The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle [Book Summary & PDF]

“Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?” This is the main question that this book explores. This book will help leaders who want to create a collaborative culture in their company, as well as creatives who want growth in their projects.





Who is this book for?

“Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?” This is the main question that this book explores. This book will help leaders who want to create a collaborative culture in their company, as well as creatives who want growth in their projects.

About the author

Daniel Coyle is the author of the book The Culture Code. He is the New York Times bestselling author of The Talent Code, The Little Book of Talent, The Secret Race, and other books. Winner of the 2012 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Prize, he is a contributing editor for Outside Magazine, and also works a special advisor to the Cleveland Indians.

In this summary

Individual skills are not what matters; what matters is the interaction. Groups succeed not because they are smarter but because they work together in a smarter way. Successful group culture use effectively 3 skills: Building Safety (generating bonds of belonging and identity), Sharing Vulnerability (driving trusting cooperation), and Establishing Purpose (using narratives to create shared goals and values). Let’s explore them!



We tend to think group performance depends on intelligence, skill, experience, or strong leadership.

The truth is, first and foremost groups succeed because their members communicate one powerful overarching idea: we are safe and connected.

Safety is built overtime. It starts with consistent social behavioural cues, such as close physical proximity, eye contact, and physical touch, but also turn-taking, mimicry, fewer interruptions, lots of questions, active listening, humour, and frequent attentive courtesies.

A steady pulse of such interactions helps answer ever-present questions:

  • “Are we safe here?”
  • “What’s our future with these people?”
  • “Are there dangers lurking?”

A mere hint of belonging is not enough, though. It needs to be continually refreshed and reinforced.

This is why a sense of belonging is easy to destroy and hard to build. It’s not unlike a romantic relationship. How often do you tell your partner that you love them? It may be true, but it’s still important to let them know, over and over.

Eventually, we experience a powerful switch in our minds: these people were strangers before, but they’re on your team now. They’re valuable to you.

“We are close, we are safe, we share a future.”

The term we use to describe this kind of interaction is ‘chemistry’, and spending time in such a group is almost physically addictive.

How to Build Belonging

People believe that highly successful groups are happy, lighthearted places. This is far from the truth. To solve hard problems together, they require many moments of high-candor feedback and uncomfortable truth-telling.

How do you manage to give tough, truthful feedback without causing side effects of dissent and disappointment?

Researchers discovered one particular form of feedback that boosts effort and performance so immensely, that they deemed it “magical feedback.”

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

That’s it. It simply signals that “here is a safe place to give effort.”

Such type of successful feedback includes three types of belonging cues:

  1. Personal, up-close connection (body language, attention, and behaviour that translates as ‘I care about you’)
  2. Performance feedback (relentless coaching and criticism that translates as ‘we have high standards here’)
  3. Big-picture perspective (larger conversations about politics, history, and culture that translate as ‘life is bigger than our current project’)

If you work in a physical space, visual contact and sustained proximity are indicators of safety. In other words, arrange desks for people to be closer, and build spaces to maximise interactivity.

5 Ideas for Action

1. Spotlight Your Fallibility Early On – Especially If You’re a Leader

We have a natural tendency to try to hide our weaknesses and appear competent. To create safety, do the opposite. Open up, show you make mistakes, and invite input with simple phrases like “Of course, I could be wrong here”, “What am I missing?” and “What do you think?” This creates a deeper connection and actively invites input.

2. Overdo Thank-Yous

You hear ‘thank-yous’ all the time in highly successful groups. They aren’t only expressions of gratitude; they’re crucial belonging cues that generate a contagious sense of safety, connection, and motivation.

The author once saw the most powerful person in a company publicly expressing gratitude for one of the least powerful members, highlighting the fact that the performance of the group depended on the person who performs the humblest task.

3. Make Sure Everyone Has a Voice

Ensuring that everyone has a voice is hard to accomplish. The underlying key is for leaders to seek out connection and make sure voices are heard.

4. Avoid Giving Sandwich Feedback

In many organisations, leaders tend to deliver feedback using the traditional sandwich method: you talk about a positive, then address an area that needs improvement, then finish with a positive. Highly successful cultures don’t use feedback sandwiches.

Instead, they handle negatives through dialogue, first by asking if a person wants feedback, then having a learning-focused two-way conversation about the needed growth.

They also handle positives through public bursts of recognition and praise. Such leaders radiate delight when they spot behaviour worth praising. These moments of warm, authentic happiness functions as magnetic north, creating clarity, boosting belonging, and orienting future action.

