The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups – leadership book review

This book is aimed at a wide range of professionals, including company leaders, managers, and human resource experts who play a critical role in shaping the culture and dynamics of their teams and organisations. Daniel Coyle gives us an important lesson in leadership and management: quite often, the team dynamics inspired by the leader are more important than the individuals comprising the team.

The author delves into the specific actions and elements required for a team to achieve the type of cooperation and coordination that leads to greatness, using real-world examples from a variety of industries and sports, providing practical insight and actionable steps for fostering a culture of collaboration, innovation, and success within a team or organisation.

The book covers the key principles and strategies for building a positive and productive group culture: creating safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose.

About the author

Daniel Coyle is a best-selling author and speaker who has written several books on the topic of human performance, including “The Talent Code,” “The Little Book of Talent,” and “The Culture Code.” He is known for his research-based approach to understanding how individuals and groups achieve success. Coyle has spent over a decade studying and writing about the subject of talent development and group dynamics. He is a graduate of Yale University and has been featured in several major publications such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Forbes. He is also a frequent speaker at conferences and events on the topic of human performance and team building.

What is Group Culture?

The group culture is one of the most important forces on earth. It is used by the most successful companies, the best teams in every sport and also by the most prosperous families. There is a palpable sense when a company has a positive culture, and research conducted by Harvard has found that companies with a strong culture can see a 765% increase in profit over a period of 10 years.

Join me as we explore how companies like Google and Disney, and high-performing teams like the Navy SEALs, have cultivated strong cultures, as outlined by author Daniel Coyle.

I. Safety

Safety is not just about creating a positive emotional atmosphere, but is also the foundation of a strong culture. When the team members are feeling safe they are able to fully engage with their work and collaborate more efficiently, which can lead to better performance and success. This is why it is so important for leaders to prioritise creating a safe environment for their team, both emotionally and physically. This is many times the missing piece in the puzzle of creating a culture of trust, respect, and collaboration, which can have a lasting impact on the team’s performance and success.

Good Apples

How do “good” team members behave when confronting with a “bad” apple?

An experiment was conducted to investigate the negative impact that an individual’s behavior can have on the performance of a team made up of multiple members. The experiment involved 40 teams of 4 people each, who were all given the same task: to come up with a marketing strategy. Unknown to the other 3 members of each team, one of them was an actor whose role was to act unenthusiastically and with a defeatist attitude, as if the task they were supposed to do was not that important and was actually boring. In 39 out of the 40 teams, the feelings of the undercover actor were transmitted to the other members of the team, and they all began to mirror his actions, resulting in a roughly 30% drop in the team’s performance.

Guess what was different about the one team that did not fall prey to the negative influence of the actor? Just one individual – the unappointed leader. No matter what the actor tried, the group still performed well because one of them – who basically became the leader – was able to observe what was happening and acted accordingly. When the actor made a mean remark, the leader just smiled, spoked to him in a friendly manner, eliminating the negativity and then asked a question to the group, listening carefully to what everyone had to say. If the actor was physically acting bored, the leader just looked at him and smiled, adding a funny comment and maintaining a good atmosphere.

What the leader was really doing was eliminating the danger and then creating a safe place for the team to be in. Without explicitly stating it, the attitude he was instilling in the group was: ‘Hey, I really like what we are achieving here, we have quite an entertaining atmosphere inside our group and I am curious what everyone has to say”. The actor’s actions were intended to convey the message that “we are not safe in here”, which the leader recognized and reinterpreted with a more positive perspective.

There are two conclusions we can get from this story:

  • The performance of the entire group does not always depend on measurable abilities like intelligence, competency and experience, but rather on a subtle pattern of small behaviors.
  • The hero of the team achieved his goal without taking any action that we usually attribute to a strong leader. He did not tell anyone what to do, he didn’t sell them a vision. He was just creating the right conditions for the others to do their job extremely well. In this experiment mimics a lot of real life situations in which the winning group doesn’t do a better job because the individuals in it are smarter, but because they are feeling safer.

The simple fact that you hear something does not imply a change in behavior. They are just words. But when we see people from our group starting to act on an idea, our behavior changes. This is how culture is created. It is commonly believed that a group’s performance is closely tied to the intelligence and ability of its members to express complex ideas through words. However, this is not always the case. Words can sometimes be meaningless noise, and the real key to a group’s success is the behavior that conveys a powerful message: that we are safe and connected to one another.

