Book Review: The Culture Code

Earlier this month, I wrote about the importance of creating a Purpose Driven Culture– defined simply as having a purpose beyond profit. I believe that the Credit Union industry is a leading example on this topic, with the purpose of people helping people as the true foundation of our culture. We are a purpose driven industry made up of people passionate about moving that purpose forward.

Having recently read The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, I thought a discussion of the book’s key points was relevant on the heels of that discussion about purpose and culture. The book examines the dynamics of groups, large and small, formal and informal, guiding the reader towards a deeper understanding of teamwork and cooperation. Coyleexplores two fundamental questions: Where does great culture come from? And how do you build and sustain it, or strengthen in a culture that needs fixing?

Using concrete examples from his studies of his successful organizations (U.S. Navy’s SEALS Team Six, San Antonio Spurs, IDEAL Pixar, Union Square Hospitality and more) Coyle concludes that “While successful culture can look and feel like magic, the truth is that it’s not. Culture is a set of living relationships working towards a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”

In his previous book, The Talent Code, Coyle asks readers to consider whether or not they believe talent exists. Is someone born talented in a certain area or areas, or can everything be learned? Having examined the components of great performance on an individual level, The Culture code focuses in on high performance groups and teams.

In a nutshell, Coyle presents an analysis of the ways in which humans work well together as well as how they get in one another’s way. His research identifies 3 skills at the heart of great teamwork:

  • Build safety to make everyone feel comfortable in working together.
  • Share vulnerability to show no one needs to be perfect.
  • Establish purpose through a common goal and a clear path to get there.

I think it’s worthwhile to look briefly at each one.

Lesson 1: If you create a safe environment, people are more likely to let their guard down and cooperate.

Safety is an important enabler that allows us to focus on doing great work. More specifically, if a team’s culture supports a sense of safety, team members are more likely to bring their authentic, creative selves to the work at hand. The opposite naturally gets in the way of teamwork, causing people to interact with fear and suspicion.

One great example is Professor Alex Pentland at MIT’s media lab, who discovered that if he observed people’s body language, he could predict the outcomes of negotiations within five minutes of starting a session. How close we are in proximity to our co-workers when we talk to them, whether we mimic their behavior, and look them in eye, are all indicators of how safe we feel. Coyle asserts that one simple way to make others feel safer is to confirm you understand what they’re telling you by occasionally interjecting affirmations like “uh-huh,” “yes,” “got it,” and so on. Just don’t interrupt them.

 Lesson 2: Show people that it’s okay to make mistakes by sharing your own shortcomings.

Jeff Polzer, a Harvard researcher focused on organizational behavior, found that when we share our own flaws with others, something very interesting happens. He calls it a vulnerability loop, and it works like this: When someone acts with authentic vulnerability, others in the group can detect it, influencing them to relax and act with more authentic vulnerability as well. This cycle creates a sense of comradery and trust in which all members of the team are more able to take risks, think creatively, and support one another’s efforts in a way that moves the whole team forward.

Vulnerability is also a way to show acceptance: if you admit no one’s perfect, people will feel okay even after making mistakes, which are an inevitable part of working towards a goal. Coyle points out that because many workplaces are perceived as competitive, employees believe they must appear confident and powerful all the time. This attitude is a tremendous impediment to creating a high-trust, high-performing culture. Leaders can turn it around by taking the first step in lowering their guard and admitting they’re not perfect.

Lesson 3: Build a sense of purpose through a shared goal.

For those of us in the Credit Union Industry, this one should sound especially familiar. Coyle asserts that well-functioning groups operate from a shared purpose. I other words, purpose drives the reasons for doing what they do.The goal is in the future, but actions that move you towards the achievement of that goal are happening now. Purpose is a bridge between the two.

High performing teams work from a narrative about how their purpose is helping them get from where they are today to the accomplishment of the goal in the future.

The Culture Code is a quick read that brings some fresh perspective to a topic that’s often overcomplicated: how we can work together well in groups. Coyle moves the idea of “culture” from the conceptual (something you are) to the practical (something you do). The ideas apply to groups large and small, offering practical application for how to create teams that are positioned to achieve their goals.

About Dan Finerty

Dan Finerty is the Director of Marketing at the Mountain West Credit Union Association, a Credit Union champion, a Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE), and an award-winning marketer. Dan has over 14 years of marketing experience in communications, retail, packaged goods, and, of course, Credit Unions. He believes that Credit Unions have an incredible story to tell and works with some of the brightest Credit Union professionals to help promote Credit Unions to the public. Dan holds two Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing and in Management. He is also a swell guy.

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