765: The Simple Actions Behind Great Teams and Cultures with Daniel Coyle

By May 5, 2022Podcasts

 

 

Daniel Coyle shares many simple–yet highly effective–actions any team can take to foster a cohesive, positive culture.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Four simple actions that establish deep connection
  2. The top thing that builds trust
  3. How to craft a mantra that truly resonates 

About Daniel

Daniel Coyle is the New York Times bestselling author of The Culture Code, which was named Best Business Book of the Year by Bloomberg, BookPal, and Business Insider. Coyle has served as an advisor to many high-performing organizations, including the Navy SEALs, Microsoft, Google, and the Cleveland Guardians. His other books include The Talent Code, The Secret Race, The Little Book of Talent, and Hardball: A Season in the Projects, which was made into a movie starring Keanu Reeves. Coyle was raised in Anchorage, Alaska, and now lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, during the school year and in Homer, Alaska, during the summer with his wife Jenny, and their four children.

Resources Mentioned

Daniel Coyle Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Dan, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Daniel Coyle
Thanks for having me, Pete. I’m excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. I’m excited to talk about culture, and you’ve spent so many years learning, researching, studying, interviewing on this subject. I’d love to hear, has there been a particularly surprising or weird or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made about culture in all your years of researching?

Daniel Coyle
I’m going to say yes to that, and I’m going to say that it is mostly that, I think, going into it, I, like a lot of other people, thought that great high-performing cultures were these happy places that existed on a higher plane, where every idea was a great idea, and there was tons of agreement and laughter, and that there were these kind of magical places, that if you got to Pixar, or if you got to Navy Seal Team Six, or if you got to San Antonio Spurs, or IDO, life would change and things would be better and magical.

And what I found is that is deeply not true. I’ve spent now the last about seven years visiting the top-performing cultures on the planet, and what you find there is this really different kind of fun that they’re having. It’s the fun of exploring tensions together. It’s not filled with like ping-pong and goofiness, although there is some of that. It’s the love of solving hard problems with people you admire. And that, that is a really unique thing that great cultures create, that you’re connected, you’re being open and transparent and vulnerable and bringing your whole self there, and you’re moving in some interesting direction around some hard obstacles.

And that is like this addictive thing, and that really caught me by surprise because I think when we think about the Pixars and we think about, oh, our dream jobs and our dream cultures, we kind of think that we’re going to leave the sweat behind. And the fact, we’re going to find a lot more joy and more sweat and more connection and more meaning, I think, in being part of a great culture. So, I think their orientation toward tension is different than what people think it is. And that those tensions end up, I think, powering and engaging people in these deep ways that maybe in other cultures you don’t find.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really cool in terms of I’m thinking of Navy Seals, there’s plenty of time that sucks in terms of intense physical training, cold water, etc., and yet the fun they’re having is present but it’s not like cupcakes and puppies and Netflix-type fun.

Daniel Coyle
Yes. There’s this type one and type two fun. Type one fun is like enjoyment, it’s ping-pong tables, it’s that stuff. Type two stuff is doing hard stuff. And I think the fun part of cultures, and if people, if your listeners like…I know it’s kind of useful to think about the most cohesive teams you’ve ever been a part of, and like, “What did that feel like? What was the thing?” And it wasn’t all like laughter. It was also a lot of vulnerability. It was also a lot of hard stuff.

And so, I think that’s the part about culture that really resonated with me as I looked at these places, that they’re mastering the skill set, and I think it is part of being awesome at your job, to coin a phrase, to actually have that ability to, like, “Let’s identify what the hard thing is in this room, and then let’s circle up around it and figure it out together.” And that is a set of kind of subtle skills that’s just beneath the surface. Those skills of like, “How do I build that connection with that person next to me? How do I talk about the problem in a way that doesn’t make it seem threatening or overwhelming? How do I kind of go back to it day after day and mark the progress that we’re making?”

It’s these skills that go beyond just what you sort of do at your job or your job description. These are like relational skills, communication skills. And those are the skills that you see in these places. Like, I kept meeting leaders and people that work there that had that skill set, and that’s kind of what led me to write the two books. First, The Culture Code, which came out a few years ago, and now, The Culture Playbook, which tries to bring some of those skills and some of those actions sort of from underneath to bring them up to the surface so we can look at them and learn from them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so let’s talk about that specifically, the book, The Culture Playbook. What’s sort of the big idea here and contrast with The Culture Code?