Daniel Coyle

Membership the key to safety

Let’s do an exercise of imagination: you are waiting in the train station in a heavy rain.

Scenario 1: A stranger approaches you and asks politely: “Can I please borrow your smartphone?”

Scenario 2: A stranger approaches you and says: “Oh, to hell with this rain! Can I please borrow your smartphone?”

Question: To which one of the two strangers are you more likely to borrow your phone?

According to an experiment conducted by Harvard Business School, the second scenario resulted in a 442% increase in the likelihood of the request being granted, compared to the first scenario, and that is because the expression of frustration with the rain may make the stranger seem more relatable and likable. Here are some more examples:

When someone cares about you

Let’s say you are one of the participants in a test of puzzles. A few minutes after you start, you receive a handwritten note by another participant (whom you’ve never met before) who finished the test earlier and wanted to give you a hint. You read the message, go back to the assignment and everything changes: according to the study described in the book you become more motivated and you spend 50% more time working on the task. The sensation of interior comfort stays with you after that and two weeks later you are more inclined to take on harder assignments. Basically, that piece of paper changed you into a smarter and more receptive version of yourself.

Here’s the thing: the hint you receive didn’t have any relevant information. Your increased motivation came from the fact that you received a signal that you are connected with someone who cares about you.

Good culture beats bureaucracy

At the beginning of the 2000s, two companies competed to create a software capable of giving targeted ads to the audience. One of them, Overture, was a big well founded company and it was the favorite in this race. Unexpectedly, it lost to a relatively small company at the time – Google, due to one simple thing: its culture. One employee found a note in the company’s kitchen with the issue at hand from the team that was working at AdSense and solved it over night, even though it was not part of his assignment.

Google‘s success started here

On the other hand, Overture was bogged down by bureaucracy – decision-making involved endless meetings and discussions on technical, tactical, and strategic topics, and everything had to be approved by large committees. Despite having a larger budget, Overture lost to Google not because it didn’t have smart enough employees, but because Google had created a workplace culture where employees felt safe to take risks and innovate. Membership (the willingness to help) won over bureaucracy.

A small attention

A study was done inside a call-center called WIPRO in Banglore, India. Around 2007 the company faced a challenge: a lot of the employees were quitting after only 6 months of working. To test a theory, they split the next recruits in two groups, with different induction processes:

The induction for Group 1 was standard: they were presented with information about the company for one hour and after that they received a sweater with the company name on it.

The induction for Group 2 was similar to the one presented above with two minor adjustments: first, after the company presentation each recruit was presented with the following question: “which one of your qualities brings you the most joy and helps you to be more productive in your work?” Second, they received the same type of sweater but it had also their name on it alongside the company’s name.

The results were staggering: The retention rate for the employees in the second group was 250% bigger than the one in the first group. That is because they received membership signals which were personalized and future-oriented, something that was well received by the social part of the brain.

Building an NBA Team

A study was made in NBA comparing the results of each team with the individual abilities of the players forming the team. There was one team which stood out: The San Antonio Spurs which won 117 games more than it normally should, given the evaluation that was done on the players. And this performance is attributed to the good leadership of their coach, Popovich. Considered a tough trainer, here are some of his ways to build cohesion:

  • Creating personal, close connection trough his behavior, gestures and body language. He asked each team member where does he like to eat and remembered the answer, he knew their families and hobbies. With this he signaled: “I care about you”
  • He gave continuous, honest feedback regarding the performance of the players. With this signaled: “We have high standards”
  • He always made time for some overview view: he talked with them about politics, history, food. With this he signaled: “Life is not just about basketball, we’re like family”
San Antonio Spurs had a galactic run under Popovich

Popovich used all these three types of signals to create harmony inside his team, which also brought good results in the tournament. One signal alone would not have such a big effect, but all three of them combined send a powerful message: “You are part of this group. This group is special. I believe you can fulfill our standards“.

