Have you ever been part of an organization where everyone and everything just seemed to click? People are motivated and things get done. Contrast that experience with being part of an organization that feels toxic. Demoralization, cynicism, and infighting emotionally drain the people who work within it, and dysfunction reigns.
Why do some organizations thrive and others flounder? My guest today argues that it all comes down to culture.
His name is Daniel Coyle and he’s the author of the book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. Today on the show Dan and I discuss how cultures are formed and what the famous Christmas truce during WWI can teach us about culture formation. Dan then shares the factors that create positive group cultures, including action steps you can take to implement these elements in the organizations you lead or belong to. If you’re a leader in any capacity (this includes being a dad), you don’t want to miss this episode.
- What led Daniel to the shift in writing about talent to writing about culture and groups
- Everybody’s “secret” second job at work
- Do group cultures form even if you aren’t conscious about it?
- What are the elements of a positive culture?
- Do offices and groups need to have fun in order to succeed?
- Shallow fun vs. deep fun
- What is Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs) doing to get his players to love him?
- How great leaders balance love and truth
- How close physical proximity and a shared meaning foster understanding and connection
- Why suffering together creates unbreakable bonds
- Why our nuclear missileers have such a poor group culture
- Can one person make a difference in turning around a toxic culture?
- What can a leader do to fix or improve group culture?
- Why defining and naming key behavior changes is so important
- How long does it take to change a group’s culture?
- Why over-communicating can actually be a good thing
- The power of cheesy catchphrases
- The role of vulnerability in group cultures
- How to celebrate failure
- How Pixar continues to make spectacular movies
- Balancing feedback and criticism with maintaining leadership and integrity
- How leadership/management changes depending on the aims of the group
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Talent Code
- The Importance of Creating a Family Culture
- Five Rules to Lead and Succeed
- How Leaders Build Great Teams
- WWI’s Christmas truce
- How to Face-to-Face Contact Makes You Healthier, Happier, and Smarter
- The Allen curve
- The Value of Exercising in a Group
- A Culture of Cheating in the Nuclear Corps
- Mike Abrashoff
- The Power of Moral Reminders
- The Spurs’ Pounding the Rock
- After Action Review (AAR)
- Inside the Pixar Brainstrust
- Danny Meyer
- Skunkworks project
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Read the Transcript
Brett: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Have you ever been part of an organization where everyone and everything just seemed to click? People are motivated and things get done. Contrast that experience with being part of an organization that feels toxic. Demoralization, cynicism, and infighting emotionally drain the people who work within it, and dysfunction reigns. Why do some organizations thrive and others flounder? My guest today argues that it all comes down to culture. His name is Daniel Coyle and he’s the author of the book The Culture Code. Today on the show, Dan and I discuss how cultures are formed and what the famous Christmas truce during World War I can teach us about culture formation. Dan then shares the factors that create positive group cultures, including action steps you can take to implement these in your organization that you lead or belong to. If you’re a leader in any capacity, this includes being a dad, you don’t want to miss this episode. A lot of actionable advice. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/culturecode.
And Daniel joins me now via clearcast.io. Daniel Coyle, welcome to the show.
Daniel: Hey, thanks for having me, Brett. It’s great to be here.
Brett: So, I’ve long been a fan of your work. Your book, The Talent Code, had a big impact on me. You’ve got a new book out, The Culture Code. So, you spent most of your career putting out books about the science of talent. I’m curious, what led you to shift to how groups work and function? And is there a connection between the two topics?
Daniel: Yeah, it’s kind of funny, yes that actually because there very much is. I can pinpoint it, actually. It was just a certain moment that I saw that got me going on this. I was visiting this Russian tennis club, called Spartak, that’s produced all these champions, and I was at a talent hotbed trying to see how they do what they do, and individual talent. But I was there watching their coach, and a little girl walked into the tennis club and she was about eight years old. And she had a tennis racquet and a shopping bag. And it was obviously her first day coming to be part of this talent hotbed. The coach walked over and did just this ten second interaction. She said, “Hey.” You know, introduced herself and said, “I want you to do something for me,” to the little girl. And she said, “I want you to catch this ball.” She tossed the tennis ball, and the little girl caught it.
It was just real simple interaction, but it was huge. It changed that tennis place from the scary new place into kind of a home. It made it safe, and it made her connect with this group. You saw those kind of connections in these talent hotbeds that I visited. They weren’t just extraordinary individual talent, they were doing something as a group that seemed really powerful, and really mysterious. Because, as we all know when you’re around a great culture, a group of super cohesive people, it kind of feels different. Like it feels awesome. If you’re in a great restaurant, or a great school, or around a great family. Like there’s a vibe, and we have all these words for it. You know, we’d say, “Oh, they have great chemistry.” But what’s that made of? That’s not magic. That doesn’t come from outer space. That actually is a thing that you can understand, study, learn, and as I explored in the book, you can learn to do it. It’s a skill.