Daniel Coyle
Yeah, The Culture Code is a book about theory and story. I went around visiting these cultures, and it ranged from the ones that we’ve mentioned already, to like the US Women’s National Soccer Team, and the Serbian gang of jewel thieves, who had this really incredible culture. These are very high-performing places.

And since the time, since I’ve written the book, the landscape has changed in some really interesting ways. The idea of building a team is different in the age of post-COVID of hybrid work where a lot of people are working by themselves and communicating through these crazy windows that we’re using now, and this idea of “How do we tap into the core elements of what it takes to bring a human group together and do it in this new landscape, this landscape where we’ve got more going on, changing faster?”

And what I found in the book is that the fundamentals still don’t change. These 60 actions that I talk about are fundamentally built to create…there’s three things that groups do, there’s three things that cultures do: they connect, they create trust so they can work together, and they move in a direction. That’s what culture is. It’s building relationships so you can solve problems together.

And the book, which has sort of these three sections on these three different skill sets, first, “How do I build that connection? How do I do that?” And, secondly, “How do I create shared vulnerability and trust, where I’m going to let go of the trapeze and I know that you’re going to catch me at the other end?” And, finally, “How do we handle direction? How do we move toward a true north, establish that, and keep moving toward it?”

And that’s what this book is all about. It’s just from one to 60 actions, about 20 in each category, and they’re sort of stolen from these groups, groups that I’ve observed, groups that I saw them do it, and a lot of these things, they sort of seem like magic but they’re not magic. They’re behaviors, they’re signals, they’re communications that can be learned and practiced.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I love your subtitle, “60 Highly Effective Actions to Help Your Group Succeed.” We love highly effective actions here, and so you’ve got them in three categories about connecting, and creating trust, and moving in a direction. Could you share a couple of these really potent actions within each category that make a world of difference, ideally, ones that don’t take a ton of time, energy, and money, but do produce a boatload of connection, of trust, of movement?

Daniel Coyle
Yeah, you bet. You bet. I guess one that comes to mind right off is one that was taught to me by a Navy Seal commander. He said, “Your face is like a door. It can be open or it can be closed. And we know what closed looks like. You’re focused. Your eyes or eyebrows are down. You’re intently focused on what’s in front of you. Or, it can be open.” And this tip is, “Keep an open face.”

It refers to the muscle above your eyebrows, actually. It’s called your…I think it’s a zygomaticus muscle, and it is one that is only for social signaling. Like, we only use it to signal interest, energy, engagement, enthusiasm, and, especially, when we’re communicating remotely. What your face is doing is the loudest signal that you are sending. So, if you’re in any kind of situation like that, that idea to keep an open face is just a really, really simple one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I want to dig all over this. So, it’s this space, it’s our eyebrows, it’s a zygo something, this muscle. And so, what does open forehead, eyebrows look like versus…?

Daniel Coyle
Eyebrows up. Eyebrows up.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s interesting, Dan.

Daniel Coyle
It is interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, how about that?

Daniel Coyle
Think of the faces of the leaders you most admire. Think of the faces of the people who were the best communicators. Were their faces open or were they closed? And the idea that this is this ancient signal that we’re really…you know, there’s no other use for this muscle except for social signaling. So, to not use it is sort of a waste. And I think, a lot of us, when we’re sitting in front of our computers remotely, sometimes forget to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
And if you’re tired. Like, if you’re tired, you’re naturally…you might slouch a little, and then your eyebrows, forehead, may also slouch a little, like, “Yeah, Dan, just trying to get through the day.”

Daniel Coyle
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
If I don’t stop and think, like, “Oh, I would like to signal to Dan that I care what he has to say,” and so you think, “Smile, nod, eye contact,” but zeroing in on this completely different part of the face, that’s handy.

Daniel Coyle
It is kind of handy. It is kind of handy. Another one I would throw out there is the two-line email. This is an idea from Laszlo Bock who headed up Humu, which is an HR company. And the idea is you send an email to the people you work with, and it says, “Hey, I’m trying to get better. Tell me one thing you want me to keep doing and one thing you’d like me to stop doing.” It’s a short email. It’s a very short email but it’s a very big signal, which is, “I trust you. I’m connected with you. I’d like you to give me some feedback, not 10 pieces of feedback, but just two – one thing I should keep doing, one thing I should stop doing.” Really, really simple.