I know my enemy

World War I – the Great War, the War to end all Wars, the war which brought together modern weaponry and medieval tactics. 1914’s Flanders was not a place you would like to be: trenches, dug below sea level, were often flooded and constantly under threat from machine gun fire and various diseases. The Allied forces, including British and French soldiers, were engaged in a fierce struggle against the Germans, using all the strength and determination they could muster. It was a difficult and dangerous time to be on the front lines.

Life was really hard in the trenches of WWI

Both camps hated the cold and the moisture, and both wanted to come home. By getting to know their “typical” enemy, they may have realized that they shared similar experiences and reactions to the stress and dangers of war. This understanding may have helped to humanize the enemy, and may have made it easier for soldiers to see that they were not so different after all. Food was delivered in each camp at the same hour and nobody was shooting during that time. When one of the camps stopped shooting, the other one did not capitalize on this situation. There proximity of the trenches made it easy to hear the singing from the other camp. This is how during the Christmas of 1914, against orders, soldiers from both sides got out of the trenches and met in no man’s land trading goods, exchanging gifts, and even playing soccer together

The armistice was a rare moment of humanity and compassion during a war that was characterized by brutality and loss of life on an unprecedented scale. It is a reminder that even in the midst of a deadliest conflict, it is possible for enemies to come together and find common ground due to proximity and the feeling of relatability.

Let’s see what all these examples had in common and how the human brain picks up the necessary signals to feel like and indispensable part of something bigger:

The anatomy of the social brain

The membership signal should not be sent only once. In this aspect a working relationship in which one colleague transmits to the other a message along the lines of “I like working with you and all the work that we are doing together happens in the context of this productive relationship” is not very different from a romantic relationship– how often are you telling your spouse “I love you”?

Daniel Coyle

If our brain would logically process the feeling of safety, we would not need this constant reminding. But our brain evolved for millions of years not because he felt safe most of the time, but because it obsessively scanned the environment for danger. This obsession has its roots in the middle of the brain in a zone called amygdala.

Science has recently discovered that the amygdala is not only responsible to react when in danger, but it also plays an important role in building social relations. When you pick up a signal of membership, the amygdala changes roles and begins to build and retain social links. The amygdala holds the evidence of the members of your group and starts “following” them because they are important to you.

The amygdala plays an important role in our “social brain”

Our social brain is activated when it receives a constant accumulation of quasi-invisible clues: “We are close to each other, we are safe and we have a common future”. This is how membership in a group works: it is like a flame that needs to be constantly nourished with signals of safe social connections in order to remain strong. Contrary to popular belief, cohesion does not happen when all members of a group are smart but when they feel constant and clear signals of safe social connection.

Practical Advice

So how do we develop the feeling of membership? Here is some advice from the book:

  • Express clearly the fact that you are listening
    • Give others the time they need to speak and use your body language to indicate that you are actively listening and you are interested in understanding their issue.
  • Show from early on that you are not infallible, especially if you are the leader
    • In every interaction we tend to hide our weaknesses and appear competent. But if you want to create safety you have to do the opposite: be open about the fact that you can also make mistakes and use simple sentences like “What do you think about that?”, “What am I missing here?”, “At least that is what I think”, “Sure, it is possible I could be wrong”.
  • Embrace the messenger
    • When bad news are coming there is a crucial moment inside the group. What a good leader must do is not only to tolerate the message but to embrace the messenger pointing out how important it is that he delivered the news about the issue because now you can focus on solving it. This will ensure you will continue to hear the important news in the future.
  • Link the present and the future
    • This is one of the best ways to motivate someone by pointing out their potential and painting a picture of their success in a subtle way. NBA Coaches point to a basketball superstar and tell their team: a few years ago he was standing in the same bus you are now. Inside big corporations, managers are pointing out to their teammates: I was in the same place you are now just three years ago, I had the same background and I was also overwhelmed. But I persevered and look where am I now.
  • Be meticulous in the hiring process
    • Deciding who enters and who leaves a company is the most powerful message sent to the group. High performing teams developed a long and rigorous process of selecting members and they are always on the lookout for “the bad apples”. Also, processes are put in place so that the good performers are not inclined to choose to go somewhere else. Letting good people go while employing unexperienced staff could signal the beginning of the end for that particular company because it decreases talent density.
  • Create safe spaces good for socializing
    • Reducing stress also reduces turnover rates. Many companies noticed a big improvement in employee satisfaction and retention if they provided a place and time where they can be together and socialize when taking a break. In the on-line medium this can also be achieved by encouraging the employees to periodically come together on-line and play games, socialize or do a non-working activity together.
  • Make sure everyone can speak their mind
    • Scrum framework includes the retrospective meeting where team members discuss what went wrong, what went well and what can be improved. This is a very good way to make sure that periodically each member has the chance to tell his unique perspective about the workflow.

