Breaking The Culture Code: Part 2

April 16, 2018 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

In part one of Daniel Coyle’s instant classic, “The Culture Code,” he lists “Building Safety” as the first of three skills every leader needs to master to create a healthy and thriving culture. Safety speaks to the primal survival need in each of us and, while physical safety is certainly important, what Coyle really advocates for is mental, emotional, and spiritual safety in the context of being a valued part of a team.

From SEAL Team Six to The San Antonio Spurs, from the team at Zappos to the German and American forces on the front lines in World War I, Coyle gives example after example of the transformational power that feeling safe has for people. Building a safe culture where your employees feel valued, where they feel they are heard, where they feel the freedom to deliver honest, unvarnished truth is paramount to unlocking your team’s full promise. But it’s just the first step.

In this blog, we’re going to look at the second skill – Sharing Vulnerability.


I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, culturally, that vulnerability has long been associated with weakness. But nothing could be further from the truth.

At LOOMIS, we are huge fans of Brené Brown, the country’s leading researcher in the area of vulnerability and the author of great reads like “Daring Greatly” and “Braving The Wilderness.” In her first TED Talk called “The Power of Vulnerability,” (one of the top 5 TED Talks in the world) Dr. Brown echoed why it’s imperative for leaders to lean into their vulnerability. In describing the revelations that came from her research, she said, “I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness. But, it appears, it’s also the birthplace of creativity, of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

When leaders allow themselves to be vulnerable with the people they lead — to not have every answer, to ask for help, to make mistakes and own up to them — they are not exposing weakness. They are exuding authenticity and THAT is what people are drawn to. As Coyle notes in the new book, vulnerability sparks cooperation and trust. Think about your most intimate relationships. Without vulnerability, those relationships wouldn’t be a fraction of what they are, nor would they be as meaningful. In a similar way, the relationships you foster with your team and your ability to move them forward is in large part predicated on your ability to be genuine with them without the fear of being taken advantage of. Admittedly, a tall order for most of us.

When we think about vulnerability and leaping into the unknown, we normally think of first building trust, then leaping. But actually, we need to do the opposite. As Coyle points out, “science shows that when it comes to creating cooperation, vulnerability is not a risk, but a psychological requirement.” Letting your guard down and allowing for “exchanges of vulnerability” actually create connection. When describing new ideas to his team, Steve Jobs would often lead with statements like, “I know this is a dopey idea, but…” If one of the most creative, inventive, revolutionary thinkers of the last hundred years could signal that kind of vulnerability to his team, doesn’t it stand to reason we could benefit from the same?


The question becomes how important are connectedness and cooperation? Surely with talented people, efficient systems, clear direction, and financial support, companies should have enough to succeed. And they do … assuming they’re a sole proprietorship. For teams of two or more, unparalleled excellence and transcendent performance requires the closeness that comes from fearless vulnerability. As one of the SEAL Team Six leaders who led the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden notes in “The Culture Code,” “being vulnerable together is the only way to become invulnerable.”

As Coyle points out, time and time again, if you look at not just the good teams, but the best teams – The San Antonio Spurs, Pixar, SEAL Team Six – you’ll find three telling common denominators that drive their success: a clear sense of vulnerability from everyone involved; a selflessness that puts team before individual; and an after-the-fact process for discussing performance in an honest, transparent, and sometimes painful way driven by questions meant not to assign blame, but to uncover truth.

Think of your company and the people you lead. Do you share those three key denominators, or are they completely foreign concepts? What about your team? Do they practice openness, honesty, and connection with you and with each other? If not, that is most certainly standing in the way of you and your team reaching your full promise. The good news? Lack of group vulnerability is easily fixable. All it takes is time, repetition, and the willingness to feel some pain in order to move forward.


As you consider what you can do to build a culture based on vulnerability, consider these “Ideas for Action” Coyle lists in closing the second section of “The Culture Code.”

Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often.

  • Laszlo Bock, former head of People Analytics at Google, recommends that leaders ask their people three questions:
  1. What is one thing I currently do that you’d like me to continue to do?
  2. What is one thing I don’t currently do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?
  3. What can I do to make you more effective?

Overcommunicate expectations.

Deliver the negative stuff in person.

  • When Chicago Cubs coach Joe Maddon has to discipline a player for breaking a team rule, he calls the player to his office and delivers the news. Then he has the player draw a piece of paper from a glass bowl. Each piece of paper has the name of a fine wine on it. The player is then required to go purchase a bottle of that wine and uncork it with Maddon – thus linking the act of discipline to an act of reconnection.

When forming new groups, focus on two Critical Moments: the first vulnerability and the first disagreement.

Listen like a trampoline.

  • “Great listeners aren’t passive sponges. They are active responders absorbing what the other person gives, supporting them, and adding energy to help the conversation gain velocity and altitude.”
  • “They also get amplitude through repetition. Keep asking questions until you get to the answers.”

In conversation, resist the temptation to reflexively add value.

Use candor generating practices like the SEALs After Action Reviews, or Pixar BrainTrust meetings.

Build the habit of opening up vulnerabilities so the group can better understand what works, what doesn’t work and how to get better.

Aim for candor; avoid brutal honesty.

Embrace the discomfort.

Align language with action.

Build a wall between performance review and professional development.

Use flash mentoring – there is always time to be a good influence.

Make the leader occasionally disappear.

  • Like being a good parent, sometimes it’s best to let your team figure it out on their own.

If you missed Part 1 of this blog series, you can read it here.

“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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