And the third one I would say, and kind of in the connection bucket, is make a habit of over-thanking people. Thanks are not just transactional. They’re signals of a deeper relationship. At the end of every basketball season, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who’s the winningest coach in NBA history, he’s had that team at the top for a long time, I think they’ve won the championship four or five times, he goes to every player that he coaches and he says these words, he says, “Thank you for allowing me to coach you.”

He doesn’t have to do that. He’s paid amply. The player is paid amply. But it’s not about the pay, it’s not about the transaction. It is about the relationship, and finding ways to connect the dots, and when something good happens, trace it back to the chain of people who helped make it happen.

I was at a school recently, and the eighth-grade math teacher sent out a note to the seventh-grade math teacher, the sixth-grade math teacher, and the fifth-grade math teacher. And the note said, “Hey, I just want to let you know, our kids scored 85s on their year long test, which is up for the last three years in a row, and it’s because of your work that they’re scoring so well. I’m the eighth -grade teacher, I’m the person who gives them that test, but it’s because of your work in the fifth, sixth, seventh grade.” Short email, it takes five seconds to write. It’s incredibly powerful to sort of make those connections really, really visible and create that connection.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. So, just sort of a habit of, “Ooh, good result. Good result likely means there’s at least one person to be thanked, and so go ahead and get in that groove repeatedly.”

Daniel Coyle
Completely.

Pete Mockaitis
Nifty. Okay. And when it comes to thanking, is it like any mode, any format, handwritten, gift, email, in person?

Daniel Coyle
Yeah, as long as it’s authentic. I mean, stuff, in person. In person ends up working better. There was a study about requests, actually, Pete, where they gave requests digitally and they also made requests in person. And they found that the requests in person were responded to 22 times more frequently.

Pete Mockaitis
Twenty two times?

Daniel Coyle
Times.

Pete Mockaitis
Not 22% percent. Times.

Daniel Coyle
Exactly. Exactly. So, we’re just built to respond to that. So, if it’s a question of saying thanks in person or just sending a note, say it in person. It means more. And, likewise, when it comes to giving negative feedback, like turning something down, there are some great cultures that have rules that say that, “That has to be done in person, too.”

Because to get an email, like if you’re getting an expense account or something rejected, to get an email that it’s rejected can create some bad feelings, some vagueness, some unclearness on why that was rejected. But doing it in person provides so much more context and information. So, that’s why cultures have rules that say, “Hey, if you’re going to provide some negative, negative feedback, you’ve got to do that in person.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Okay. Well, Dan, you’ve really delivered there. Those are high ROI goodies that are quick and easy when it comes to connecting. How about we do the exact same thing for creating trust?

Daniel Coyle
Yeah, why not? When it comes to trust, this is kind of the interesting thing that came as a surprise to me, and I think comes as a surprise to a lot of people. We’re normally taught that vulnerability and trust are related as follows. We’re normally taught that you have to build up some trust before you can be vulnerable. And, actually, we’ve got it exactly backwards.

Moments of vulnerability, when they’re shared, are what create trust. And so, what great cultures have, and what skill we can steal from them, is the idea of a vulnerability loop. When you have two people who are being vulnerable together, it creates connection and trust and cohesion in a way that nothing else does.

In fact, think about the best friends in your life. Are they the people you’ve been the most vulnerable with or the least vulnerable with? I’m going to guess it’s the most. The same principle works at work. And so, some of the things that are really simple to do to create that vulnerability, what you find in good cultures and in good groups, they treat vulnerability as kind of like a calisthenic, like it hurts but it makes you stronger.

And a couple ways to do that. Number one is to make a habit of doing an AAR. And AAR is an after-action review. This is a concept from the military. And the way it works is, in the military it works like this. You finish the mission, and you come back, and the first thing you do before you do anything else, before you take a nap, before you eat, is you circle up and you talk about three things: what went well, what didn’t go well, and what are we going to do differently next time.

It’s a really simple conversation. It’s also a really hard conversation. When you’ve done something really difficult with a group and you got to come back, and say, “Hey, I think I screwed that up,” or, “Hey, I think we could be a lot better at this.” It takes guts but that’s why it’s powerful because it brings people together in an atmosphere of vulnerability, openness, transparency. And the experience of going through that brings you closer.

