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The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups
By Danial Coyle
ISBN-13: 9780804176989
Published 2018
Reviewed by Douglas Balzer

As a Pastor and semiotician in a small university town just outside of the Portland metro area, I experience the cross-flow of the currents of culture between the urban and rural. Amid the churning of the currents, I witness the struggle of the local churches as they face the cultural dilemmas they are encountering. As part of my work to assist the local church I pastor and converse with the other pastors within the area, I have found myself absorbing every book I can on culture. I have been reviewing authors such as Edwin Friedman, Patrick Lencioni, Seth Godin, and yes, even Jordon Peterson and more. I have to admit the more world works to denounce people draws my curiosity to read their works and study them to find out for myself what they are saying that is so controversial. I am not a secondhand information person. This brings us to my selection for this review. I have interacted with Danial Coyle’s writings before, and I have found him to have some valuable insights as he brings together research from various researchers in the arena of culture. So, here are some takeaways from his latest book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

The Culture Code brings some fresh perspective to a topic that’s often overcomplicated: how humans can function in groups. Coyle explains why our most basic psychological needs are all we need to address culture, and he does so with some colorful examples from various walks of life. In The Culture Code, Coyle examines the dynamic forces of groups, large and small, formal and informal, to help us understand how teams work and what we can do to improve our relationships wherever we work cooperatively with others.

What is our take on various talents? Do we think they don’t exist and that everything can be learned? Or believe it’s dualistic, that if you’re not born with it, you can never get it? I think it’s an example to show we judge life in extremes when most often, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The movie The Gambler is an excellent example of this issue of talent. Mark Wahlberg depicts a gambling-addicted English literature professor. One who divides the world into geniuses and idiots, ultimately, he learns we do have a choice more often than we think.

Daniel Coyle, in his previous book, The Talent Code, broke down the question for the real world. Having examined the components of exceptional performance on an individual level, he turns to groups and teams. The Culture Code is an analysis of how humans work together and how they might be keeping others from doing so.

Here are three takeaways from his research concerning the being part of the culture of being part of multiple groups. I hope these are helpful to your progress in dealing with the culture of your groups. Remember, we’re all part of countless groups, so let’s break down The Culture Code and make sure we do our best!

Lesson 1: Form a safe environment, so everyone will let their guard down and cooperate.

Remote work is on the rise. Already half of all Americans do at least part of their work from home. And while that wouldn’t be possible without modern technology, it’s still remarkable how many people jump on the opportunity if it presents itself. According to Coyle, it’s simple: our homes are the safest places we know.

Safety is a critical enabler that allows us to do our best work. For example, keeping our day job can help us practice our creativity freely in a side hustle. Similarly, “a work environment in which you feel safe in acting as you naturally would and speaking your mind is very conducive to group work.” It’s only natural: no one wants to keep looking over your back all the time because if you need to, you can never really focus.

Professor Alex Pentland at MIT’s media lab found that if he observed people’s body language, he could predict the outcomes of negotiations within five minutes of starting a session. That’s because how close we are to our co-workers, whether we mimic their behavior, and look into their eyes, are instant tells of how safe we feel. One right 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.

Instead, when it’s your turn, share one of your flaws. Allowing your teammate to know you understand our mutual humanity.

Lesson 2: Share your own shortcomings to show people it’s okay to make mistakes.

Researcher Jeff Polzer, who researches organizational behavior at Harvard, found that when we share our own flaws with others, something amazing happens. He calls it a vulnerability loop, in which other people detect when we signal vulnerability, thus signal vulnerability too, and thus both parties become closer and trust each other more. Brené Brown has shown that vulnerability itself is a sign of strength, not weakness. However, because workplaces are usually seen as competitive, especially in the Western world, we think we need to look confident and powerful all the time. It’s often the person who takes the first step in admitting they’re not perfect, who’s perceived as a leader, not the one who berates others for being weak.

Vulnerability not just increases trust, it’s also a way to show acceptance: if you admit no one’s perfect, people will feel okay even after making mistakes, which are inevitable in accomplishing a shared goal.

Lesson 3: Build a sense of purpose through a shared goal and a simple way towards it.

Coyle’s third component ascribed to well-functioning groups is a purpose. Simply, purpose is a set of reasons for doing what you do. In the case of a group, it’s the sum of all beliefs and values among your team, as they relate to achieving your common goal. That goal might be something straightforward, like selling the most phones any company has ever sold, but ideally, it’s about something bigger, like making phone users feel special and that they have good taste. Apple has built its brand on this purpose.
Since the goal is in the future, but your group lives in the now, your purpose should be like a bridge between the two. Therefore, if you can come up with a straightforward narrative as to how your purpose will help you go from today to tomorrow and reach your goal, you’ll be able to activate those around you.

A useful tool to accomplish this is a short, catchy, maybe even cheesy slogan. Think of Nike’s “just do it.” It’s kinda cliché, but it works because it’s easy to remember and easy to repeat until it sinks in. With safety, vulnerability, and purpose all in one place, it’ll be almost impossible to stop you and your team from accomplishing whatever you set out to do!

May you break-down the cultural barriers you face and develop a highly functioning culture.