activism books

Book review: The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle

As an activist by nature I have a habit of getting myself involved in new projects. It means I’m always working across a variety of different groups – with local Lutonians, with like-minded folk scattered across the internet, with NGOs or with churches. Some of these groups are dynamic and effective, and others are really difficult. So my work should really benefit from Daniel Coyle’s new book, The Culture Code: The secrets of highly successful groups.

What makes successful groups excel? That’s the fundamental question here, and it applies to all sorts of groups. Coyle writes about internet start-ups, creative businesses such as Pixar, Navy SEAL squads, comedy troupes, and the basketball team San Antonio Spurs. He spends time with them, observes how people behave, what their leaders are like, and spots patterns that we can all learn from.

Across all these different sectors, there are shared themes in the culture of successful groups. The first is that they “build safety”, making people feel like they belong. You won’t get the best out of people if they feel they have to compete for status. “Cohesion happens not when members of a group are smarter but when they are lit up by clear, steady signals of safe connection.”

Secondly, successful groups share vulnerability, including the leaders. People admit when they need help, and acknowledge failures. They’re able to talk openly and honestly about mistakes that have been made, and that way the whole group learns and does better next time. And third, a group needs to establish purpose.

There are lots of ways to do these three things. The way that belonging is signalled in a military operation is different from a design studio or a restaurant. Purpose can be delivered through mission statements, corporate pledges, catchphrases and all kinds of things. The book has plenty of examples and case studies, often with key people explaining their culture in their own words.

Alongside the interviews and on the ground observations, Coyle makes extensive use of psychology. As he explores the three main themes, he introduces experiments that help to explain human behaviour. We look at body language, eye contact, unspoken ways that we communicate our expectations or lack of them. Little things turn out to matter more than one might expect – thank you is surprisingly powerful, interruptions shut down interaction.

Each chapter concludes with some very practical suggestions for applying the ideas in the readers’ context. Some of these might turn out to be long term efforts to change culture and bring in better practices. Others are very simple – phrases you can use to get people talking, good questions to ask. I imagine most people would find things that they could immediately use in their workplace, whether they are in a leadership position or not.

I really enjoyed The Culture Code. I’m already noting behaviours differently in meetings, and being a little bit more deliberate in what I say and don’t say. I’m applying it in a campaigning and citizen organising context, but you could just as easily put this book to work in a business, a sports team or a group project at school.

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