Dave Cooper, who commanded the Navy Seals who got Bin Laden says, “The most important words a leader can say are ‘I screwed that up’ because it gives permission for everyone in the group to absolutely be open about that.” So, that’s the first one, to build an AAR, to do AARs regularly, make it a habit.

Pete Mockaitis
And when it comes to vulnerability, I could see that the after-action review is a great habit and that’s vulnerable right there, “I screwed it up.” Now, I imagine though, when it comes to vulnerability, I think that there are different sort of flavors, categories, buckets, if you will. And so, one, an admission of error is one. If the word vulnerability feels a little bit vague or fuzzy for people, can you give us a few more examples?

Daniel Coyle
I love it that you’re bringing that up. I love that you bring it up. I’d put a few categories out there. The most powerful one is vulnerability around learning where you say, “I don’t know that. Teach me that.” And you see that being incredibly effective because everybody likes to teach things. When somebody next to you who can do something better than you, you say, “Hey, could you teach me how to do that?” That is a really powerful and underused moment.

There’s total emotional vulnerability where you’re giving over, you’re telling someone how you really feel about something. That can be a little less useful in a work context. And, finally, there’s a third category, which is fake vulnerability. And you actually see this sometimes among leaders or people who are manipulating people.

I recently was at a conference where somebody told me about a media consultant who was trying to train CEOs to cry, like on cue, which sounds completely insane. He swore to me that it was true. And part of me believes it because vulnerability is such a powerful emotion. But I would say, for creating good culture in the 15 feet around you in the office, or in the 15 video calls around you, vulnerability around learning is the most powerful because it creates a conversation, it creates a relationship, it creates a path, it creates…like all learning, it’s a cycle of experience and reflection, and so it gets you into that cycle in a good way.

Pete Mockaitis
And what do we put a name for the category of vulnerability? Like, if I were to just share, I don’t know, like a personal struggle, like, “My marriage is struggling,” or, “My child is being held back,” or, “My mom or dad is dying.” That really feels vulnerable.

Daniel Coyle
It does and it can be…

Pete Mockaitis
Do we have a name for that category in the research or the literature?

Daniel Coyle
Yeah, I call that the sort of heavy, deep, and real category, I mean, the personal category. And that has a place, too, in all of this, especially as we sort of bring our whole selves to work, and, especially, in the early parts of a relationship, that kind of openness when we can sort of…especially in an era where we’re increasingly trying to create more belonging for traditionally marginalized communities in the workplace. Those moments can be really, really powerful. So, it’s a kind of thing where you can’t force them to happen but I’ve seen some…

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “Now, everyone will share something that they’re profoundly struggling with or worried about. You start, Dan.”

Daniel Coyle
Right. Right. “You go.” Right. But I’ve seen some cool exercises. The one that I sort of admire the most is one that came out of the sports world, it’s called the 4H exercise. It’s where people get together for a few minutes and talk about the 4H. The 4Hs are their heroes, their heartbreak, their history, and their hopes.

So, you give them a chance to reflect individually, and then everybody comes together and talks about it, and you sort of get a sense of the whole person, “Oh, their grandparents moved here from Korea,” and you get to learn about their favorite food growing up. And it’s just a nice shortcut to connecting to the person.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. So, sharing vulnerability. Anything else you want to talk about when it comes to creating trust?

Daniel Coyle
Yeah, there’s one more, I think, and it’s one that, again, I sort of realized a little bit later. But there’s a magical phrase that happens when, in good cultures that you hear a lot, and I think it’s a subtle skill, it’s about listening. But that phrase is, “Tell me more.” It’s a really, really powerful phrase. And you use it when someone asks you a question.

The trick when somebody asks us a question, especially when we’re new in our job and we’re trying to be really good at it, is when someone asks us a question, we want to answer, we want to like provide value. We want to say, “Hey, I got it right here. I’m really smart. And this is what worked for me that time.” When, in fact, if you’re really looking to understand what’s going on, you need to say, “Tell me more.” They’re the most powerful phrases in the world.

When you have problems that are brought to you are often, like the proverbial iceberg, you see the surface but it’s much deeper underneath. So, by saying, “Tell me more,” you can say, “What other contexts do you see this in? What did you try already? Who else knows about this? How else can we apply this? Give me more.”

