The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

By: Daniel Coyle



For audio version join Plus

Why do some teams deliver performances exponentially better than the sum of their counterparts, while other teams add up to be much less? How can one build teams that seamlessly collaborate and act like a single hive-mind? The answer lies in group culture.

New York Times bestselling author Danny Coyle unlocks the secrets of highly effective group cultures by studying the finest teams across various industries in the world, including the Navy SEAL’s, Pixar Studios, and the San Antonio Spurs.

The Culture Code presents the three most important master skills required to transform your organizational culture.


  1. Group cultures are extremely powerful. A Harvard study of over two hundred companies shows that strong culture increases net income 765 percent over ten years. Cultures are not predestined. They are a set of living relationships oriented towards a common goal. Group culture has more to do with what teams do than what they are.

  2. The collective feeling of safety is the foundation on which strong cultures are built. Belonging cues are non-verbal signals that humans use to create safe connections in groups. The three basic qualities of belonging cues are 1) the energy invested in the exchange, 2) valuing individuals, and 3) signaling that the relationship will sustain in the future.

  3. Evolution has conditioned our unconscious brain to be obsessed with sensing danger and craving social approval. Belonging cues, when repeated, create psychological safety and help the brain shift into connection mode. Psychological safety is easy to destroy and hard to build.

  4. “Magical Feedback” enables leaders to give uncomfortable feedback without creating resentment. It creates strong belonging cues by doing three things: 1) It tells the person that they are a part of the group, 2) it reminds them that group has high standards, and 3) it assures them that they can reach these standards.

  5. Collisions are serendipitous personal encounters that form community and encourage creativity and cohesion. Designing for physical proximity and collisions creates a whole set of effects including increased connections and a feeling of safety.

  6. When someone joins a group, their brains are deciding whether to connect or not. Successful cultures capitalize on these threshold moments to send powerful belonging cues and bring a sense of ongoing togetherness and collaborative harmony to existing and incoming team members alike.

  7. The key to building trusting cooperation in groups is sharing vulnerability. The best teams intentionally create awkward, painful interactions to discuss hard problems and face uncomfortable questions. It is these interactions that produce the cohesion and trust necessary for fluid, organic cooperation.

  8. Navy SEALs do After Action Reviews(AAR) where each mission in discussed excruciating detail to share vulnerability and model future behavior. When given orders to use helicopters to eliminate Bin Laden, they repeatedly simulated crashes and did AAR’s. When a helicopter crash-landed during the actual mission the teams adapted instantly. The mission was over in 38 minutes.

  9. Vulnerability does not come after trust is established. Instead, exchanges of vulnerability are the pathway through which trust is built. Group cooperation is built by repeated patterns of sharing such moments. In other words, “Being vulnerable together is the only way a team can become invulnerable”.

  10. Moments of concordance happen when a person responds authentically to the emotion projected in the room. This empathetic response establishes a connection. The key moments of concordance happen when a person is actively listening.

  11. “I screwed that up” is among the most important things a leader can say. Sharing of vulnerability as exemplified by a leader makes the team feel it's safe to be honest in this group.

  12. The two most critical moments in group formation are the first vulnerability and the first disagreement. The way these moments are handled sets a clear template that prefaces either divisive competition or constructive collaboration in the future.

  13. Candor-generating practices where the team sits down together to exchange candid feedback help them share vulnerability and understand what works. These practices create a shared mental model for the groups to navigate future challenges.

  14. High-purpose environments create strong narratives that connect the present to a meaningful future. In 1998, Harvard researchers found that the inexperienced team from Mountain Medical Centre learnt a surgical technique much faster than an experienced team from Chelsea Hospital. This Mountain Medical Centre team's narrative constantly reinforced how this technique would help serve patients better.

  15. The value of narratives and signals is not in their information but in their ability to orient the team towards the larger goal. They are less about inspiration and more about being consistent.

