The Culture Code Book Summary

The CLI community selects a book to read together each year. This year, our choice was Daniel Coyle’s, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. We culminated the experience with a workshop hosted by our friends at Volum8 Creative in Montgomery, NY.  As it turns out, that team–and their office–is a remarkable example of many of the best ideas in this book, so it was a phenomenal setting to wrap up our discussion.  This blog post captures the big ideas we are taking away from the book.



Daniel Coyle defines culture as a “set of living relationships working together toward a shared goal.” This emphasizes relationships and implies we have a shared goal—it is both people- and mission-focused.

In the highly successful groups Coyle studied, he noticed that there were certain sets of behaviors—consistently practiced— that cultivated a positive, effective culture. Leaders who practice these behaviors well, and cultivate them in their culture, will be rewarded, both in terms of quality of relationships as well as with significantly better long-term bottom-line results.

The book is organized around three skills:

Skill 1: Build Safety

People are wired to continuously answer three questions:
(1) Are we connected?
(2) Are we safe?
(3) Do we have a future together?

Belonging cues: Behaviors that create safe connection in groups.

Leaders generate a steady stream of belonging cues that continuously communicates we are on the same team and working toward something that matters, together.

Imagine a fire burning. It requires a steady stream of wood to keep burning. Feed that fire with steady streams of belonging cues. Here are 10 examples to consider:

1. Capitalize on the onboarding process (use threshold moments)
2. Really get to know each other in a personal way
3. Embrace fun (team building, humor, etc.)
4. Create strong emotional bonds
5. Create psychological safety: people speak up and share their perspectives (“Hug the Messenger!”)
6. Be humble and vulnerable
7. Overdo thank you’s (Gratitude is a massive belonging cue!)
8. Eliminate bad apples
9. Highlight connections to the future and the person’s role in it
10.Create safe, collision rich spaces – be obsessed with design of your physical
workspace as a lever for interaction and cohesion (p. 81).

“Collisions—serendipitous personal encounters—are the lifeblood of any organization, the key driver of creativity, community, and cohesion.” –Tony Hsieh (Zappos)

Coyle shares a gem of an idea on providing feedback in a way that sets high expectations in an inspiring way:

“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

“Just nineteen words. None of these words contain any information on how to improve. Yet they are powerful because they deliver a burst of belonging cues. Actually, when you look more closely at the sentence, it contains three separate cues:

  1. You are part of this group.
  2. This group is special; we have high standards here.
  3. I believe you can reach those standards.”

Skill 2: Share Vulnerability

Coyle argues that “habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation…and vulnerability is a psychological requirement for creating cooperation” (p.111). He tells us that vulnerability leads to trust, not the other way around. Vulnerability comes first!

QUESTIONS: What does it really mean to be vulnerable as a leader? And, if exchanges of vulnerability are the pathway through which trusting cooperation is built, how can we practice creating a steady stream of vulnerability?

You can, for example, acknowledge your mistakes: “I screwed this up!”

Ask for help: “I don’t have this all figured out,” and, “I need you!”

Invite others to really get to know you (be authentic):
“Let me share a story about a time I struggled with this…”

Seek out and positively receive candid feedback: “What can I do better?”

In summary: step into vulnerability by sharing your mistakes, asking for help, opening up and revealing the real you, and asking for candid feedback. Practice these behaviors and watch trust and cooperation in your teams go way up!

This approach requires authenticity and humility, and, we believe, a focus on the mission we are pursuing together.

Skill 3: Establish Purpose (Use narratives to create shared goals and values)

Great groups “devote a surprising amount of time telling their own story, reminding each other precisely what they stand for—then repeating it ad infinitum.”

In the book, see how Danny Meyer names the behaviors he wants employees to model. And, for that matter, see the incredible work that Leadership Foundations Alum Mike Smith and team at Volum8 Creative have done crafting short statements that capture the essence of their values and catalyze action to enact those values as they pursue excellence. “Coffee First” is one of Volum8 Creative’s eight imperatives (Of course there are eight!).

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 09.02.02The meaning of “Coffee First” is embodied in the process of brewing handcrafted coffee with clients and choosing authentic conversations over presentations.

“By themselves, these phrases are unremarkable. But together, endlessly repeated and modeled through behavior, they create a larger conceptual framework that connects with the group’s identity and expresses its core purpose…”

“You have priorities, whether you name them or not. If you want to grow, you’d better name them, and you better name the behaviors that support the priorities.” –Danny Meyer

Coyle adds: “Creating engagement around a clear, simple set of priorities can function as a lighthouse, orienting behavior and providing a path toward a goal.”


This is an amazing book, made all the more impactful because of the conversations we had about it. Big thanks to Tony Espinal for organizing our Zoom video conversation and to Mike Smith for graciously hosting our book workshop at his Volum8 Creative office.