In the 2000s, Disney created one unprofitable movie after another, from Brother Bear to Home on the Range (remember those? Me neither.) Disney ended this decades-long losing streak by bringing in Ed Catmull and John Lasseter to run their studio. What’s interesting is that Catmull and Lasseter did not dismantle the failing Disney staff — they took the same creative team that was churning out a series of duds and inspired them to create blockbusters like Frozen and Zootopia.
Why are some teams successful, and others not, even with the same exact people? Daniel Coyle explores this question in depth in his new book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. In the case of Disney, the answer was not, as one might expect, that Catmull and Lasseter were visionaries that motivated the creative team to do better. To the contrary, Catmull and Lasseter were still running Pixar, and they were only in the Disney office two days a week. What accounted for the dramatic change was cultural. Catmull and Lasseter implemented structural changes that shifted the creative power from studio executives to the directors, and adopted practices that fostered a sense of collaboration and candor. By doing so, they created a culture that was able to achieve constant improvement and excellence.
While the lessons in The Culture Code are most obviously applicable to workplaces — to both employees and employers looking for ways to be more successful — they can be applied to any team that wants to operate productively, from volunteer committees to recreational soccer organizations. Coyle’s insights derive from a wholistic examination of different types of teams, spanning the spectrum from businesses, to sports teams, to Navy Seals, and even a gang of jewel thieves.
What is most surprising about Coyle’s research is the amount of subtle, almost invisible work that goes into creating a successful team culture, and how vulnerable it is to disruption, if it is not vigilantly guarded. One academic experiment, for example, found that inserting one unpleasant person into a small team will, in the overwhelming number of cases, make the other people on the team less productive, reducing the team’s output by 30 to 40 percent. This is true regardless of whether the person’s unpleasantness stemmed from being a “downer,” a “jerk,” or a “slacker.”
In order to stay successful, teams have to relentlessly guard their cultures, both by keeping out people who won’t conform to the norms, and by continually signaling and reinforcing those norms. It turns out the cheesy slogans plastered everywhere from kindergarten classrooms to the headquarters of large corporations actually do serve a valuable purpose, at least when they capture real elements of a culture. Danny Meyer, the entrepreneur behind both Shake Shack and high-end establishments like the Gramercy Tavern, adopted a series of slogans for his workforce that were constantly voiced in his restaurants. They included, “Finding the yes,” and “Putting us out of business with your generosity.”
Though to the conscious mind, it might initially feel cartoonish or even vacuous to repeat such phrases, in successful cultures, they provide a strong backdrop that reinforces core concepts of what the team is setting out to accomplish. For Danny Meyer’s restaurants, his slogans helped foster and disseminate a culture of continual dedication to impeccable service, even if such service had short-term costs. The constant repetition of these slogans builds up in each team members’ mind, creating an unconscious default that guides behavior, and empowers individual choices that are aligned with the team’s core purpose.
Like the subtle and largely unconscious impact of constantly hearing key phrases, there are other behaviors that seem minor and even superfluous on an individual level, but compose patterns of behavior that underlay successful team cultures. High physical contact — including garden variety touching like shaking hands, fist bumping, or hugging, as well as working in close proximity to other team members and prolonged eye contact — helps to create a sense of security and belonging that is instrumental to people doing their best work. In fact, Coyle argues curating a sense of security and belonging is the single most important feature of a successful team.
Without a secure sense of belonging, resources are continually wasted on individual team members jockeying for position amongst one another. Jockeying for status refocuses people’s behavior on tasks that are high-profile to superiors, or appear important, rather than on actually contributing to the team’s aims in the most beneficial way. It also leads to undermining other team members, and concealing vulnerabilities and weaknesses, which makes improvement over time difficult. A study of tech companies in the tech bubble burst in the 2000s showed that startups who had chosen to focus their cultures on “star employees” or even skills had a much lower survival rate than those who had chosen to create cultures around shared commitment and emotional bonds.
The heart of Coyle’s book is illustrating how teams are greater than the sum of their individual parts — and that what makes this lifelike entity successful is more about laying down the emotional glue that bond people together than it is about skills. And Coyle shows, time and again, that a bonded, collaborative team composed of individuals with mediocre skills will outperform an internally discordant team composed of superstars.
If there’s a flaw in this informative book, it is that it occasionally verges into vague claims that can’t be parsed. For example, Coyle argues that successful teams use candor, not brutal honesty, but he does little to explain this rather subtle distinction — he lauds an employee at a successful culture (Google) posting a rather blunt note about his colleagues’ work (“THESE ADS SUCK”) but doesn’t explain why this is candor, rather than brutal honesty.
Culture Code is incomplete — it fails to grapple with the proper role of hierarchy on successful teams, for example, and leaves ‘success’ largely undefined. But, even so, it is a valuable guide to cultivating a successful team, and shaping its culture to not only maximize productivity, but to achieve excellence.