  16. High Proficiency Environments have clear tasks that require consistent and effective performance. High Creativity Environments, on the other hand, focus on innovation. These require different types of beacon signals to building purpose.

  17. Leaders of high proficiency groups focus on ordering priorities and creating a clear, simple set of practices that function as a lighthouse aligning everyday behavior with the core organizational purpose.

  18. Pixar's President Ed Catmull says that every creative project starts as a disaster. Building purpose in High Creativity Environments requires systems that consistently churn out ideas. Every Pixar movie is put through multiple BrainTrust meetings where senior producers and directors give frank feedback. This generates fresh ideas while maintaining the creative team’s project ownership.

  19. An employee survey across 600 companies by Inc. magazine revealed that less than 2 percent of employees could name the company’s top three priorities. Leaders of high-performance groups consistently over-communicate priorities painting them on walls, inserting them into speeches and making them a part of everyday language.

  20. Bar-setting behaviors are simple tasks that define group identity and set high standards for the group. They help organizations translate abstract values into concrete everyday tasks that embody and celebrate the purpose of the group.


When we think of culture we usually think of groups as the sum of individual skills. In reality, however, nothing could be more wrong. A cohesive group culture enables teams to create performance far beyond the sum of individual capabilities. Strong cultures are created by a specific set of skills that can be learnt and practiced. In this book, Danny Coyle boils it down to three specific skills: Build Safety, Share Vulnerability, and Establish Purpose. 


Safety is the foundation on which cultures are built.  Humans use a series of subtle gestures called belonging cues to create safe connection in groups. Examples of belonging cues include eye contact, body language, and vocal pitch. There are three basic qualities of belonging cues: 1) energy invested in the exchange, 2) treating individuals as unique and valuable, and 3) signaling that the relationship will sustain in the future

Switching from Fear to Belonging

Our unconscious brain is obsessed with sensing danger and craving social approval from superiors. Belonging cues, when repeated, create psychological safety and help the brain shift from fear to connection. On receiving belonging cues, it switches roles and focuses on creating deeper social bonds with the group. This means that belonging happens from outside in, when the brain receives constant signals that signal closeness, safety, and a shared future.


A Surreal Christmas On the Battlefield

On Christmas Eve, something surreal happened at Flanders, one of the bloodiest battlefields in World War 1. Tens of thousands of soldiers across the battlefield spontaneously erupted into Christmas carols. Soldiers even began eating and drinking together. This seemingly magical incident becomes intelligible when we analyze the steady stream of belonging cues exchanged by both sides for weeks before Christmas Eve. The close physical proximity created belonging cues as soldiers could hear the conversations and songs from the others side. The British and the Germans would deliver rations to the trenches at the same time. During this time the firing would stop. Slowly these micro-truces expanded to include ceasefire during resupplying, latrines, and gathering of casualties. By the time the “spontaneous” ceasefire happened, thousands of belonging cues had been exchanged to create a sense of connection, safety, and trust.


Why Cultures Fail

To understand what makes cultures tick, it's important to see why cultures fail. The Minuteman missileers are nuclear missile launch officers who handle weapons that are twenty times more powerful than Hiroshima. In recent years, however, they have seen a high rate of failure and accidents including missiles lying unattended on a runway for hours. The Air Force treated this as a disciplinary problem and cracked down. Yet, the failures kept happening.

It’s easy to think of the missileers as lazy and selfish. But belonging cues give us a different picture. The missileers spend twenty-four hour shifts inside cramped missile silos with no scope for physical, social or emotional connections. After the Cold War, there is no real mission and few career options. They are expected to conform to near-impossible standards and small failures are severely punished. This creates a perfect cocktail of anti-belonging cues. The missileers fail because they see no safety, no connection, and no shared future.


Techniques to Build Safety

Building safety requires you to recognize small cues, respond quickly, and deliver a targeted signal. This comes with a learning curve and below are some techniques that help…



The rest of this summary plus 100s more, and access extra digital resources to help you get promoted faster — join Plus today risk free.