Breaking The Culture Code: Part 1

April 10, 2018 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Companies talk a lot about building a great culture. But, for many, that’s where it stops. It’s not that their heart isn’t in the right place. Any leader paying a modicum of attention understands how crucial culture is to success. But as Daniel Coyle notes in his extraordinary new book, “The Culture Code,” “culture is not something you are. It’s something you do.”

According to a Harvard study of 200 companies over the course of a decade, those with a strong culture increased net income 765%. People work better in a positive culture. That’s no great revelation. But what is, is how simple the formula is for building a great culture. According to Coyle, leaders who build effective cultures are the ones who can master three specific sets of skills – Building Safety, Sharing Vulnerability and Establishing Purpose. In this blog, we’re going to look at the first skill – Building Safety.


We’ve all heard “blood is thicker than water.” And when you talk to people who work in strong cultures, that’s how they feel about those they work with. As Coyle mentions in his book, members of successful groups often describe their companies as “family” because they see them as a place they feel safe, where they can be vulnerable and where people have their backs, no matter what. And for those groups, cultivating the feeling of safety is no accident.

Strong company cultures regularly give off belonging cues that tell people they are in a safe environment. And they have to. Building up a sense of safety takes time, while destroying it can happen in an instant.

So how do you build a sense of safety? Coyle references a series of studies conducted by the MIT Human Dynamics Lab run by professor Alex Pentland. Overall, Pentland’s studies indicate that team performance is driven by five measurable factors:

  1. Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short.
  2. Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
  3. Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader.
  4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
  5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back to share with the others.

Think for a second how different that may be from the interactions you have with the people in your company. How much breathing room are you really giving them? Even as the leader, do you approach every meeting or conversation with the preconception that you have to be the smartest person in the room? Are you giving off belonging cues that say: “I trust what you’re doing.” “I value your opinion.” “You are safe.” Think about how toxic it must feel to work in an environment where the answer to those three questions is no.

As Coyle notes, we often think what we say is the most important thing, but words are noise. “Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful, overarching idea: We are Safe and Connected.” It reminds me of one of my favorite Emerson quotes: “Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.”


Whether conscious or unconscious, our preoccupation with feeling safe isn’t anything new. Our cave-dwelling ancestors fought the same anxieties we do. According to Coyle, when we sense danger – when we don’t feel safe – our brains shrink our perceived world to a single question: “What do I have to do to survive?” And as Robert Cialdini discussed in his book “Presuasion,” we give greater importance to the things we focus on to the point that we assign causality to them. Is it any wonder when we feel unsafe, it’s the only thing we can think about?

In a work culture, feeling safe — or unsafe — colors how we feel about everything. If we want to build a strong, productive culture, our job as leaders is to create a place where our people feel safe to contribute openly. That doesn’t mean building safe rooms for employees who can’t handle tough feedback. On the contrary, it often means delivering brutal honesty and uncomfortable truths, but done in a way that leads with love and a signal that we’re in this together and importantly, that we share a future together.

As Coyle points out in chapter four of “The Culture Code,” “one misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but, at their core, their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. This task involves many moments of high-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling, when they confront the gap between where the group is and where it ought to be.”

It also includes giving our teams what Coyle calls “magical feedback,” named for the feedback one highly successful teacher gave to his students. When grading their papers, he simply told them, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.” That was it. Why so effective? Because it’s built on three key belonging cues: 1) You are part of this group, 2) This group is special – we have high standards here, and 3) I believe you can reach them.

What would it mean to your employees to get that kind of feedback from you?


As you consider what you can do to build a culture based on safety, consider these “Ideas for Action” that Coyle lists to close the first section of “The Culture Code.” They’re outstanding guidelines for fostering better, more open communication, and building the cohesion that will hold your team together.

Overcommunicate that you’re listening.

  • Give lots of audible cues – “Gotcha.” “Uh-huh.” “Tell me more.”
  • Pay attention to posture – lean into your conversations.
  • Make and hold eye contact.
  • Avoid interrupting.

Spotlight your fallibility early on – especially if you are the leader.

  • Steve Jobs often led with the phrase “I know this is a dopey idea, but…”
  • Ask for help.
  • Admit you don’t know everything.

Embrace the messenger.

  • Reward the bravery of people willing to speak truth – especially the ugly truths.
  • Hear what it is they’re saying and thank them for their input.

Preview future connection.

  • Let people know they are part of the long-term plan.
  • Point to others who have succeeded from the place they are now.

Overdo thank yous.

  • After every practice, San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich – one of the toughest and most successful coaches in professional sports – thanks each of his players for allowing him to coach them.

Be painstaking in the hiring process.

  • Who you allow into the sanctity of your culture tells the people in it exactly how you feel about it.

Eliminate the bad apples.

  • Successful cultures have a low tolerance for bad behavior

Create safe, collision-rich spaces.

  • Cohesion and trust are built in the spaces we interact face to face.

Make sure everyone has a voice.

  • Pixar holds morning dailies where everyone can watch and comment on the current projects. When people are hired, no matter what their job, Pixar sits them in the theater in the director’s seats and tells them, “no matter what you were before, you’re now a filmmaker.”

Pick up the trash – “muscular humility.”

  • John Wooden used to pick up trash in the UCLA locker room.
  • Ray Kroc used to walk the streets around McDonald’s picking up any restaurant trash. Have you ever done the dishes in the break room?

Capitalize on threshold moments.

  • Take the time to acknowledge and make the most of key moments – new introductions, achievements, failures, team successes.

Avoid giving sandwich feedback.

  • Don’t sandwich negative feedback in between positive. Keep each feedback singular so the recipient can focus on the message.

Embrace fun.

  • As the author reminds us, laughter isn’t just laughter. It’s the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.

“The Culture Code” is the first book from The Next Big Idea Club

MIKE SULLIVAN is the president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more about challenger branding, subscribe to our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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