And so visiting sent me on this journey of visiting these super cultures. These cultures like Navy SEAL Team Six, like Pixar, like the San Antonio Spurs, who consistently have a knack for being way more than the sum of their parts. Who are able to create this amazing chemistry and cohesion, and there’s a pattern to how they do it. That’s kind of what the book is about, that pattern. How to learn how to do that.
Brett: So, it sounds like a good group culture allows individuals to flourish and express their talents to their fullest ability.
Daniel: Exactly right. Exactly right. We typically think of cultures being kind of just super personal, like connected to their identity. Like, “Oh, the SEALs are the SEALs because they’re SEALs, man.” You know? It seems really … Or like San Antonia Spurs, like, “They’ve just got that feel.” But it turns out that’s not true. They’re doing it because of the way our brain is wired. There are these very simple signals that leaders send in those places. At these places I kept encountering these leaders who were incredibly good at sending these special three or four simple signals that would let people’s defenses drop. That would create connection, and cohesion, and therefore help people grow. In most workplaces, in most groups, everybody has a sort of a secret second job. And their secret second job is protecting their status, and being careful, and watching their place. In these places, they’re able to achieve so much because nobody’s worried about that. Because they have communicated in such a way as to create safety, and create cooperation and trust. That doesn’t happen by magic. That happens through signals.
Brett: Right. So these signals, we’ll talk about what they are in some … As we’ll highlight, a lot of leaders are very intentional about this, but I’m curious, do group cultures form even if you’re not consciously or intentionally forming one? And if so, what’s the default that we usually go to in groups?
Daniel: They do. We’re built for it, right? We’re just built for it. That’s how the human brain is wired, evolution. It was really helpful to combine into groups for the last 100,000 years of human history, right? If you were by yourself, you probably weren’t gonna survive. If you were in a group, you probably could. So, we’re wired to form culture just like that. And culture kind of abhors a vacuum. It will fill. And the default culture would be whatever the pop culture is at the time. Whatever the most default behaviors are that the most powerful people happen to have in that group. They will follow that culture. It’s almost like, I don’t know, a sled going down a snowy hill. It will just fall into those tracks of whatever the powerful people are, and what the popular general stream culture is. The danger of that, of course, is that you’re not ready to actually accomplish anything. It creates comfort, which is what you’re sort of seeking, some kind of status, and safety, and comfort.
But if it comes to doing a job, good cultures are more like, they’re not just about being comfortable. They’re more like, they’re sort of like athletes. Like if you think of each culture as entity, and that entity is kind of like an athlete in that it sees a target, it works together toward that target, it connects together, it moves in a coordinated fashion, not kind of a haphazard way. And the best cultures are able to get way beyond that default status. Now, the default status works for the time being, but it doesn’t work when you’ve got a challenging goal, or when you’ve got a threat, when you’ve got a real opportunity. Then you’ve gotta have a culture that’s got some real fiber to it that actually has got a clear sense of vision, purpose, and connection.
Brett: Okay, so vision, purpose, connection. That’s what a positive culture looks like. I think oftentimes when, particularly today, when people think, “Oh, this company has a good culture. Everyone’s fun loving, they’re happy, they’re shooting Nerf guns at each other.” Are those things necessary for a positive culture? Or is it something else?
Daniel: It’s so interesting. When I visited these places, and I visited nine different sort of super cultures. They varied a lot, you know? They were in sports, and they were in the military, and they were in retail. They were in all kinds of businesses. The feeling that you got in them, you’d sort of expect that kind of happy, happy, fun, fun. Not true. What you have is people sort of engaged in hard … The engagement of solving hard problems together. It’s exciting, it’s thrilling, it’s engaging. There’s sort of two kinds of fun, and this is the way to think about it. There’s the shallow fun, which is Nerf, and foosball, and laughter. And there’s deep fun where you’re owning a problem, wresting with it together, and working with excellent people.
At the great cultures I always saw that second type of engagement. That sort of deep fun. A lot of people, after they leave those cultures, they miss it so much that they go back. I mean I talked to numerous people who would leave the San Antonio Spurs, or the SEALs, to go do something else and then they would come back. It wasn’t because the SEALs and the Spurs are these like joyful, fun, lighthearted places to work. They’re not. They’re really hard. But to have a group of super connected people trying to achieve something great is an addictive thing for certain people. And so it’s that addiction that they end up sort of craving and unable to give up. That’s the kind of bond that they’re able to create.
