “For hundreds of thousands of years, we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other. We used signals long before we used language, and our unconscious brains are incredibly attuned to certain types of behaviors.”
Belonging cues possess three basic qualities:
1. Energy: They invest in the exchange that is occurring
2. Individualization: They treat the person as unique and valued
3. Future orientation: They signal the relationship will continue (pp. 10-11)
Safety > Knowledge
Normally, we think words matter; we think that group performance correlates with its members’ verbal intelligence and their ability to construct and communicate complex ideas. But that assumption is wrong. Words are noise. Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: We are safe and connected. (p. 15)
We Are Obsessed
The key to creating psychological safety, as Pentland and Edmondson emphasize, is to recognize how deeply obsessed our unconscious brains are with it. A mere hint of belonging is not enough; one or two signals are not enough. We are built to require lots of signaling, over and over. This is why a sense of belonging is easy to destroy and hard to build. The dynamic evokes the words of Texas politician Sam Rayburn: “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” (p. 12)
After Action Reports
Good AARs follow a template. “You have to do it right away,” Cooper says. “You put down your gun, circle up, and start talking. Usually you take the mission from beginning to end, chronologically. You talk about every decision, and you talk about the process. You have to resist the temptation to wrap it all up in a bow, and try to dig for the truth of what happened, so people can really learn from it. You have to ask why, and then when they respond, you ask another why. Why did you shoot at that particular point? What did you see? How did you know? What other options were there? You ask and ask and ask.”
The goal of an AAR is not to excavate truth for truth’s sake, or to assign credit and blame, but rather to build a shared mental model that can be applied to future missions. “Look, nobody can see it all or know it all,” Cooper says. “But if you keep getting together and digging out what happened, then after a while everybody can see what’s really happening, not just their small piece of it. People can share experiences and mistakes. They can see how what they do affects others, and we can start to create a group mind where everybody can work together and perform to the team’s potential.” (p. 141)
Align Language With Action
Many highly cooperative groups use language to reinforce their interdependence. For example, navy pilots returning to aircraft carriers do not “land” but are “recovered.” IDEO doesn’t have “project managers”—it has “design community leaders.” Groups at Pixar do not offer “notes” on early versions of films; they “plus” them by offering solutions to problems. These might seem like small semantic differences, but they matter because they continually highlight the cooperative, interconnected nature of the work and reinforce the group’s shared identity. (p. 166)
High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal. They provide the two simple locators that every navigation process requires: Here is where we are and Here is where we want to go. The surprising thing, from a scientific point of view, is how responsive we are to this pattern of signaling.
A few years ago a professor of psychology named Gabriele Oettingen set out to perform what might rank as the most basic psychological experiment of all time. In fact, you can do it right now. It goes like this:
Step 1: Think about a realistic goal that you’d like to achieve. It could be anything: Become skilled at a sport, rededicate yourself to a relationship, lose a few pounds, get a new job. Spend a few seconds reflecting on that goal and imagining that it’s come true. Picture a future where you’ve achieved it.
Step 2: Take a few seconds and picture the obstacles between you and that goal as vividly as possible. Don’t gloss over the negatives, but try to see them as they truly are. For example, if you were trying to lose weight, you might picture those moments of weakness when you smell warm cookies, and you decide to eat one (or three).
That’s it. It’s called mental contrasting, and it seems less like science than the kind of advice you might come across on a late-night infomercial: Envision a reachable goal, and envision the obstacles. The thing is, as Oettingen discovered, this method works, triggering significant changes in behavior and motivation. (pp. 180-181)
This is the way high-purpose environments work. They are about sending not so much one big signal as a handful of steady, ultra-clear signals that are aligned with a shared goal. They are less about being inspiring than about being consistent. They are found not within big speeches so much as within everyday moments when people can sense the message: This is why we work; this is what we are aiming for. (p. 199)
The difference with successful cultures seems to be that they use the crisis to crystallize their purpose. When leaders of those groups reflect on those failures now, they express gratitude (and sometimes even nostalgic desire) for those moments, as painful as they were, because they were the crucible that helped the group discover what it could be. This gives us insight into building purpose. It’s not as simple as carving a mission statement in granite or encouraging everyone to recite from a hymnal of catchphrases. It’s 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 (p. 228)
Purchase The Culture Code here.
Joshua Breland leads a communications team in Indianapolis and has learned diverse leadership lessons as a combat arms soldier, entrepreneur, and dad to three girls.
Podcast coming soon.