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Roman Leventov
Roman Leventov

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The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle - notes on the book

I’ve listened to Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code after reading the excerpt which resonated with me greatly. Thanks to Subbu Allamaraju who pointed to this book in his post about Status Management.

The book has changed the way I think about work profoundly: even more than The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker and Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio, and comparably to Cal Newport’s Deep Work. I would say “The Culture Code” is a must-read for everyone who works in a team. These “Engineering Ideas” are my notes on the book. Many of them are direct citations from the book, © Daniel Coyle.

Culture is not something you are, it’s something you do.


Small features of groups with chemistry (belonging queues):

  • Close physical proximity, often in circles

  • A profuse amount of eye-contact

  • Physical touch, handshakes, fist bumps, hugs

  • Lots of short energetic exchanges, no long speeches

  • High level of mixing, everyone talks to everyone

  • Few interruptions

  • Lots of questions

  • Intensive, active listening

  • Humour

  • Laughter

  • Small attentive courtesies, thank yous, opening doors

Qualities of belonging queues:

  1. Energy: they invest in the exchange that is occurring.

  2. Individualization: they treat the person as unique and valued.

  3. Future-orientation: they signal the relationship will continue.

Belonging queues translate into the message: “You are safe here”.

Believe firmly in what you are saying if you want others to believe in it.

Team performance is driven by five measurable factors:

  1. Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contribution 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 explore outside the team and bring back what they have found to share information with the others.

Words are noise. Group performance is determined by behaviors that translate one powerful and overarching idea: “We are safe and connected”.

Three models in startups:

  • Star model: hire the best.

  • Professional model: build groups around specific skillsets.

  • Commitment model: build a group with shared values and strong emotional bonds. This model leads to a higher rate of success.

Give people a signal that you care about them to boost their motivation.

Thinking about our connections boosts our sense of autonomy.

Belonging needs to be committed and reinforced constantly.

Connect when interviewing to see if you can become friends with these people.

Connect on something that is bigger than the profession with colleagues. Eat together.

Not achieving happiness, but solving hard problems. Look if people are oriented at that.

Magic feedback: “ I’m giving this feedback because I have very high expectations, and I know that you can reach it.” There are three queues in this phrase: “You are part of this group”, “This place is special”, “I believe in you.”

Cooperation and Vulnerability

Look into persons’ faces when they speak. Nod. Ask “What do you mean by that?”, “Could you tell more about this?”

Listen with eyes wide open, still, slightly leaning towards the speaker, eyebrows slightly up, generating a constant stream of affirmations.

It’s important not to interrupt the speaker. Top salespeople hardly ever interrupt others. Distinguish, however, between interruptions from mutual excitement and due to lack of concern.

Spotlight your fallibility early on, especially if you are a leader. Show your mistakes. Invite input with phrases like:

  • These are just my two cents.

  • Of course, I could be wrong here.

  • What am I missing?

  • What do you think?

Ask questions. Listen keenly. Radiate humility.

Say something emotional, like “I’m terrified of”, to invite a deeper connection because it sparks a response in the listener “How can I help you?”

Proactively invite feedback. It’s hard for people to raise a hand and say “I have something tentative to say.”

Thank people over the top. It ignites cooperation, even with very different persons. Thank the least powerful person in the group.

Ensure everyone has a voice.

Find ways to show equality and do small favors to the group, e. g. pick up trash. These actions send a signal: “We are all here together.”

Pay attention to the day of joining the group. Note this special moment: “We are together, now.”

Separate positive and negative feedback into separate processes.

Handle negative feedback as a dialogue:

  1. Ask if a person wants feedback.

  2. Have a learning focus to a two-way conversation about the needed growth.

  3. Note positives through ultra-clear bursts of recognition and praise.

Embrace fun. Laughter is the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.

Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust, it precedes it.

When it comes to creating cooperation, vulnerability is not a risk, but a phycological requirement.

Leaving yourself wide open, so that everybody knows who you are, if done right, can build the level of trust times higher that you can get any other way.

One person telling other people what to do is not a reliable way to make good decisions.

Try to avoid authority bias. You have to go around those barriers, but they never go away.

When giving your opinion, be careful to attach phrases like “Let’s see if someone can poke holes in this”, “Tell me what’s wrong with this idea?”

Steer away from giving orders, and instead ask a lot of questions. “Anybody have any ideas?”

Tell subordinates explicitly that they must speak up whenever it seems to them that something is wrong with your decision or conduct.

Spending time outside work together helps to avoid authority bias. Hard challenges work even better (like going through an obstacle race under a rain).

Design truth-telling sessions, reflections/retrospectives on past projects.

“I skewed that up” might be the most important thing any leader can say.

Good retrospectives follow a template. Go over the project chronologically and ask a lot of “why” questions.

The goal of retrospectives is to build shared mental models that could be applied in future projects. Eventually, everybody should be able to see what’s really happening, not just a small piece of it.

Make sure people understand how their actions affect others.

“Backbone of humility” is the tone of a good retrospective. The relentless will to see the truth and take ownership.

Combining openness with discipline is not easy, but does pay off.

Real courage is seeing the truth and speaking the truth to each other. Nobody wants to say “Wait a second, what’s really going on here?”

Combine warmth and curiosity. Capture what someone is doing, throw some new ideas at them and ask “Why don’t you try that?”

Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often.

Deliver the message “I’m scared” with steadiness, confidence, and comfort that underline the deeper message: “It’s safe to tell the truth here.”

Laszlo Bock, head of People Analytics at Google, recommends that leaders ask their people three questions:

– What is one thing that I currently do that you’d like me to continue to do?

