The Culture Code - Notes

Peter Silkman designer and engineer with Stanford and in Collaboration with Uni of Tokyo and others looked at a spaghetti tower and marshmallow challenge comparing pre-school kids vs business school students. In dozens of iterations of the experiment the children built structures that averaged more than twice the size of the business school students.

Reason is to do with the way these groups interact. ‘Business school students appear to be collaborating, but in fact are engaged in a process psychologists call status management. They are figuring out where they fit inot the larger picture: Who is charge? Is it ok to criticize someone’s idea? What are the rules here?’

Strong culture has a direct impact on bottom line – according to a Harvard study of more than 200 companies a strong culture increases net income 765% over 10 years.

Thesis of the book is that strong culture depends on a specific set of 3 skills:

Build safety creating bonds of identify and belonging

Share vulnerability – mutual risk drives trust and cooperation

Establish purpose – shared narratives around goals and values


Teams and groups often succeed because their members are safer. Simon Sinek expands on the same idea in Leaders Eat Last – & his TED talk

Looked at lots of groups with strong cultures, Navy Seals, Pixar studios, Performers, businesses etc. Noticed what they had in common here


Close physical proximity often in circles

Profuse amounts of eye contact

Physical touch – handshakes, fist bumps etc

Lots of short, energetic exchanges (no long speeches)

High levels of mixing, everyone talks to everyone

Few interruptions

Lots of questions

Intensive active listening

Humour, laughter

Small attentive courtesies – thank you’s opening doors etc.

References Sandy Pentlands research at MIT Human Dynamics Lab (more detail from his book here

For most of human history we needed way to develop cohesion. These signals likely predate language and operate almost entirely subconsciously. Belonging cues have three basic qualities:


Energy: they invest in the exchange that is occurring

Individualization: Treat the individual as unique and valued

Future orientation: They signal the relationship will continue

Examples include proximity, eye contact, mimicry, turn taking, energy etc. All seeking to answer the question are we safe here? Our unconscious brains are deeply obsessed with finding psychological safety. This needs lots of consistent and repetitive signalling to be effective. Easy to destroy but hard to build.

Various case study examples are used to illustrate how certain companies and groups have been successful in large part because of their ability to create safety and belonging.

Goolge developing pay per click – Jeff Dean the engineer who resolved the ability of the search engine to be accurate. Page had pinned up a note saying these ads suck, referring to effots to date. Page was not in the team working the problem but had a solution from something else he had seen and worked on. Google personal at this time were not busy managing their status or thinking about who was in charge they routinely interacted more like the pre-schoolers in the spaghetti tower experiment. ‘Google did not win because it was smarter, it won because it was safer.’

Group cohesion happens when we get clear steady signals of safe connection.

Other examples include 1914 Christmas truce and US missile command (a toxic environment to illustrate the opposite impact).

Building belonging. Example of Gregg Popovitch coach of San Antonio Spurs is a total outlier in terms of terms of games won beyond what computer modelling predicts based on player skill. (Neil Paine analysis of NBA coaches since 1979). His coaching style fundamentally revolves around building deep personal relationships with the players. ‘ He delivers two things over and over. He’ll tell you the truth with no bullshit, and then he’ll love you to death.’ Ass coach Chip Engelland.

‘One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, light-hearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged but at their core their members are orientated less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together.’

‘I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.’ Key phrase from a Standford, Yale and Columbia psychology experiment with middle school kids on essay writing. This phrase immensely boosted student effort and performance.

Key messages in this: You are part of this group. This group is special and has high standards and I believe you can reach those standards.

Tony Hsieh, CEO zappos example of a connector – advocate of the essential value of collisions – serendipitous encounters that create new possibilities or join the dots.

MIT Professor Thomas Allan did research into why some research projects / project teams are more successful. Most apparent pattern was the proximity of their desks to each other – creating clusters of high communicators. Allan curve illustrates impacts of communication frequency and distance 6m and less communication skyrockets

Creating safety is about small subtle moments, targeted signals at key points. Action list:

Spotlight your fallibility early on, especially if you’re a leader

Embrace the messenger – key test how you handle bad news

Preview future connection – that could be you that will be us etc

Overdo thank-yous

Be painstaking in the hiring process

Eliminate bad apples

Create safe collision rich spaces

Embrace fun

Muscular humility finding simple ways to serve the group. (Signal we are all in this together) Ray Kroc used to pick the trash up in the street, Wooden would clear up the locker room.


Dr Jeff Polzer Prof of Organizational behaviour at Harvard. Vulnerability is less about the sender than the receiver – 2nd person is key- do they pick up and share their own vulnerabilities or do they cover up? Very important moment in building trust. Vulnerability loop = a shared exchange of openness, it’s the most basic building block of cooperation and trust.

Vulnerability does not come after trust – it precedes it.

In group / team development 1st vulnerability and 1st disagreements are critical moments.

I screwed that up, maybe the most important words a leader every says.

Bell Labs research into characteristics of the most prolific patent filers. Common thread with the super creative folks – they all regularly eat lunch in the Bell labs café with Harry Nyquist a quiet Swedish engineer. He had a very warm personality and a relentless curiosity. His knowledge had both breadth and depth and he was thus catalytic in bringing diversity of thought to these conversations. Collisions that sparked better ideas.

Lazlo Bock former head of People Analytics at Google. Leaders should ask their people 3 questions:

What is the 1 thing I currently do I should continue doing?

What is 1 thing I don’t currently do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?

What can I do to make you more effective?

‘I’ve found whenever you ask a question, the first response you get is usually not the answer – it’s just the first response.’ Roshi Givechi


Example of Johnson and Johnson Credo, writen in 1943 by Robert Wood Johnson former chairman and founding family member.

P171 Text of 311 words. It begins ‘We believe our first responsibility is to doctors, nurses and patients; to mothers and father and all others who use our services.

In 1975 the then President held a number of meetings and discussion groups to look at the continued relevance, if any, of the credo. Process went on for several years and helped re-connect employees to the underpinning ethos. In Sept 1982 the company had a massive crisis because their product Tyrenol had been laced with cyanide and killed 6 people. Company response over the ensuing days and weeks (guided by the credo) has come to been seen as the gold standard for handling a corporate crisis.

Liverpool Uni social psychologist Clifford Scott – input to 2004 European Cup in Portugal, eliminated hooliganism and crowd violence due to the way the Police were trained to interact with crowds. All riot gear out of site. Trained liaison officers selected for social skills – friendly banter. Diffuse don’t confront.

Robert Roshenthal psych experiments with elementary school children testing impact of anchoring teacher beliefs. Children were randomly sorted but 1 group were described to their teachers as high potentials (in fact they were no different to any other group). Longitudinal study over several years these children achieved more, the expectation that they would was passed on in a number of ways:

Teachers were warmer more attentive, kinder etc

More input from teachers

Response opportunity teachers called on and listened to pupils more

Feedback, more often and more detail.

Group skills can be categorised as being for creativity or proficiency.