There’s a woman named Roshi Givechi, who’s the best listener I ever met. Like, you meet people who are super good listeners. She works for IDO, which is a design firm, and she is their person that kind of unlock teams. That’s kind of what she does. When teams are stuck, she goes and unlocks and unleashes them. And she’s extraordinary because when you come to her with a question, she will say, “Tell me more about that.” And she has a beautiful phrase called surfacing, where you’re trying to surface the problem so that you can stand around it together and work on it together.

You’re not the solver here. Nobody is. These problems are hard. It requires time. Bringing it to the surface together by saying, “Tell me more.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Okay. Now, when it comes to movement, what are some of the key actions you recommend there?

Daniel Coyle
Well, every group is moving toward their true north. You’re trying to define that true north. And we typically think that, like, “Well, great cultures just have their purpose and they’re harder in their gut. They just know what it is.” But actually, when you go to really great cultures, and some of your listeners will know this, you end up hearing them talk about their purpose all the time. They talk about it in ways that are sometimes really corny. There are all these mantras and slogans.

And when you go to the Navy Seals, they keep talking about, “We’re the quiet professionals. The only easy day was yesterday.” When you go to Zappos, they talk of all their phrases. When you go to Pixar, they have all their phrases. And probably the person who’s best at phrases that I encountered was a restaurant owner. His name was Danny Meyer, and he came up with all of these phrases, “We have athletic hospitality and we love problems. And mistakes are waves and service are surfers.”

And Danny and I were having breakfast, and a waiter dropped a tray of glasses, and Danny stopped talking to me and started looking over in the corner. And I said, “What are you looking for?” And he said, “One of two things is going to happen. Either they’re going to come together, clean up this mess, and the energy level in the restaurant is going to go up, and I’ll know that this is a good culture, or there are going to be some hint of blame and anger, resentment, and the energy level is going to drop.”

And that is when those mantras and those corny phrases started to make sense to me. Having these simple little algorithms, little mantras that you say, sort of direct your emotions and your attention in the right way, “Athletic hospitality,” “Loving problems,” “Mistakes are waves, servers are surfers,” all that stuff sort of nudges you the right way.

So, that’s one sort of tip is, create a mantra map, like figure out what the main problems in your environment are, figure out what the solution is, what you want to do, and create some words that help guide you there. It can be a cool thing to sort of co-create as a team.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, what’s fun about that is they can stick with you for years. I’m thinking back to my days at Bain, and like, “Hey, one team attitude.” It’s sort of like we never blame each other. We don’t, particularly in front of the client. Like, “Oh, Dan said something really boneheaded. You have to forgive him. He’s new.” Like, this just doesn’t happen, or an openness to 1% of possibility that you are wrong, you’re mistaken, and that someone else has stuff that you should take in. And, boy, a few years later, that sticks with me.

I think what’s tricky there, Dan, is that I think sometimes organizations can put the cart before the horse on this one, like they create the mantras but they have no bearing in reality. And if that’s more frustrating, I’m thinking…

Daniel Coyle
Oh, it can be a nightmare.

Pete Mockaitis
When I was at Kmart, I’m just going to name names, this was a long time ago, maybe Kmart is better now. My first real job, like not delivering newspapers or something, was working at Kmart, and they had these mantras, like, “Customers rule,” “Teams work,” “Change strengthens performance.” Wow, I remember them, again, years later.

And then I was like, “But, wait a minute, I don’t see that. You seem upset with me that I gave this person a discount on the Mountain Dew even though the training video said that we can do that,” because I have the power to please, Dan, by any of the substitutions, like, “Two 12s for the 24-price, you got it.” So, that was very frustrating, like, “Oh, this is just like something that, I don’t know, the HR team came up with on a retreat somewhere.”

Daniel Coyle
That’s the distinction. That’s the distinction. When the HR team, as opposed to when the people on the floor created it themselves, and that co-creation is the key part of that. This is not something that’s handed down. And people tend to think mission and purpose statements are kind of generated by some god-like Moses who carves them in the granite and hands them down to the people. That’s not how the best ones work.

The best ones are kind of natural and they come out of the environment. And having some time where you get together with your group, and say, “Okay, what do we want our mantras to be? Kind of screw the company. What do we want our mantras to be? If we’re going to work together here, we need to have a clear sense of what matters, what doesn’t, what behaviors are not acceptable.”

