The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

In his new book, Daniel Coyle asks “Why does one team perform better than another?” and offers a refreshing answer.

Why are kindergartners better at certain logic challenges than lawyers or engineers? Because they adapt and help each other. They’ll even change their strategy along the way if needed.


In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle asks, “Why does one team perform better than another?” While the question isn’t new, his answer is remarkably refreshing. Coyle doesn’t view performance as simply the sum of successful individuals’ skills, but rather the result of human dynamics that can be influenced, in any work environment, by three powerful messages.


Message No. 1: you are safe. You need safety to make extraordinary efforts, sometimes to stick your nose in other people’s business and sometimes to fail. To create such an environment, connections and relationships must be made, as in a family where you feel protected. For example, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich knows his players well. If they lose a game, his reaction is simple — to help them bounce back, he takes even better care of them, reminding them that there’s more to life than basketball.


The first message leads into the second, which is, we share risk. As Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar Animation Studios, points out, “All our movies suck at first.” That’s why the animation studio holds painful “braintrust” meetings, during which a committee of veteran directors and producers candidly criticizes every project. According to Coyle, the worst thing is believing you don’t need anyone.


The goal of message No. 2 is to spark a new kind of cooperation that transcends conventional communication. Coyle makes his point by taking us back to 1989, into the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 232. Given the mechanical problems the plane was experiencing,

a catastrophic crash seemed inevitable, yet the captain asked for suggestions. “I can’t control the airplane,” he said. “Anybody have any ideas?” And it made a difference: instead of all 296 people on board dying, 184 survived.


In the end, as the third message conveys, we are part of the same story. This brings Coyle to an experiment conducted in a California school. Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard psychologist, administered tests to children in Grades 1 through 6, then told their teachers who had high potential. A year later, these students, some of whom had poor academic records, performed much better on tests than their peers did, and the teachers were proud of the year they had spent with them. Except, it was all a ruse. Rosenthal had chosen the students at random, thereby changing the group dynamics. By replacing a story of ordinary performance with one of anticipated success, he had created a chain of certain expectations and behaviour, proving that you can get what you expect.


From the Google kitchen (literally) to the modus operandi of a gang of jewel thieves, The Culture Code is teeming with dozens of meaningful anecdotes that serve to introduce just the right amount of practical advice. While some tips may seem obvious and others more difficult to apply, Coyle often gets it right, with advice such as, “Listen like a trampoline” and “Avoid giving sandwich feedback.”


This book is not to be missed, if only to glean a few choice nuggets. Not only is it an entertaining read, but it also encourages us to rethink how we do things in group settings in order to better tackle new challenges — together.