5. Embrace Fun

This obvious, but still worth mentioning. Laughter is not just laughter; it’s the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.


Successful groups translate connection & safety into trusting cooperation through vulnerability: a shared exchange of openness.

In a group setting, vulnerability is about sending a clear signal that you have weaknesses and you could use help. When this behaviour becomes a model for others, you can set the insecurities aside, start trusting each other, and get to work.

When vulnerability gets locked up, people try to cover up their weaknesses and every task becomes a place where insecurities manifest themselves.

This is how a vulnerability loop looks like:

  1. Person A sends a signal of vulnerability.
  2. Person B detects this signal.
  3. Person B responds by signaling their own vulnerability.
  4. Person A detects this signal.
  5. A norm is established; closeness and trust increase.

Vulnerability is contagious. It doesn’t come after trust – it precedes it. Like safety, it is a group muscle that is built through repeated interaction. As a result, it gets the static out of the way and lets people combine their strengths to achieve a goal.

Intense vulnerability and deep interconnectedness can best be showcased in hardcore groups like the Navy SEALS and the UCB Theatre, with rules such as:

  1. Always check your impulses.
  2. Your prime responsibility is to support.
  3. Work at the top of your brains at all times.
  4. Trust your fellow teammates to support you.
  5. LISTEN.

These rules direct you either to tamp down selfish instincts or to serve your fellow teammates (support, save, trust, listen).

The seamless action of such groups is not an accident; it is the product of thousands of micro-events and small interpersonal leaps, practiced mostly through pain and awkwardness. These groups are cohesive and think with one brain not because it’s natural, but because they’ve built, piece by piece, the shared mental muscles to connect and cooperate.

How to Create Cooperation

How do you develop a hive mind? How do you develop ways to challenge each other, ask the right questions, and never defer to authority? Essentially, this question is about how to create leaders among leaders.

Pixar’s BrainTrust and Navy SEAL’s AARs (After Action Review) are good places to answer these questions.

The BrainTrust is Pixar’s method of assessing and improving its movies during their development. Each film is BrainTrusted about half a dozen times. The meeting brings the film’s director together with a handful of the studio’s veteran directors and producers, all of whom watch the latest version of the movie and offer their candid opinion.

It’s not a fun meeting. The characters usually lack heart, the storylines are confusing, and the jokes fall flat. But it’s also where those movies get better.

“All our movies suck at first. The BrainTrust is where we figure out why they suck, and it’s also where they start to not suck.”Click To Tweet

AARs happen immediately after each mission and consist of a short meeting, where the team gathers to discuss and replay key decisions. AARs are led not by commanders, but by enlisted men.

“Where did we fail? What did each of us do, and why did we do it? What will we do differently next time?”Click To Tweet

AARs can be raw, painful, and filled with pulses of emotion and uncertainty. But they also build a shared mental model that can be applied to future missions.

5 Ideas for Action

1. Make Sure the Leader Is Vulnerable First and Often

‘I screwed that up’ are the most important words any leader can say.

Group cooperation is created by small, frequently repeated moments of vulnerability. Of these, none carries more power than the moment when a leader signals vulnerability.

2. Deliver the Negative Stuff in Person

If you have negative news or feedback to give someone, no matter how small, you are obligated to deliver it face-to-face.

This rule is not easy to follow, but it works because it deals with tension in an up-front, honest way that avoids misunderstandings and creates shared clarity and connection.

3. In Conversation, Resist the Temptation to Reflexively Add Value

The most important part of creating vulnerability often resides not in what you say, but in what you do not say. This means having the willpower to forgo easy opportunities to offer solutions and make suggestions.

Skilled listeners do not interrupt with phrases like ‘Hey, here’s an idea’ or ‘Let me tell you what worked for me in a similar situation’, because they understand that it’s not about them. They use a repertoire of gestures and phrases that keep the other person talking.

4. Use Practices like AARs & BrainTrusts

Use five questions: 1. What were our intended results? 2. What were our actual results? 3. What caused our results? 4. What will we do the same next time? 5. What will we do differently?

AARs and BrainTrusts generate the same underlying action: to build the habit of opening up vulnerabilities, so that the group can better understand what works, what doesn’t work, and how to get better.

5. Embrace the Discomfort

One of the most difficult things about creating habits of vulnerability is that it requires a group to endure two discomforts: emotional pain and a sense of inefficiency.