Brett: Yeah. You talk about, you mentioned the Spurs, Gregg Popovich. Guy has a temper, he’s like former, I think, military and he just, you know … Yeah he’s got a short temper, but his players love him. So, what is he doing? Is he just making people feel engaged and a part of the team?
Daniel: Oh, it’s so incredible what he’s doing. It’s great. What you say about a temper is absolutely right. I mean there’s this collection of YouTube clips, if you feel like googling Gregg Popovich screaming or yelling. It’s fantastic. He erupts like nobody else has erupted, and he directs most of his lava at his players. It is not pretty to look at. It’s very, very tough feedback. But what he actually does at the same time is he loves them. He takes care of them. On the day that I visited, he did a couple things that really embodied that. They had lost the night before, a guy had missed a couple of big shots. Popovich walks in, and he immediately starts connecting to players. Going around and physically touching them, wrestling with the guy who had made the bad shot, asking where they ate dinner last night.
Food is actually his vehicle for connection. He is constantly creating moments around food. Gathering the team around food. Making reservations for them, ordering the wine. At the end of the year, all of his coaches get a keepsake book of all the places they’ve dined together, and all the wines they’ve drank together. He turns that into a vehicle for connection, but he also does a thing where he sort of explores them as individuals. The day I was there they got in a room to watch a video, and I thought they were gonna watch video of the game film, right? But what popped up on the screen was a video from CNN about the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march. He then starts a discussion about that. Like these are all educated, highly educated, mostly African American athletes. And he’s asking them tough questions like, “What would you have done back then?” He takes them seriously as individuals, and he cares for them. In very simple ways and in very deep fatherly ways. Those signals are the ones that go right next to the screaming and yelling.
As one coach said, “He does two things. He tells you the truth, and he loves you.” Those two things. Because he delivers both of those signals at once, they both can take. They both can have an effect. If you just had a coach who’s all about love, that doesn’t create any learning. If you just had a coach that’s all about screaming, that doesn’t create any connection. By delivering love and truth at the same time, he’s able to build relationships. Relationships are like a sport. There’s a physics beneath it that he has absolutely mastered, and it’s about those two thing. Love and truth at the same time. And that’s why his players love him so much.
Brett: Well, speaking of this idea of connection and the importance of it in forming a positive group culture. You highlight, or you look to the Christmas truce. The famous Christmas truce that happened during World war I. First, for those who aren’t familiar with it, kind of explain what happened and what went on there that allowed that truce to happen in the first place.
Daniel: Yeah. It’s sort of the most kind of insanely sentimental moments in the history of the planet, right? You see it sometimes on cheesy television stations and it’s usually rendered as this highly sentimental thing. You had groups of troops in World War I in the Belgian, in Flanders, in this horrible, cold mud. And on Christmas Eve they both … They’d been sort of killing each other for months. On Christmas Eve, both sides get out, and meet, and exchange gifts and warm conversation. It’s this beautiful sort of coming together of adversaries, and it’s a famous incident. Now, normally that’s usually interpreted as this sort of heartfelt beautiful thing about the power of Christmas, which it is. It’s true, but there’s something deeper going on there. When you look closely at the Christmas truce, it really shows you the power of what I would call belonging cues. That when you are in proximity with someone, and when your identities are linked, and you’re sort of doing the same thing. As these soldiers were on both sides. They both felt the cold the same, they both were sort of being bossed around by far off generals.
They spent weeks in close connection listening to each other sing, listening to each other move. That has a massive effect. Proximity works like a drug on us. Proximity works like a drug. That’s what this showed. That you put two people, as different as they might be, in close proximity to each other. Even if they’re trying to kill each other, and give them some shared meaning of Christmas. Some shared thing. It will ignite the kind of connection that you see in good cultures. It will ignite warmth. It will ignite brotherhood and fraternity. Proximity’s much more powerful than we think it is. And so finding ways in our own groups to create these kind of moments can go a long way toward making people connect. Right now in America we have this huge divide between red and blue, between Trump and not Trump, and it seems unbridgeable. It seems absolutely unbridgeable, but in fact I think we’ll find that there are ways to get around it that aren’t that different from what we saw in Flanders in World War I.
Brett: So, I mean that brings an interesting point. Proximity, physical proximity. This isn’t just like online proximity. You’re saying it has to be physical proximity for this to actually happen?
Daniel: That’s what you see in great cultures. It’s a challenge in a digital world, but that’s what you see in great cultures. There’s no drug like face to face contact for creating connection. That’s how we’re built. Video conferencing can be a powerful tool, but it doesn’t replace person to person contact. There’s so much more information there. There’s so much more emotion there. That’s what you see in these great groups. There is not a lot of video conferencing. They are together. There’s something, an effect there called the Allen curve, which really shows the relationship between the number of interactions, and the amount of creativity, and physical distance. The closer the physical distance goes, the amount of creativity and the number of connections go off the charts. Being on the different floor of a building is like being in a different country. But you can measure your creativity by measuring sort of the relative proximity of talented people.
