Book – The Culture Code


This is one of the best books about the organizational culture I enjoyed.  Fascinating stories and useful examples expand the topic into a world of human nature.

The book starts with a “marshmallow challenge” highlighting the success of kindergarteners compared to business students and CEOs.  “Kindergartners succeed not because they are smarter, but because they work in a smarter way.”  Business students are engaged in status management, what distracts their attention from the task.

Culture is a set of living relationships working towards a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”

The doing of culture is synthesized in three critical skills.

  1. Build safety—“explores how signals of connection generate bonds of belonging and identity.”
  2. Share vulnerability—“explains how habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation.”
  3. Establish purpose—“tells how narratives create shared goals and values.”
New York Journal of Books

The book includes many examples of experiments and successful/unsuccessful cultures.

  • In a rainy day, a stranger is asking a person to borrow his/her cell phone.  If the stranger starts with “I am so sorry about the rain…” the probability to receive the phone increases over 400%.  The phrase suggests that it is a safe place to connect.
  • A call center (one of “the best companies to work for” in India) wanted to increase retention. A group of new employees received an additional hour of onboarding where they could connect with the company as individuals.  Employees in this group also received a sweatshirt not only with the company logo, but also with the employee name next to the logo.  This group was less likely to leave the company months after the onboarding they could not always recall.
  • Another call center hoped to increase productivity.  The group of employees was contacting university alumni and asking for donations.  The typical rejection rate was over 90%; the work was tedious.  The productivity increased (in the number of calls completed and $$ collected) after the employees heard from the students who benefited from their efforts.  The experiment started with a letter from a student describing how the scholarship changed his life and proceeded with 5 minutes meetings with other students, who received the scholarship.
  • Two different types of objectives require different approaches: a culture built for efficiency and a culture built for creativity.
    • Efficiency (restaurant) implies a clear set of “rules of thumb,” where each person knows what the correct “answer” is, and each person empowered to take needed actions.
    • Creativity (Disney, Pixar) requires a collaborative organization, which encourages to “create something new” and assumes multiple iterations of the process.  (Disney studio has been reorganized to achieve better results with the same employees, who discovered that their rules of engagement changed.)

Team performance is driven by 5 measurable factors:

  1. Everyone in the group talks and listens in a roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short
  2. Members maintain a high level of eye-contact and their conversations and gestures are energetic
  3. Members communicate directly to one another, not just with the team leader
  4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team
  5. Members periodically break, go explore outside the team and bring information back to share with the others

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