Danny Meyer used to talk about skunking, which is when an employee would get irritated or a waiter would get irritated, and you could just kind of tell. They’re just sort of emitting this odor that everyone is kind of revolted by. They just made up that word but it really works in that environment because you’re like, “Dude, you’re skunking. You got to quit skunking,” or you use it naturally.

So, that concept, and it’s one of those ideas that I think can be powerful in everyday life as we seek to build our skills, or as we seek to build better habits. Words and mantras are incredibly powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, mantras, knowing and creating and saying the phrases. What else?

Daniel Coyle
I think there’s a little exercise, and I think it’s one of my favorite ones to do, for any group to do that is really powerful. It’s called the best barrier workshop. So, you get together with your team, and there’s two steps. Step one, define exactly what you look like at your best team. Like, if a documentary film crew flew in and filmed you at your best, what behaviors would they see? Name them, like write them down.

Second step. What barriers stop that from happening every day? Name those barriers. Name them. And then, what you’re doing in those two steps is you’re sort of building the architecture of a mantra because you are defining where you want to go and who you want to be, and you’re defining what stops you.

So, figuring out, “Okay, why don’t we perform at our best? Is it time? Do we not give each other enough time? Are we too separate all the time? Are we not in sync? Are we not connected enough?” Figure out what those barriers are and name them. So, I would say a best barrier workshop is a pretty good thing to try.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Anything else you want to talk about with movement?

Daniel Coyle
I think, overall, stories are the most powerful drug on the planet. A story. Like, you remember your life at Bain or your life at Kmart. We all remember our work lives and our lives in general through stories, and we tend to treat stories as something that’s kind of happenstance, like, They just sort of appear like flowers before us and we pick some of them and we ignore some of them.

I think, as you move through your career and as you seek to understand both the culture that you’re in and also the cultures where you want to go, stories are really powerful for a couple reasons. The first is that they’re like the best way to capture the purpose of a culture and the best behavior that we can be. One of the coolest questions you can ask anybody about a culture is, “Tell me a story about your group, about something your group does that no other group does.” It’s a good question if you’re interviewing for a new job, like, “Tell me a story about your group that you would tell your best friend. What gets rewarded around there?” is a good question to ask.

And all of these kinds of get at like the deeper narrative and purpose of groups in a way that just simple data can’t. So, really appreciating stories as a resource, both for you and your present culture but also as a way to understand the places in which you work in the future.

Pete Mockaitis
And I also want to hear you, I dig it, so great actions associated with connecting and creating trust and moving, and we talked about stories. I’d love to hear some stories associated with teams that had a culture that was, I don’t know, lame to mediocre that saw a big upgrade to transformational. And you’ve got a particular process you call a team tune-up. So, maybe that might be a little bit more micro to the macro story, but I just want to put those two bits out there and get some stories.

Daniel Coyle
Yeah, that’s good. My favorite story about a team turnaround would be from a Navy ship, actually, called the USS Benfold. The commander was a man named Mike Abrashoff. The Benfold was the worst-performing ship in the Navy. When he got there, his first action was to meet with every crew member for about 10 or 15 minutes, and he would ask them sort of like the two-line email, “What’s something we should keep doing? What’s something we should stop doing?”

And whenever anyone had an idea that they could immediately implement, like, “We should eat at 11:30 not at 12:00,” he would grab the intercom and announce the change immediately over the boat, like, “Now, we eat at 11:30.” Boom! That action, and it took him like three weeks to do these interviews. Huge investment of time, very inefficient. I’m sure he had a million more important things to do. But when you’re building relationships, that is an incredibly efficient use of time. It’s incredibly smart because he’s doing the thing that good cultures do, which is you’ve got to build the safety.

And safety, there’s a lot of talk in the world now about psychological safety, and that’s all well and good, and it’s true. But you have to remember that the point of safety is voice. The point of safety is freedom. The point of safety is that those people can hear their suggestion amplified for the whole crew. Flash forward three years, and the Benfold is the best-performing ship in the Navy, and it’s not an accident because Mike Abrashoff, and he wrote a wonderful book about this, called It’s Your Ship, and it’s worth reading.