Brett: Alright, so get together. We’ve had people on the podcast before to discuss that. For example, there’s a veteran’s organization called Team RWB. What they do is they just get veterans and civilians together to exercise together. They say that is just shared suffering like that really brings people together no matter their background.
Daniel: Think of Crossfit. Think of Soul Cycle. Think of all these things that’ve, these businesses that’ve taken off like rocket ships. Their real asset is what you just talked about. Suffering together creates bonds. If you think about any business that’s gone through a crisis, and certainly some of the places I studied in the book had gone through crisis. Pixar went through a crisis. The SEALs have gone through a crisis. Those crises end up being this fuel for relationships and connection that ends up driving the organization for years to come. So, you know, There’s a lot of cliches about pain being gain, and about suffering being opportunity, and about crisis being a wonderful thing. They happen to be true when it comes to culture and relationships. They happen to create this kind of connection that you do not get in normal life.
Brett: Let’s talk about an organization, well, we talked about the Germans and the British having this truce. Keeping on with this military theme, you also highlight the US Minutemen Missiliers as an example of culture going bad. What’s going on there? Is there a lack of connection there, a sense of belonging? First, tell us about the state of the culture in the Missilier program and why is it so bad?
Daniel: Yeah. Well, as part of the book I went around looking for the worst culture ever. I was looking for several bad cultures, but ironically the one I found was the culture of the people who are taking care of our nuclear arsenal, unfortunately. They have had a series of mishaps, terrible morale, drug busts, cheating scandals that would rival anything anywhere. And so I spent some time researching and investigating why that is. Like, these are officers in the military. Why do they keep misbehaving? Why is the culture there so awful? It turns out that what is driving that culture is fear. The fear, a lack of future, and a lack of connection. It basically is sort of the perfect opposite of what happened at the Christmas truce. Here, you’ve got people isolated in these silos for hours on end, and days on end. As they monitor the missiles, they’re down at the bottom of these sort of giant silos. They are tested, and if they don’t score perfectly, they’re punished severely.
So, it’s these long, very, very complicated sequences of code that they have to memorize. If they mess up one time, because this is zero tolerance, this is nuclear weapons, they get pitched out. That causes a tremendous amount of anxiety, fear, and ultimately cheating. The other thing is they don’t really have a shared future. The nuclear threat that they were built to combat has largely gone away. More lately maybe they’ve been a little bit more better, but there’s no real future for them in the air force. So, they’ve got this combination of no future, no shared connection, and intense levels of fear and perfectionism. And it absolutely destroys the culture. The conditions destroy the culture. These are not bad people. When they leave the service, they’re decent people. But if you had to create perfect conditions to demolish safety, and safety really is at the absolute core of any culture. A sense of safety, security, and connection. Without that psychological safety, they can’t function. They do a terrible job, and the culture’s terrible because of those conditions.
Brett: Have there been steps made to correct that?
Daniel: Interestingly, sort of the first step was kind of this top down, “You guys gotta shape up,” fear based, and that absolutely didn’t work. The next inspection after that, they found people playing video games on their phones when the inspectors arrived. So, they did not improve. There’s been a more recent attempt to really reckon with the fact that we need to provide these people a path into this and out of it. A future that goes beyond it. We need to reconsider the testing system, which now punishes anything less than perfectionism, to make it more human. And there’s been some great work done by Bruce Blair, a former missilier who now teaches at Princeton, to change the culture there. But any culture change is slow, so it’s hard to make that change.
Brett: Well, let’s talk about the culture change. Let’s say there’s a guy listening to this show right now, they’re in a work team that the culture is toxic, or maybe they’re in a volunteer organization where the culture’s just terrible. Can one person have a lot of influence in turning that around? Or is it just is like too late and you just have to eject, and cut your losses, and try again somewhere else?
Daniel: I hate to say it, I think the answer is B. If you’re not a leader, it is really, really hard. If you are one person in a big, toxic culture, the healthiest thing you can do is leave. It’s very, very difficult to turn around a train that is moving down the tracks. If you are in a position of leadership, or have access to a position of leadership, or the leadership actually wants to change, that’s a very different equation. Changing a culture is sort of like coaching an athlete. You have to figure out where you’re at, figure out where you want to go, identify some key behaviors you want to change, celebrate those changes, facilitate and franchise out those changes. There are cool ways to do it that I get into in the book.
Brett: Yeah. So, say if you’re a leader and you’re in that position. I mean what are just like a few of the things that you’ve seen leaders who’ve turned cultures around, what did they do? I mean what were like the-
Daniel: They start-
Brett: Big things. Yeah, go ahead.
