In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Emily Adeyanju speaks with Daniel Coyle about his new book The Culture Playbook: 60 Highly Effective Actions to Help Your Group Succeed (Bantam Books, May 2022). Coyle, a New York Times bestselling author and adviser to tech giants Google and Microsoft and to the Navy SEALs, shares actionable insights on company culture and proven methods that allow teams to connect over shared goals and a common purpose. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Why did you write this book?
I developed a career as a researcher and a journalist looking at the science of performance. I basically go places, places where people are really, really good at what they do, and I see what makes them tick. It looks like magic from a distance, but it’s not magic.
We all know that feeling of walking into a group, whether that’s a business or a school or a team or a community, and there’s just energy, right? There’s some chemistry. There’s some feel. There’s some cooperation, and trust, and selflessness. It feels like magic, but again, it’s not magic. It’s a thing. I’ve spent the last seven years looking deeply into what it’s made of and visiting the top-performing cultures on the planet—Pixar, Navy SEAL Team Six, San Antonio Spurs, even a Serbian gang of jewel thieves, which was kind of crazy—and seeing what makes them tick.
This conversation becomes super important right now because we’re all trying to figure it out on the fly. This conversation didn’t happen two or three years ago. We find ourselves moving into this hybrid age. Work and culture are changing. The questions in front of all of us right now are, “How do we adapt? How do we stay connected and learn together?” This question of building culture has never been more urgent.
The questions in front of all of us right now are, ‘How do we adapt? How do we stay connected and learn together?’ This question of building culture has never been more urgent.
Climbing a mountain
What surprised you about the research or the writing of the book?
I spent about seven years going around to different organizations and seeing what they’re about, and I was consistently surprised by a couple things.
One was that these cultures are not happy in the way you would expect. We have this idea of what it’s like to work at Pixar or this idea of what it’s like to be on a top special-operations team or on the San Antonio Spurs. We think in our heads, “Those places operate on a higher plane; every idea is smart—there are never any bad ideas; there are never any ugly disagreements or anything.” In fact, that’s wrong.
At companies with top-performing cultures, there’s actually slightly more tension because they’re turning toward problems together. In bad cultures, a problem comes up, and people kind of turn away from it, right? In good cultures, they get super interested and turn toward it. They will have vibrant arguments about which idea is best because those arguments are taking place in the bounds of safe connection. It’s a different kind of fun. Think of it as type-two fun. Type-one fun is really happy and upbeat. Type-two fun is harder. It’s like climbing a mountain; you get a reward for the effort. I heard somebody say that the vibe of being in great cultures is solving hard problems with people you admire. You’re gathered shoulder to shoulder around the problem with people you admire.
The other surprise that hit me was how alive culture is. Even the very best cultures can fall apart, and even the worst cultures can turn around. We have this idea in our head that culture is fixed: Disney is just always going to be Disney, or the US Marines are always going to be the US Marines. Not true. These things change; they go up and down all the time. And that reinforces this deeper point that culture is not about words. It’s about behaviors—it’s like a language of behaviors that people are continually speaking.
Any high-performing culture needs to be sending these behaviors over and over again in the same way that our bodies need to have circulatory systems, nervous systems, and visual systems. Just like the functions of our body or the strength and health of our body, the strength and health of our culture depend on what we do every single day. No matter how great your culture is, no matter how bad your culture is, it depends on the actions that you’re taking right now.
A flock of birds in the forest
Can you explain why companies should no longer aim for ‘culture fit’?
That is a term that is a synonym for “I feel comfortable with them.” If you say, “This woman over here is a good culture fit,” what does that really mean? If we interrogate that, that means “she reminds me of me. She talks like me. She walks like me. She wears the same clothes”—that kind of stuff, that’s what we’re really talking about.
With culture fit, you end up with the most cognitively dangerous group, which is a monoculture that can only think about things in a certain way. In this age we’re living in, where perspective is gold, being able to look at things in a new way is incredibly important. Regarding how to create a culture fit, I’d like to rethink that process because smart cultures actually do create culture fit—they do it with diverse people, though. The real question is, how do you create that connection with a diverse team so that they can tackle problems as a cohesive unit?
Regarding how to create a culture fit, I’d like to rethink that process because smart cultures actually do create culture fit—they do it with diverse people, though. The real question is, how do you create that connection with a diverse team so that they can tackle problems as a cohesive unit?
Some of the tools that I’ve seen smart cultures use for this have to do with processes like building a team charter together. That’s where you’d have a team together at the beginning of a project, and you’d ask some basic questions: “What end state are we going for here? How are we going to work together?” I’ve seen teams share user manuals, which is sort of a “guide to the best of me,” meaning “this is what you need to know about me to work with me.” Everyone shares those and creates shared awareness. A team charter is a similar process where teams get together and ask, “What tempo are we going to work at? Are we going to focus? How are we going to interact? How are we going to make decisions? How are we going to know that we’re making progress? Who are we going to go to for feedback?” They’re going to get all rules of engagement figured out so that they can fit together well, not just in a cosmetic way, but in a team way.