II. Vulnerability

We already discussed in another book review about how showing vulnerability as a leader can create a safe and trusting environment where others feel comfortable being open, leading to improved cooperation and teamwork. What we have to keep in mind is that vulnerability is very contagious and is a precursor of trust.

Normally, our perception of trust and vulnerability follows the same steps as jumping into the unknown: we are first consolidating our trust and only then are we ready to jump. But science shows us that we are thinking backwards: vulnerability does not come after trust, it precedes it. The jump into the unknown, when it is done along others makes the ground solid and stable under our feet. Our brain is constantly scanning our surroundings in order to see if we can trust the people around us and if we can create a connection with them. The feeling of trust depends on the context and it is driven by the feeling of vulnerability: we know we need others in order to do better.

We can summarize the mechanism of cooperation like this: the vulnerability exchanges – that we have the natural tendency to avoid – are actually the way in which we can build true cooperation based on mutual trust. Vulnerability is the key since it allows for the exchange of honest thoughts and feelings, leading to a deeper understanding and connection with others.

Daniel Coyle

We can find this concept in action looking at the elite teams that must be capable to solve problems in a constant state of vulnerability and interaction, where one mistake from a team member can put the entire team in real danger. Some examples are the SEAL team and the Pink Panthers aka The Most Successful Robbers in History.

“The magic spell” – the process of emersing

The author introduces us to Roshi Givechi, an employee at IDEO who officially holds the title of designer, but unofficially acts as a catalyst within the company: she is involved in multiple projects and she is helping the teams with the design process. When teams encounter obstacles or challenges, Roshi’s unique approach of asking thought-provoking questions serves as a sort of magic spell in getting the team out of their setback. Though her methods may not be fully understood by her colleagues, her approach consistently proves to be effective in unlocking new possibilities and moving the team forward. No one fully understands what she is doing but all agree her methods are “working really well”.

Great problem management can seem like magic

When you first met her, the author says, she does not try to charm you from the first moment, doesn’t speak much and doesn’t do a lot of funny remarks like you would expect from people working in creative activities. She is projecting in exterior a sense of calm and familiarity, “a content quietness”, making you feel like you’ve met several times before.

She says that she is not a person that likes to speak much. She likes stories, but usually she is not the one who tells them (she is not the center of attention), but the one who listens and asks questions. Usually those questions could seem obvious, simple or even useless. But she asks them because she really wants to understand what really happens there.

How to prepare for a complicated meeting

She is usually interacting with the teams three times in a project lifecycle: at the beginning, in the middle and at the end. Her approach is outside-in: first she prepares beforehand to know what issues the team is facing (both design-oriented and regarding team dynamics), then she has a meeting with the entire group and she leads a discussion by asking questions to help team members gain insight into their relationships and the progress of the project. She calls this process “emersion” (Daniel Coyle admitted that he choose to improve the version of the book’s subtitle after speaking with her, but he does not remember if she suggested it or not).

The Art of Connection through Thoughtful Conversations

Givechi says that she enjoys the word “connection” because in her view, every conversation is an opportunity to foster higher levels of enthusiasm, motivation, and self-awareness in people. She believes that each person is unique and therefore requires a personalized approach to make them feel comfortable and willing to share their thoughts. Givechi focuses on asking the right questions in a non-threatening way, not about imposing her views but about discovering new perspectives.

Her colleagues describe her as a soft yet assertive individual. She is a good listener, but also stands firm in her beliefs. She doesn’t present a plan outright, but there’s always a strategy in mind as she guides the conversation in a productive direction. One of the most efficient tools in her toolbox is time. She would spend a lot of time with anyone , showing patience and making sure the discussions are progressing in a good direction.