As with any workout, the key is to understand that the pain is not a problem but the path to building a stronger group.


What are we working toward? Purpose is about creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal. Successful cultures do this by relentlessly seeking ways to tell their mission’s story.

To do this, they build what we call ‘high-purpose environments’, filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal. They provide the two simple locators that every navigation process requires: ‘Here is where we are’ and ‘Here is where we want to go’.

That shared future could be a goal or behaviour. It can be found within everyday moments, where people can sense the message: “This is why we work; this is what we are aiming for.”

Building purpose is not as simple as carving a mission statement in granite; it’s a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all, learning.

Successful cultures use a crisis to crystallise their purpose. Leaders of such groups reflect on those failures and express gratitude for those moments, as painful as they were, because they helped the group discover what it could be.

Leading in a High-Purpose Environment

If you want to grow, you have to name your priorities first.

Also name the keystone behaviours that support these priorities, using catchphrases that link the two; they work as heuristics that provide guidance by creating if/then scenarios in a vivid, memorable way.

For example, the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team talk about “leaving the jersey in a better place,” and saying, “If you’re not growing anywhere, you’re not going anywhere,” “Pressure is a privilege,” “It’s an honor, not a job,” and “Better people make better All-Blacks.”

5 Ideas for Action

1. Name and Rank Your Priorities

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 realise: their greatest project is building and sustaining the group itself.

2. Be Ten Times as Clear About Your Priorities as You Think You Should Be

Leaders are inherently biased to presume that everyone in the group sees things as they do, when in fact they don’t. This is why it’s necessary to drastically overcommunicate priorities.

3. Figure Out Where Your Group Aims for Proficiency and Where It Aims for Creativity

Every group skill can be sorted into one of two basic types: skills of proficiency and skills of creativity.

Skills of proficiency are about doing a task the same way, every single time, with machine-like reliability. Spotlight the goal and provide crystal-clear directions to the checkpoints along the way. Ways to do that include:

  • Provide high-repetition, high-feedback training.
  • Build vivid, memorable rules of thumb (if X, then Y).
  • Spotlight and honour the fundamentals of the skill.

Creative skills are about empowering a group to do the hard work of building something that has never existed before. Provide support, fuel, and tools and serve as a protective presence that empowers the team doing the work. Some ways to do that include:

  • 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.

4. Embrace the Use of Catchphrases

Keep them simple, action-oriented, and forthright. Make them a part of everyday conversation:

  • “Create fun and a little weirdness” (Zappos)
  • “Talk less, do more” (IDEO)
  • “Leave the jersey in a better place” (New Zealand All-Blacks)
  • “Create raves for guests” (Danny Meyer’s restaurants)

5. Measure What Really Matters

Finally, don’t forget: create simple universal measures that place focus on what matters.


Key takeaways

  • Groups succeed because their members primarily communicate a powerful idea: we are safe and connected.
  • Then, they translate connection & safety into trusting cooperation through vulnerability: a shared exchange of openness.
  • Finally, they create purpose with simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal.
  • Highly successful groups build belonging and create leaders among leaders by providing candid feedback and vulnerable truth-telling.
  • High-purpose environments use vivid catchphrases that connect keystone behaviours (present) with the main priorities (future).

Further reading

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek is a fantastic read all about how leaders can create organizations and cultures that allow workers to go home at the end of the day feeling fulfilled by the work that they do. By creating an environment built on trust, teams will pull together, again and again, to help their tribe not just survive, but flourish.

Dare to Lead by Brené Brown is the bible for courage-building in the workspace. Leaders and teams alike face serious problems showing up vulnerable at work; instead, they sabotage themselves, killing innovation and creativity. This book is about owning your fears, choosing courage over comfort and whole hearts over armour, and building an organisational culture based on bravery & vulnerability.

Guidelines is my eBook that summarises the main lessons from 33 of the best-selling self-help books in one place. It is the ultimate book summary; Available as a 80-page ebook and 115-minute audio book. Guidelines lists 31 rules (or guidelines) that you should follow to improve your productivity, become a better leader, do better in business, improve your health, succeed in life and become a happier person.

Action steps

  1. Take the author’s quiz to gauge the strength of your culture.
  2. Find more actionable tips on belonging, cooperation, and purpose.
  3. Start putting in practice the actionable ideas at the end of each chapter and build a thriving culture in your project or company.
  4. Download the complete book on Amazon.

This summary is not intended as a replacement for the original book and all quotes are credited to the above mentioned author and publisher.