Daniel: Totally. They start by listening. One of the best examples, they start by really figuring out where the culture’s at and why. You can’t really change a culture without understanding where it’s at and why. One of the more effective ones I’ve done, this was a Captain of a Navy destroyer, and his name was Mike Abrashoff who’s written some great books himself. But he was put on this destroyer, they were terrible. They were one of the worst performing ships in the Navy, and the first thing he did was he had everyone come in his office, and he asked them three questions. What should we keep doing? What should we stop doing? And tell me one other thing that I might not know. When anyone made a suggestion that he thought was good enough to apply, he would apply it instantly. He would announce it over the loudspeaker. When you talk about giving people voice, and creating a sense of belonging and safety, which is really the core of any … That’s the first skill of culture, as I talk about in the book. That is number one. To give voice, to figure out where you’re at.
And then from there you have to identify some key behaviors. Just like with a coach coaching an athlete. You have to identify key moves that you want to make and get better at. And really define the change you want to make, make that extremely, extremely explicit. There was a healthcare company that did it recently, and what they came out with was, “We really need to change the way we innovate. We really need to change how the speed of our innovation.” That was the key behavior that they felt like they needed to change. They came up with a way of describing that, which is a corny catch phrase, which when you visit great cultures there actually are lots of corny catch phrases. And this one was, “Good health comes first.” Good health comes first became the thing that they incanted. That message ended up being the key, ended up helping them identify some key behaviors around innovation that they were able to change. But it’s just like with an athlete, you need to identify those key moves. Name them, celebrate them when they happen, and start measuring them, hopefully.
Brett: And it’s gonna take a while. Don’t expect this to happen in a month. It might take years.
Daniel: If you had to teach somebody with a terrible golf swing to have a great golf swing, you would not expect it to happen overnight. That’s what this is. You’ve got organizations that are used to doing things a certain way, and change as we know is really, really, really hard. Great cultures over communicate. They find many, many ways to send the signal. You know, it’s funny. We talked about the Spurs earlier and they’ve got a saying that some of your listeners might know, “Pound the rock.” Pound the rock. It comes from a book that Gregg Popovich read about a stonemason. Someone asked him why he was pounding this rock, and the answer the stonemason gave was, “Because when it splits I won’t know if it’s the first blow or the last blow that did it. That’s why I keep pounding the rock with my hammer.”
So, when you go to San Antonio, you walk in their practice facility and you hear people saying that. “Pound the rock. Pound the rock.” In the lobby, they have an actual rock and an actual sledge hammer. In the hallways, they have that quote written and posted in every language that the team speaks. And the players at San Antonio there’s like five different languages, different ethnicities, represented. So, they have it in Serbian, and they have it in French, and they have it in Portuguese. That message, it’s like ringing a bell. They ring it over, and over, and over, and over again. Over communicating is standard procedure. I think that comes as a surprise to a lot of us who feel like, “Well, we can just sort of say something a few times and hope people catch on.”
Brett: So, If you have that cheesy catchphrase, say it over, and over, and over again.
Daniel: Exactly right. Because it’s not really cheesy if it’s a well designed catchphrase. You know? It only seems cheesy. And so that kind of flooding the zone with kind of filling, think of it as filling your people’s windshields with navigational signals. It’s really like GPS. You’re trying to teach them how to solve problems, how to react when there’s a problem. What the goal really is. If you flood the zone with those in a really clear way, you’ll soon see them making the right response, and then mimicking each other, and it grows from there.
Brett: We’ve been talking about communication, so there’s connection, which leaders can have a lot to do in making people feel like they belong. One of those things is communication from the top down, right? So, making sure everyone is clear about the values and the missions of the group through catchphrases that you repeat over and over, but what about communication within the group? What do groups with great cultures, how do they communicate differently from groups with bad or weak cultures?
Daniel: It’s really striking. I mean, when I went there, when I visited these places, I sort of thought they were gonna be really smooth. They’d have everything dialed in and they’d be perfect. Like I kind of expected to see that when you see the Spurs, and the SEALs, and Pixar. In fact, I saw something really different. They all had this moment where it was kind of awkward. Like where they would have these awkward conversations where they would be vulnerable with each other. And they’d admit weakness. I didn’t expect that. I expected it all to be about like they would just present as being really smart, and strong, and they always knew the answer. That’s not what they do, actually. They are constantly creating what are called vulnerability loops, where one person admits a problem, a weakness, a truth, they’re candid. And the other person does it in return. Now, this is the way we’re wired, is we’re kind of allergic to these moments, right? Especially at work. Most of us want to present ourselves as being competent, and we want to be trusted, and we want to say, “Everything’s good. I got this. No problem.”