Introverted Leaders: Harnessing the Advantages of a Quiet Demeanor

Leaders with a bold spirit can inspire others to think beyond their limitations. They may start by questioning the most obvious and important things but they do not make you feel that you are doing something wrong. Effective leaders listen closely with their eyes, as they are highly sensitive to changes in mood and expression. They can detect even the slightest hint of tension in a conversation and respond with questions designed to explore the underlying motives. This approach is part of a natural, organic conversation that helps build connections with others. When they speak they are constantly making references to you like: “Maybe you also had this experience”, “Your work could be similar”, “The reason I paused there was because…” -all of these create a signal that triggers connection. And then their colleagues realize that it is not that hard to open up, to take some risks and tell the truth. It looks like magic but it is actually the result of a prolonged experience and practice.

Experienced Introverted Leaders have a subtle power that is hard to clearly point out

The keyword is subtility. “Emersing leaders” do not have preconceived ideas and they disarm people with their openness. As an introverted leader, I myself strive to listen attentively and show genuine concern in addressing issues. This is a quality that is often appreciated in my leadership style.

One of the key advantages of introverted leaders is their ability to step back from their own thoughts and focus entirely on the conversation at hand. This allows them to better understand the motivations and needs of the people they are speaking with, and respond in a way that is both empathetic and effective.

The term “Empathy” sounds great but it is not what the emersing leaders are doing: in reality they have a critical understanding of the things that make people react and, contrary to popular belief, you don’t always make them react by being nice with them. After you get to know the people you work with really well, you tend to feel what they truly need: some yearn for support and praise while others need a push from the back and a reminder that they need to work harder and try new things in order to grow. Either way, don’t let situations be unclear, especially when they are uncomfortable.

Leadership Through Subtly and Critical Understanding

although the questions are only representing 6% of the verbal interaction, they generate 60% of the discussions that follow.

Robert Bales, one of the first scientists who studied group communication discovered that although the questions are only representing 6% of the verbal interaction, they generate 60% of the discussions that follow.

This is why some of the most powerful leaders are not necessarily loud, and they do not want to impose themselves in any conversation. In order to follow their real goal – solving the issues with their team – they focus more on asking the right questions that will lead the conversation in the right way rather than imposing their own will.

Here are some common rephrasings that can lead the communication towards solving problems and make people speak their mind freely, triggering emotions like ambition and motivation:

  • “One thing that really excites me about this opportunity is…”
  • “I Confess that a thing that doesen’t excite me about this opportunity is…”
  • “In this project I would really like that we get better results regarding….”

It is very hard to be empathetic when you are speaking. Speaking is complicated because you are thinking and planning what you are going to say, and you have the tendency to focus on what is going on inside your head. But not when you listen: you lose the notion of time, you are not conscious of your own person because it is not about you. Everything is about this: enter a communion with the one you are speaking with.

Here are some action points you can follow to enhance group dynamics:

  • Make sure that the leader is vulnerable
  • Speak regularly about your expectations: powerful groups do not start from the premise that a cooperative attitude will appear by itself. They send clear messages to show their expectations.
  • Give bad news face-to-face: It is not an easy rule to follow, but it works because it addresses the issue head-on in an honest way, which avoids errors in understanding and assures clarity and connection.
  • When creating new groups, focus on two crucial moments: the first vulnerability and the first dispute. As a leader you need to be there and help the group find the answer to some important questions: “Do we want to look strong or to explore together? Do we want to come out on top in our interactions or to learn something together?”
  • During conversation resist the urge to interrupt the person who is speaking – suggestions are good but they should be made after an “attention scaffolding” is already in place to deal with risks and vulnerabilities.
  • Use transparent methods for post-action meetings: we already talked about Sprint Retrospectives in Software Development teams but to go a step further we can learn from the BrainTrust meetings at Pixar where experienced leaders that do not have any authority on the project in discussion get together to critically evaluate the strong and weak points of cinematic project in an open manner. One of the most fundamental rules is that the team can not offer solutions; it can only point the issues – this rule maintains total authority of the project leader on the tasks of delivering a good product.
  • Occasionally disappear as a leader: Some leaders of highly successful groups leave the group alone in key moments. When done at the right time, this tactic develops the team’s creativity and independence.
  • Raise a wall between performance and professional development. On one hand, the evaluation of performance tends to be an interaction with a high degree of risk and unavoidably will contain criticism, with salary consequences. On the other hand, professional development aims to identify an employee’s strengths and provide support to improve their overall quality of work. Combining the two in the same conversation can stir up the waters, creating confusion and complicating matters. This is why many groups have adopted a coaching model in which employees receive frequent feedback to gain a relevant understanding of their current performance and to improve it.