– What is one thing that I don’t currently do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?

– What can I do to make you more effective?

“The key is to ask not for five or ten things but just one,” Bock says. “That way it’s easier for people to answer. And when a leader asks for feedback in this way, it makes it safe for the people who work with them to do the same. It can get contagious.”

Overcommunicate expectations. The successful groups I’ve visited did not presume that cooperation would happen on its own. Instead, they were explicit and persistent about sending big, clear signals that established expectations, modeled cooperation, and aligned language and roles to maximize helpful behavior.

The more complex the problem, the more help you need to solve it. Explicitly define helpful roles and generate vulnerabilities. Fill chats with help requests.

Collaborate. Make others successful. Going out of your way to help others is a secret sauce.

Deliver the Negative Stuff in Person

This was an informal rule that I encountered at several groups I researched. It goes like this: if you have negative news or feedback to give someone—even as small as a rejected item on an expense report—you are obligated to deliver that news face to face. This rule is not easy to follow (it’s far more comfortable for both the sender and receiver to communicate electronically), but it works because it deals with tension in an up-front, honest way that avoids misunderstandings and creates shared clarity and connection.

Two critical moments in forming of a group:

  1. The first vulnerability

  2. The first disagreement

These are doorways to paths:

  • Appearing “strong” and winning interactions.

  • Exploring the landscape and learning together.

Good listening is not just nodding attentively. It’s about adding insight and creating moments of mutual discovery.

Effective listeners

  • Interact in a way that makes the other person feel safe and supported.

  • Take a helpful, cooperative stance.

  • Occasionally ask questions that gently and constructively challenge old assumptions.

  • Make occasional suggestions to open up alternative paths.

Effective listeners are active responders, absorbing what the other person gives, supporting them, and adding energy to help the conversation gain velocity.

When asking questions, don’t stop at the first response. Find different ways to explore the area of tension, ask secondary “whys”. The first response is usually not the answer, it’s just the first response.

In conversations, resist the temptation to reflexively add value. Vulnerability is often created by what you do _ not _ say. Don’t interrupt with “quick ideas” or your experiences.

Candour, not brutal honesty. Make feedback smaller, more targeted, less personal, less judgemental.

Flash mentorship: shadow every teammate for a few hours.


Repeat your mission every day during a standup.

Mental contrasting:

  • Think of your goal and imagine you’ve achieved it.

  • Picture the obstacles vividly.

Motivation is not a possession, but rather a result of a two-part process of channeling your attention: where you are and where you want to go.

Stories are the best thing ever created for delivering mental models that drive behavior.

Effective learning culture:

  1. Conceptualize learning as something that will help end goal (or customers) rather than as an add-on to existing practices.

  2. Explicitly tell why each role on the team is important for ultimate success.

  3. Don’t just dive into action. Design deliberate learning practice with post-analysis and talking about communication.

  4. Encourage people to speak up if they see any problem and use active coaching.

  5. Use retrospectives.

Response to setbacks with energy to fix things (love problems). Help colleagues. The number one job is to take care of each other.

If somebody behaves poorly, you should avoid judging them and instead give them the benefit of the doubt.

Don’t spread negative energy in the workplace (e. g. if you have a bad mood).

You have priorities, whether you name them or not. If you want to grow, you would better name them explicitly, as well as the behaviors that support these priorities.

Create engagement around a clear, simple set of priorities.

Creating purpose in a creative group is about building systems that can churn through lots of ideas in order to help unearth the right choices.

Non-catchy phrases for teams of people who need to discover what to do for themselves (creativity):

  • Hire people smarter than you.

  • Fail early, fail often.

  • Listen to everyone’s ideas.

  • Face toward the problems.

  • It’s more important to invest in good people than in good ideas.

Building creative purpose isn’t about creativity. It’s about building ownership, providing support, and aligning the group’s energy towards an arduous, error-filled, ultimately fulfilling journey of making something new.

(This description reminds me of the hero’s journey.)

Successful cultures use crises to crystallize their purpose. Be grateful when reflecting on failures. They are crucial to discover what you (or the team) can be.

Name and Rank Your Group’s Priorities

Obvious but true: in order to move toward a target, you must first have a target. Listing your priorities, which means wrestling with the choices that define your identity, is the first step. Most successful groups end up with a small handful of priorities (five or fewer), and many, not coincidentally, end up placing their in-group relationships—how they treat one another—at the top of the list. This reflects the truth that many successful groups realize: their greatest project is building and sustaining the group itself. If they get their own relationships right, everything else will follow.

Be ten times as clear about your priorities as you think you should be. It’s necessary to drastically overcommunicate priorities.

Regularly challenge the company’s values and purpose. Create conversations that encourage people to grapple with the big questions. What are we about? Where are we headed?

Figure out where your group aims for proficiency, and where it aims for creativity.

Proficiency: building purpose to perform these skills is like building a vivid map. Spotlight the goal and provide crystal-clear directions to the checkpoints along the way.

  • Fill the group’s windshield with clear, accessible models of excellence.

  • Provide high-repetition, high-feedback training.

  • Build vivid, memorable rules of thumb: if X, then Y.

  • Spotlight and honor the fundamentals of the skill.

Creativity: empowering the group to do the hard work of doing something that has never existed before. “Supplying an expedition”: provide support, fuel, and tools.

  • Keenly attend the team’s composition and dynamics.

  • Define, reinforce, and relentlessly protect the team’s creative autonomy.

  • Make it safe to fail and to give feedback.

  • Celebrate hugely when the group takes initiative.

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