A big shift in our world, I think, is that we used to talk and think and focus on leadership: “Who’s the best leader? How can I be a leader?” As we move into this world that is demanding more adaptability, more learning, and more malleability, I think the real question to ask is not, “How can I be a great leader?” but “How can I be a great teammate?”
A big shift in our world, I think, is that we used to talk and think and focus on leadership: ‘Who’s the best leader? How can I be a leader?’ As we move into this world that is demanding more adaptability, more learning, and more malleability, I think the real question to ask is not, ‘How can I be a great leader?’ but ‘How can I be a great teammate?’
I’m going to offer a visual: a flock of birds flying through a forest at high speed, going around trees, staying together, moving toward some goal. Is there one bird that can say, “Move ten degrees to the left here, and now everybody turn to the right”? No. You have to self-organize in real time around these problems and obstacles. You have to stay oriented and aligned toward where you’re going. The question there is not, “How can I be the lead bird? How can I know everything?” It’s, “How can I create connection and trust and awareness of where we’re going and cohesion so that our group can, in real time, stay together and change?”
Those are two hard things to do: to stay together and still change, and then change again. That’s the real challenge of modern work. That’s why focusing on contribution and being a teammate matters way more than if you just are a fit.
How vulnerability increases visibility
What makes vulnerability loops so impactful, and why should vulnerability precede trust?
Trust is a really mysterious thing. I think one way to approach it is to think about the people in your own life who you trust the most. The question I have is, are those the people you are never vulnerable with, or are those the people you are most vulnerable with?
In work situations, we don’t like to take risks. Reputations matter, status matters, track record matters, and results matter. There’s real aversion to showing weakness, to displaying that you don’t know something, that you’re ignorant, or that you’re having a bad day, even. There’s this armor that we all wear all the time to stop that from happening, and the hugely ironic thing that I discover over and over again when I go inside a high-performing culture is that they find ways to take that armor off together.
There’s real aversion to showing weakness, to displaying that you don’t know something … or that you’re having a bad day, even. There’s this armor that we all wear all the time to stop that from happening, and the hugely ironic thing that I discover over and over again when I go inside a high-performing culture is that they find ways to take that armor off together.
It’s a vulnerability loop, which is when two or more people get together and profess weakness, show what’s really going on, confess their ignorance, and talk about what’s actually happening—not what they wish was happening, not what they hope was happening, but what’s actually happening. Probably the best example of it that I have is the Navy SEALs. After every mission or training run, the first thing they do before they even sleep or eat is circle up. They start having a really hard meeting.
The meeting’s called an after action review, and it’s based on three questions: “What went well? What didn’t go well? And what are we going to do differently next time?” It is a really difficult meeting to have because you have to own your mistakes, and you have to point out the mistakes of your teammate over and over and over and over again, building a shared model of what you’re doing together. When you finish a really hard mission as a group, everybody knows that what you really want to do is to walk away and get onto the next thing—declare it a success, just say, “Good job. Tick it off our list. We finished. We’re done,” right?
We rarely have the will power to pause and to accurately look at what happened. Did we do what we set out to do? Did we make mistakes, name those mistakes, name those barriers? Let’s really x-ray it. And the SEALs have that willingness to do that. There’s a moment there—that moment of a vulnerable pause—that allows you to really see what’s going on. We tend to think of vulnerability sometimes as being about emotions, but it’s more about learning. It’s more about giving people visibility into what we’re working on together.
Somebody at Google told me a story that happened 15 years ago with Ed Catmull. He said, “We were all working at Pixar on a project. Ed Catmull walked up, and he watched us with his arms folded. And we started getting nervous. Like, the boss, the genius is watching us. I wonder what he’s going to do.” He watched quietly for a while, and then he walked up, and he said, “Hey, when you guys are done, could you come up to my office and teach me how to do that?”
What a moment! Here is a person who’s got no reason to be vulnerable, no reason. He’s the most confident, wealthiest, most powerful person in the creative arts. And yet what is he doing? He’s showing a clear sign that he wants to learn. And that is really the key: vulnerability based around learning, around saying, “I don’t know.”
A Navy SEAL commander named Dave Cooper told me the four most important words any leader can say are, “I screwed that up,” which is really, really powerful, because it gives people permission to tell the truth. It gives people permission to create shared visibility over what’s actually happening—not what they hope is happening, but what is really happening. And that makes everyone smarter.
Vulnerability is really about getting smarter. It’s about getting more situationally aware. To go back to that model of the birds flying through the forest, vulnerability is what enables you to have the awareness to know where you are in relation to everybody and to know where the obstacle is. Vulnerability is information. It’s how a group brain gets really smart. It ends up being this sort of counterintuitive, painful exchange that isn’t that different from when we exercise in our body. You know that when you exercise you will feel pain. And because of that, your muscles will get stronger. That’s how our bodies are built. It’s a compensatory mechanism. You stress it, and it gets stronger.