III. Purpose

So we’ve discussed a lot so far, but what is the purpose of all this effort? What are we striving towards?

Every time the author visited a successful group, he noticed that employees were constantly reminded of why they do what they do. Immediately upon entering the building, you could see trophies, letters of gratitude, nominations, awards, pictures, or videos that showcase the results of teamwork.

The company leaders also instill certain taglines into the group’s mindset that, when repeated often enough, serve as constant reminders that success is attainable by processing mistakes in a positive manner. Here are some examples: “You can not prevent the mistakes, but you can gracefully solve the problems”, “Mistakes often come like waves, but you can achieve your goal by surfing them.”, “Road to success is paved with well managed mistakes”

Transforming Disney: Uniting Purpose and Creativity Through Collaboration and Empowerment

Ed Catmull, the former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, was hired by Disney in 2006 when the company was struggling with declining revenues and lackluster creativity. He knew that in order to make this happen, he had to instill a sense of purpose and ambition in his employees. He understood that people are more motivated and engaged when they know why they are doing what they do.

Catmull implemented a number of changes that helped turn the company around, including bringing all the creative teams together under one roof, creating a central café area that encouraged collaboration and idea-sharing, and empowering screenwriters to take control of their projects.

Disney company managed to turn things around regarding creativity by increasing the feeling of ownership

One of Catmull’s first moves was to consolidate all the creative teams in a single location, which allowed for greater communication and collaboration. Previously, the teams were spread out across various buildings, which made it difficult to share ideas and stay in sync. By bringing everyone together, Catmull created a sense of unity and purpose that helped spark creativity and innovation.

Furthermore, Catmull gave screenwriters more creative freedom and autonomy, empowering them to take control of their projects. By doing so, he allowed them to explore new ideas and take risks, which led to more innovative and successful films. This approach instilled a sense of ownership and ambition in the screenwriters, making them feel like they had a greater purpose and were contributing to the success of the company.

Overall, Catmull’s focus on collaboration, communication, and empowerment helped transform Disney from a struggling company into a creative powerhouse that produced hit after hit. His approach to management and leadership has become a model for other companies looking to foster innovation and creativity.

This example teaches us that the consolidation of a creative group is not about generating a brilliant moment but in creating systems that can process a lot of ideas in order to help identify the right choice. This is why Catmull learned to concentrate his attention less on ideas and more on humans: he gives the teams the instruments and the support necessary to identify the right paths to follow, to make the right choices and to stick together during this grueling process.

There is a tendency, not only in our field, to appreciate more the idea than the people or the team. But this is not right: give a mediocre idea to a good team and they will find a way to improve it. Give a good idea to a mediocre team and they will have a mediocre result. The objective should be to find the right team, set it on a good direction and help team members identify their mistakes and strong points. By focusing on the people behind the ideas, a creative group can achieve great results.

To foster a sense of purpose and belief among employees, it is important to focus on specific behaviors that align with the company’s values and mission. These behaviors should be recognized and praised, with a focus on highlighting the achievements and successes of the team. Additionally, it is important to clearly communicate the company’s goals and priorities and to have clear, memorable taglines that encapsulate the company’s mission and values. Additionally, paying the top performers well is an important way to recognize and reward hard work, dedication and excellence and it will help create a sense of motivation and positive reinforcement. This approach will maintain a culture of excellence and engagement among employees, leading to higher levels of loyalty and performance and eventually success for the company.


Coyle’s insights into leadership, communication, and motivation offer valuable lessons for anyone looking to create a high-performing team or organization. Since team dynamic can be improved at almost any level, whether you’re a CEO, manager, or team leader, “The Culture Code” provides practical guidance and inspiration for building a culture of excellence in order to achieve big goals. Through compelling stories and real-world examples across a big range of industries, author Daniel Coyle reveals the key principles and behaviors that are essential for creating a positive and productive group culture. This book is an easy read and I recommend anyone who wants to learn more about this concept to study the points covered here even though all things seem to work great, because it can provide some new perspectives.

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