But the reason that it worked wasn’t magic. It looks like magic but it’s not magic. It’s he’s really, really good at these cultural skills that say, “Hey, I’m going to give you a voice here, and let’s see how far we can take it. We want to build a group brain. It’s not about one person being smart. It’s about all of us being smart.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really fun as I imagine sitting in one of those conversations, and saying, “Hey, we should eat lunch at this time,” and then just immediately that being dictated, like instant fiat.

Daniel Coyle
Like, power.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, now this is so. Like, that would feel awesome. And on the flipside, I can sort of imagine that, in deciding quickly, I imagine a couple of them probably had to be backtracked, like, “You know, actually, Captain, you see, the meal prep times are established for these key considerations, and the earlier time, that kind of messes up all these other things,” and you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that because this is my sixth conversation with teammates, so you better just backtrack it and really…” no harm done. In fact, the dude who told you about the shifting the lunchtime probably think it’s pretty cool that at least a few days we’ll try it his way.

Daniel Coyle
That’s exactly right. And that’s the tradeoff that I think is easy to overlook. We all go through life and we’ve got these two categories of things in front of us. We’ve got the stuff we got to do. There’s a big pile of that. And then we got the people who are around us, and it is always tempting, as we move through the day, as we move through our mornings and afternoons, to focus on the things because they’re vivid, they’re right in front of us, there’s a to-do list that we want to knock things off.

And the thing that I saw in people who are skilled at this cultural skillset is they had the ability to, as Captain Abrashoff did, push off that to-do list and focus on the person in front of them, and create that relationship and build that safety and that trust and that direction together. And then, guess what, the to-do list gets done so much faster because you have built that group brain, and you’ve built that connection, and you can go much faster together.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And so, if listeners find themselves in a team that they would like tuned up, how do we execute a team tune-up?

Daniel Coyle
Yeah, that’s funny. It’s sort of in the same dynamic, and this is an idea from IDO, this incredible design firm. Like a lot of companies, they have teams doing projects. But the smart thing that IDO does is they realized that the project is a journey. The project itself is a journey and you can’t just focus on the project. You actually have to turn your focus and ask, “How’s the team doing? How are we doing on this project?”

So, they’re sort of like a race car driver, the project is the race car going on the track, and three times, they sort of pull in and have a tune-up, “How is our engine doing?” And they’re very simple meetings, there’s a pre-flight, a mid-flight, and a post-flight, and they ask really simple questions, like, pre-flight, “What are you most excited about learning on this project? Like, we’re all going to go and do this together, what are you most excited about learning? What are you dreading the most? How do you like to work? Do you like getting a lot of creative work done in the morning? Like, let’s figure out how we’re going to work together.”

Mid-flight. “How is it going? Like, are we going in the direction we thought we were going? Are we all working together well? What relationships are strongest? What aren’t strongest?” Post-flight. “What did we learn here? What are we taking forward into our other projects? What relationships got stronger?” So, these moments, they’re really simple, reflective couple of hours set aside to do the most crucial work of saying, “How are we doing? Because the work is one thing but this team is something that matters more.” And smart groups take the time to put their attention and their effort into improving the internal functioning of the team.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Very good. Well, Dan, I’m curious, so we have a lot of great practices that we’ve discussed. What are some things that are common mistakes that we should be on the lookout for, maybe things that we don’t even realize we’re doing that are harmful to culture that we should cut out?

Daniel Coyle
It’s like somebody once said about, what’s this thing, about a mule, and a carpenter, and a barn. It said, “Any mule can kick down a barn but it takes a real master carpenter to build one.” And, likewise, with culture, there are a million ways to destroy culture. There are a million. Some of the most common ones are around integrity, but there’s some more sort of less common ones, which is just the speed of life. We all live with the disease of more where our plates get continually loaded with more and more and more.

And if we don’t stop to kind of subtract things from our plate, and we don’t stop to sort of move things away, and get rid of things, and pare things down, sometimes the relationships can really suffer. The thing to remember, though, is that culture is never fixed. It’s never done. You never get to a spot and say, “Our culture is great.”

I studied, for my book The Culture Code, I studied several cultures including Pixar and the Navy Seals, both of whom have had significant cultural challenges in recent years with the MeToo Movement, with some bad behavior in the Seals. So, it’s not to say their cultures are ruined. Because they’re strong cultures, they’re trying to find a way back and trying to figure out why this happened, and trying to work together to make it better. But culture is a living thing. It’s a living exchange of signals and behaviors. It’s not about what you say. It’s about what you do.

