The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

By Daniel Coyle

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

304 pages; published by Bantam Books, January 2018. Hardcover $28; softcover $14.95; E-read edition $13.95; audio book version $14.95

In a nutshell: Virtual office places and technology have drastically changed the modern workplace. With this in mind, how do groups work best in this new environment?

Who’s it for? Managers, business owners, coaches or anyone working within teams of people.

Author’s quote: “Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust – it precedes it. Leaping into the unknown, when done alongside others, causes the solid ground of trust to materialize beneath our feet.”

When designer and engineer Peter Skillman organized a contest to figure out why some groups outperformed others, he challenged different teams to build the tallest tower possible using 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti. Repeatedly, the group made up of kindergartners outperformed teams made up of business school students and company CEOs. How groups work better together is the focus of “The Culture Code” written by bestselling author Daniel Coyle.

Coyle demonstrates this group cohesiveness with a series of three skills: Building Safety, Shared Vulnerability, and Established Purpose. He uses a diverse group of examples to make his point, ranging from Pixar Entertainment to the San Antonio Spurs professional basketball team to the Navy Seals. The commonalities for each challenge the outdated top-down “my way or the highway” management philosophy. Despite this premise that the majority of organizations have levels of inefficiencies, “The Culture Code” forms a framework for building a company culture that optimizes productivity while at the same time treating people well.

Perhaps the most important factor in employee job satisfaction is safety. This means producing a work atmosphere (at an office or at home) where one is able to act naturally and speak one’s mind. It also means that members communicate directly with each other (not just a group leader) and everyone in the group talks and listens in equal measures. On the other hand, one jerk within the group can kill the group’s chemistry. The San Antonio Spurs practice these parameters of safety with the belief that providing a safe place for a player to demonstrate his best effort is the best way to reach the high expectations for the entire team.

Vulnerability is best demonstrated by the Navy Seals’ After Action Reviews (AAR). The idea of these post-mission sessions is to not assign credit or blame, but to a have a shared overall concept of what needs to be done, adjusting and helping when someone may falter, and then applying improvements to the next mission. Within an office situation, Coyle notes that workers arranged close together have superior team results because of additional conversations within the group and this shared vulnerability.

The last section of “The Culture Code” focuses on establishing group purpose. Group priorities should be derived through thorough conversations with and contributions from all group members. The book suggests that companies establish a purpose statement that summarizes the organization’s beliefs and values, combining it with achieving a common goal. Coyle recalls how the credo of Johnson & Johnson Co. saved it in 1982 when tampered bottles of its Tylenol product killed several people. The resulting recall and eventual product resurgence is now a case study for successful crisis management (and was based on its priorities and purpose).

In addition to reviewing business books on a monthly basis, I’ve worked with hundreds of companies that operate internally in a way that is light years away from the examples used in “The Culture Code.” Unfortunately, many manage the only way they know, where the input of people doing the work or on the front lines is minimized while ideas (in the form of directives) come from distorted views from above. As a result, employee morale declines and efficiency goes unrealized. With this in mind, I highly recommend “The Culture Code” to anyone looking for the optimal way to operate their team or organization.

Chris Wendel is a business services consultant with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette, Michigan. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at