It turns out in great cultures you don’t do that. You do the opposite. You say, “Hey, I’m really worried about this. Hey, this isn’t working.” And it creates this incredible energized moment when, especially with leaders, when a leader opens up and says, “Hey, what did I do wrong there? Anybody got any ideas?” That is the fuel of a good culture because when you admit weakness, you create closeness. It’s the ultimate strength, actually, to admit weakness to each other. For the book, I’ve ended up meeting the Navy SEAL commander who trained the guys for the Bin Laden raid, trained the teams for them. Through telling the story of the helicopter, the preparation, the training, he happened to mention: he said, “I screwed up. I screwed that up.” That was his phrase.
“I screwed that up” are the most important four words a leader can say. I thought that was just incredibly profound because I saw it every place I went. “I screwed that up.” It’s the opposite of what we want to say as a leader. We want to say, “Oh, I’m good. This is great.” But in fact when you say that, you ignite an incredible amount of closeness and cooperation. It’s kind of like that’s how our, that’s just how our brains are built. And so great cultures take advantage of that wiring, and are able to create closeness through candid exchanges.
Brett: So, if you’re a leader set the tone for that candidness by admitting when you mess up and looking for feedback from others, but you also highlight Pixar and some other organizations where that candidness, where people would say outright to people, like … They were very frank, right? Like, “That sucks.” I mean I think you talk about the example in Google where some guy just posted like, “This product sucks.”
Daniel: Yeah. Right.
Brett: Right? And you think like oh in positive cultures like everyone be nice and friendly, but no. You say like, “No. It actually is very awkward. It can be very … The sting of criticism can …” From an outside perspective, you’re like, “Whoa.” But you actually argue that’s necessary for group cohesion. Talk about that.
Daniel: Absolutely. Well, the word vulnerability is really the word here. Great cultures share vulnerability. It’s not enough just to be vulnerable, they have to share it. The word vulnerability comes from the Latin vuln, which is wound. So, it really does hurt. Like, it really does hurt. But what I’ve found in good cultures is that pain ends up, when you sort of repeat it and make a habit of this, you end up sort of getting used to it. Almost like it’s an emotional gym workout, right? You sort of go to the gym, and your arms hurt when you lift a heavy weight, but you sort of expect it and you actually enjoy it. And so what you end up seeing in moments like that, lik the SEALs team when he says, “I screwed that up.” He’s okay with that. Like he’s said that a million times at this point, and he expects to get hard feedback, and he’s ready for it. So, that pain sort of goes away.
But the deeper way is to help that pain, to help mitigate that pain beyond simple repetition, is to have the leader go first. Always. That’s why Dave Cooper, this Navy SEAL, said, “That’s the most important four words a leader can say.” Because that gives permission for everybody else to say it. If the leader folds his arms and pretends like there’s no problems, it’s gonna be really, really difficult to get people to be vulnerable in that room. And to name weaknesses that everybody can see. But if the leader goes first. And the other thing you can do is to sort of celebrate failure. There’s some places that have got a failure wall, and they will post examples of, “Oh, I made this call, and it didn’t work out.” Or, “I screwed up with this client.” Or whatever it might be. And then the third way you can do it is to really enshrine it in habit, to make it a regular meeting, a regular part of the meeting where people share what they screwed up on.
The Navy SEALs do it. They call it an AAR, which stands for After Action Review. It’s a routine huddle afterwards, and it’s based on, “Where did we screw up? What are we gonna do differently next time?” It’s very simple, short, quick. It’s very frank, it can sometimes get embarrassed, and heated, and emotional. But after you do a bunch of them it becomes kind of routine and you begin to crave it. In the same way a good athlete begins to crave feedback on how that athlete can get better. Because that’s what this is, this is about, you know it’s no longer sufficient for businesses to simply sort of stand pat and execute. It’s a learning contest. Business is a learning contest. That means it’s a culture contest. And if you have a culture that is always hiding weaknesses, and is always sort of turning away from the truth, and always trying to protect its feelings, that is not going to perform. And if you had a culture that is doing the opposite, that is constantly sharing that weakness, and constantly admitting where there’s a problem, that’s a culture that has a chance to perform.
Brett: Yeah the Pixar example was one that I kept going back to. I took my family to go see Coco last week. Phenomenal movie, like every other Pixar, but you talk about in the book, like most Pixar movies that have ever been made, like they started out terribly and they’ve had to scrap it from the beginning. Because they have these sessions, these brainstorm sessions, or brain trust sessions. They just eviscerate, just like totally tear down, and they go back and because of that they’ve been able to put out these great, spectacular works of art because of that.