And so, this idea, I think, the thing that kills cultures often is success, actually, in a weird way, because it makes people complacent, it makes people not give attention to the kind of relationships that drive good culture. And the other thing that creates great culture is a crisis. When you go back in time and scroll back to “Why did Pixar get to be so good? Why did the Navy Seals get to be so good? Why did IDO get to be so good?” you will find a crisis often. And in that crisis, they were very vulnerable, they bonded, and they came up with new ways to doing things.

And so, I guess, all of which is to add up to say your culture is never done. Your culture is never done. And this skillset that you have, as you take these actions and try to build it around you, it’s always happening, always around you. And so, one of the most powerful things is to tune into these exchanges and these actions that are constantly moving the strength of your culture up or down.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Dan, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Daniel Coyle
Yeah, I guess there’s some sort of…the cultures have changed a lot. I guess I’d want to say a couple words about this moment we’re living through as people are adapting to hybrid work. And I think there’s been a shift in culture, and I’ve sort of noticed three really big themes and I’ll just mention them really quickly.

Theme one is “Stop thinking like a leader and start thinking like a teammate.” Strong cultures now to learn, and to grow, and to navigate change, no one has the answers. This idea of leadership that we’re sort of taught and is in our culture, that leaders always will know what to do, and there’s sort of this authority that they have that is unlike others. It’s baloney. Great leaders are great teammates and thinking more like a teammate.

Another theme I’ve seen is “Stop focusing on knowing, and start focusing on learning.” Don’t be knowing-it-all, be learning-it-all. And then the third is really “The power of the pause.” With the speed of change, it is absolutely necessary. And the way in which we’re working is changing where we’re communicating across time and space in different ways. Being intentional and having situational awareness is huge, and so people who are good at that are really good at pausing.

I think of pausing as the new productivity. Like, if you just raced through your day knocking stuff off, you are never going to clear your decks, and your decks will only get fuller and fuller and fuller. To stop and be very considerate about what you’re doing, to make time for reflection in your day, both as an individual and as a group, is one of the more powerful things a group can do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Daniel Coyle
One of my favorite quotes is a very long quote from Roosevelt, “It’s not the critic that counts. It’s the person in the arena.” It’s a good one. Look it up. But it’s, I think, that one always sticks with me as being the difference between sort of jumping into things and sitting on the sidelines.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Daniel Coyle
The Robbers Cave Experiment. They had a group, it was early on, they could never do this today. But they took a group of young kids and kind of created two tribes. It was around the time of Lord of the Flies, and they had these extraordinary like changing encounters between each of these tribes that just really resonates with me.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Daniel Coyle
Favorite book is The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Daniel Coyle
Favorite tool. I’m going to point right at it, I just bought a new pack of this today. Very inexpensive Bic pen, now with 45% smoother glide, I’m told on the package.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it true in your experience?

Daniel Coyle
It is. I just used it and it was at least 45% smoother.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Daniel Coyle
It’s exercise, actually. That’s just something that changes your whole state, changes your whole day. I like to get on my bike.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they re-tweet you often?

Daniel Coyle
I think it’s probably this idea of a vulnerability loop. This idea that vulnerability and trust that we’ve had it backwards, that moments of vulnerability are what create trust. And that seems to really echo and resonate with people.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Daniel Coyle
DanielCoyle.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Daniel Coyle
Yeah, I think the challenge would be to carve out time to reflect. There’s a piece of advice that somebody gave me a long time ago, which was WSD – write shit down. Writing it down makes things real. Writing is thinking. And you can write it on your phone, you can write it on a Post-it Note. It doesn’t matter. But capture stuff because you go through life, you want to learn, you want to get better at things. And learning is a cycle. You have an experience and then you have to reflect. You have an experience and then you reflect. That is what learning is made of.

So, I think in modern life, we don’t give much time for that reflection piece, as we were talking before. And carving out intentional time where you write down, just process what happened, will make you see it differently, will let you connect dots. A good journal is like a map, and so it will let you see where you’ve come and will open up places for you to go in the future. So, that would be my challenge for your group to WSD.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Dan, it’s been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much luck and fun cultures.

Daniel Coyle
Hey, thanks so much. It’s been great to be with you.

Leave a Reply