Daniel: I think it’s the … The brain trust meeting is like the greatest creative machine ever invented in entertainment. It is absolutely, and as Pixar founder Ed Catmull says, “It’s the most important thing we do, this meeting.” Which is awkward, and tough, and difficult, but it’s where movies go from being, as he says, “From sucking to not sucking.” That’s the way Ed puts it. And he’s right. One of the interesting rules of the brain trust that kind of might apply to some of your audience is the people who make the suggestions … Or the people who point out the problems, like it’s a meeting designed to point out flaws. So, everybody watches the movie, then everybody points out the flaws. When Woody, the character from Toy Story, first came up, he was really unlikable. Like he was, the first versions of him were really harsh. And so everybody would say that. Like, “I don’t like this guy. This guy seems like a jerk. This character, I hate him.” That’s where that gets pointed out.
But here’s the rule: the person who points that out cannot suggest the fix. Is not allowed to suggest the fix. I can’t say, “Well, he’s not likable, but here’s what you should do. You should make him more Texan.” I can’t suggest that. I can just point out the flaw. And that sounds kind of mean, but there’s a deeper reason. The reason is that that rule maintains control for the director of the film. The creator. The person who invented Woody. If you give him the solution, he’ll just do it and then he’s kind of given up control. This is a way of having a person maintain control and accountability, ownership and responsibility over the project. And not just have the powerful people say, “Hey, put a blue hat on him,” and have him follow those instructions. So, it’s really an interesting way of giving tough feedback in a way that maintains integrity of the project.
Brett: I love that. Let’s talk about purpose. We’ve talked about connection, we’ve talked about communicating effectively. I’m sure groups with positive cultures have an overriding purpose. How does that purpose develop? Is it something that can go from top down? Or do members of the group need to contribute to that purpose? What did you find?
Daniel: Yeah. It’s interesting. I mean you typically would sort of think that when you visit these places that you’d sort of see that purpose coming from inside. You’d think that if you got to the SEALs or San Antonio Spurs that they would be kind of obviously having some, it would sort of be in their heart. That they would be kind of living that. But what we actually see is a real concerted effort by leadership to constantly put purpose in their windshield. To constantly be really specific about what they’re going after. As human beings, we kind of naturally forget what we’re there to do. It’s kind of weird to think that SEALs would have to kind of remind each other that the only easy day was yesterday. Or that their job is to shoot, move, and communicate. Or that they’re the quiet professionals. Those are all the sort of catchphrases the SEALs always use. The SEALs actually say that to each other a lot. You know? They repeat that.
It’s kind of weird to think that San Antonio has to remind itself that to pound the rock. Because they’re playing basketball, and they said this, and it’s posted on the wall, and they walk by a sledgehammer and a rock every day in practice. But they do. They remind each other all the time. So, it’s like this vision of leaders as kind of this radio station that is constantly broadcasting, or maybe the windshield is the better metaphor, that constantly putting these signals in the windshield that makes it really clear what it’s about. But the other piece of that beyond simply broadcasting it, is digging it out, is figuring out what it is. What is the purpose, and how is that changing over time? That’s another role that I saw really smart leaders play. Constantly reflecting on, “What is it we’re about, and what stories can I tell that capture that?” They were really almost like composers, you know? Where they’re always listening for the tune, and always finding ways to play that tune to their people in ways that were meaningful and connective.
It was fascinating, so it was a very … The guy who embodied it the most was a guy named Danny Meyer, who’s one of the best restaurateurs ever. He runs Gramercy Tavern, Shake Shack, Union Square Café, a number of wonderful places that have wonderful cultures. Being around him was almost like being around a songwriter. He was constantly trying to come up with these ways of talking about their culture, and these stories, and asking people for stories. Kind of digging them out of the ground, and making them powerful. He would always want to talk about problems, and how people reacted to problems. He came up with this sort of cheesy catchphrase, but it was, “Restaurant servers are surfers, and problems are the waves.” And he would sort of like to talk about that along with a bunch of other catchphrases that he did. But he was always behaving as that composer in chief. Unearthing the stories and putting them in the windshield of his people.
Brett: What it sounds like you’re saying here is not necessarily does everyone in the group need to contribute to the purpose. Because you hear these ideas like, “Oh, we’re gonna have like a vision statement meeting where we get input from everybody.” You don’t necessarily have to do that for there to be a purpose that everyone signs on to.
Daniel: I don’t think so. You know, there’s a narrative element there. There’s a story element there that people really do get behind. And sometimes it’s a person, like Steve Jobs embodied the culture of Apple. Everybody knew what that felt like, what the behavior should be like. Very, very simple. But there are things that you can do, and there’s one that I’ve seen used effectively called a culture capture where you basically try to solicit people’s ideas and thoughts on who they are. On who the group is, what the group represents. It’s a wonderful way to kind of get material that the leadership can then reflect back to the group, and really using their voices to describe who they are. Those kinds of culture captures often can hinge on a couple of really good questions.
One good question that gets asked in good culture captures is, “Tell me a story about something that would happen here that wouldn’t happen anywhere else.” Which is such a basic question, but such a powerful one. “Tell me a story that would happen here, in our group, that would not happen in any other group in our industry, or in our world.” That can create, that question can create a really powerful response in terms of finding stories that embody the mission and vision of the group. And the other question that can provide a good response is, “Tell me what gets rewarded here. Tell me what behaviors get rewarded here.” That tells you a lot about a culture, too. So, “Define the behaviors that get rewarded here,” can be a question that can really help unearth the purpose of a group.
Brett: So, let’s talk about this. There’s different groups who have different objectives. Some are more performance based, where like the US Minutemen Missiliers, right? They have to do certain tasks perfectly, or effectively, for them to do the job. But then there’s more creative type groups like Pixar is a great example. I think a lot of the principle you’re talking about applies to both, but are there differences in how cultures should change? Or leadership should change? Depending on the goal you’re trying to reach, whether it’s creative or performance based?
Daniel: That’s a great question. There really are. There are deep differences. I think the athlete model will give us some insight into that. Like if you think of your culture as a giant athlete. The whole group is like an athlete that has a task to do. Now, there’s basically two types of tasks that groups do. Groups are either good at sort of being very proficient. Meaning they deliver the same thing, at the same time, in the same way, in the same manner over and over again. Like at a restaurant, or at a service industry. Boom, boom, boom. You want to hit the marks. Sort of like making a good golf swing? Like you want your golf swing to be solid all the time. Then you have groups who are about being creative. That want to create something new, something that’s never existed before. Somebody that needs to innovate. And that’s somebody sort of like, I don’t know, like a soccer player weaving his way through traffic, inventing moves as he goes along. It’s a very different set of skills.
You’re not trying to have the perfect Ben Hogan golf swing. You’re trying to be like Leo Messi and faking, and fainting, and inventing your way down the field. Leadership in each of those cases does a very different set of kind of purpose messaging and leadership skills. When you are talking about creating a culture of proficiency, you need to behave kind of like a lighthouse. You need to send a really clear signal about what behaviors you expect. About how problem solving should be approached. About what you’re about. You need to over send all of those signals over, and over again so that people understand what that is. You have to be like Danny Meyer, inventing all of these catchphrases that describe exactly the behavior you want to achieve. You want to celebrate those behaviors, and capture them as much as you can, and fill the windshield with really precise examples of what you want and what you don’t want.
When you’re with a creative team, you want to do something really different because you’re not sure how they’re gonna do it. You can’t really say, “We want this behavior” because that’ll impose on them. Instead, you really focus on team composition. You want to get a team that connects and has this sense of safety and connection together. And you focus on supporting the team. On putting big goals out in front of them, and on giving them the resources, the time, the expertise, the space that they need to execute their vision. And giving them time and space is sometimes the hardest thing. Supporting them through times when they don’t get anything. You’re not a lighthouse, you’re more like that expedition climbing Everest where you’re sort of making sure their backpacks have got the right crampons and pickaxes in them to climb. To do this difficult task of creating.
A good model for that is the Skunk Works program that we get in a lot of places. Skunk Works meaning sort of a spinoff, an innovation hub that is spun off from the main mothership. It was originally built, I think it was from McDonnell Douglas. It was really to build special airplanes, but a lot of businesses have had success spinning off a Skunk Works because you’re able to create that kind of freedom. Leaders are able to support them, and leaders are able to attend to team composition keenly, and behave in that supportive expedition aspect that’s very different from a lighthouse, but that is essential to sort of creating creative teams and creative cultures. Most cultures don’t fall neatly into one or the other. There’s some creativity inside all proficiency, and there’s some proficiency inside all creativity. But as a leader, if you reflect a little bit on what kind of signals my people need now, it can really be helpful to think in that terms. What do they need that’s like a golf swing, and what do they need that’s like a soccer player?
Brett: That’s awesome. Well, Dan there’s a lot more we could talk about. Where can people go to learn more about the book, and your work?
Daniel: Yeah. Danielcoyle.com is one place they can go check out. And there’s a few things there. There’s a culture quiz that people can use to sort of measure the level of safety in their culture, and a bunch of other tools and stuff that people can explore.
Brett: Fantastic. Well, Daniel Coyle thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Daniel: Hey, thanks so much, Brett. Really appreciate it.
Brett: My guest today was Daniel Coyle. He’s the author of the book Culture Code. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at Danielcoyle.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/culturecode where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the show, got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you and please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you’d think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.