Well, you know what? Human groups are exactly the same. If you stress them with vulnerability, they get stronger. They get tighter. They get more cohesive and healthier. These ideas around vulnerability are a really, really powerful vehicle to create that trust and connection that powers great groups.
Finding your ‘North Star’
Does ‘flash mentoring’ really work?
Traditional mentorship is a big ask. It’s like asking somebody to be your aunt or your uncle: it’s a very high-stakes thing. Flash mentorship is a way of lowering the stakes and saying, “Tell me, why did you write the memo that way?” or “Tell me, why did you start your presentation with that slide?” And shorter, quicker conversations get at the skill. The goal being, you’re not trying to get everything from the mentor or trying to create a quasi-familial relationship.
There’s a related concept around flash mentoring called “dual-purpose learning.” And that is where you are continually operating to both get things done and develop people. It feels a little slower, but you do it by setting out some learning goals at the beginning of a project. In dual-purpose learning, you constantly are having short, backchannel flash mentor-like conversations with the people who are ready to learn. There will be a negotiation happening on the phone, and they’ll sit in the room. Then they’ll have five minutes of asking questions, like “Why did you negotiate like that?”
So you’re continually creating this apprenticeship-like relationship. Again, full warning, it feels very inefficient as you’re doing it. It doesn’t feel fast, because you’re pressing pause, slowing down, stopping, and reflecting. But you know what? Pressing pause and reflecting are the only ways development ever happens. In the medical community, they’ve got that tradition of “see one; do one; teach one,” where if there’s a procedure—like intubating someone—you see one, do one, and teach one. That’s dual-purpose learning. You’re bringing somebody along the whole time, so it’s an extraordinary opportunity of continuing to develop people.
That developmental piece really can’t be overstated, because in this world, development is one of the few things that will keep people attached to a group. We live in an age of hypermobility and hyperflexibility where people can and will work from anywhere. What keeps them some place? It’s not what used to keep them there. What keeps them there is this opportunity that “I’m going to get better in ways that I can’t even imagine. This place offers me an opportunity to get better that I can’t find anywhere else.” These sorts of dual-purpose pathways, these sorts of apprenticeship relationships—creating some intentionality about that learning, creating those reflective pauses—end up being core competencies for culture. Because if you just are in some transactional, getting-it-done job and nobody cares about your development, why wouldn’t you leave?
Development is one of the few things that will keep people attached to a group. We live in an age of hypermobility and hyperflexibility where people can and will work from anywhere. What keeps them some place? It’s not what used to keep them there. What keeps them there is this opportunity that ‘I’m going to get better in ways that I can’t even imagine. This place offers me an opportunity to get better that I can’t find anywhere else.’
Will remote work ultimately take us to a place where we have less cohesive company culture and less culture buy-in?
My short answer is, I don’t have a clue. This is all terra incognita. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen. What we think of as cohesion will be a different mode of cohesion or a different kind of cohesion. What we think of as chemistry or buy-in is going to be a different kind of buy-in, a different kind of chemistry, a different kind of care. There’s one interesting company named Articulate Global that has been fully remote for 20 years. It’s quite successful.
What it’s found is that it needs to get together about once every six months in some location to bond and talk and connect. In The Culture Playbook: 60 Highly Effective Actions to Help Your Group Succeed, I talk a little bit about this importance of toggling where we’re moving from physical to virtual—to reignite those bonds, to be really intentional about the relationships.
When you’re in a physical workplace, you just default to certain kinds of relationships. But the leadership bar in this new environment, in this hybrid environment, is going up because it requires a lot more intentionality around relationship building and cohesion building, around managing. There’s a tip that I give in the new book about creative and productive work and how important it is to divide that work into two different buckets.
It’s much easier to do simple productive work, like the stuff you always do when you’re remote. But if you want to invent new ideas, if you want to be creative at all, it pays wildly better to be together. There was one study of engineers solving a problem, and they talked about the problem eight times more often when they were in person. Instead of just having to default to the physical office, we need to know, “OK, on the three days that we’re in the office, this is how we should spend our time. This is how we should fly through the forest together.”
This is a moment of great experimentation. And some of those experiments are around, “How do we create cohesion in this virtual world?” Some cool practices are emerging. One of them I would spotlight would be the premeeting warm-up when there’s a virtual meeting—doing some kind of warm-up to create a common experience—a common space, if you will—among the people in the virtual meeting. I’ve seen it in action, having everyone do some movement together or everyone bite a slice of lemon together, as goofy as that sounds.
Some of this stuff is goofy. Let’s go back to vulnerability and trust. Some of this stuff does make you vulnerable. It does create that shared connection. Culture is about the experiment. It’s about the conversation. It’s about the vulnerability. It’s about creating that shared “North Star” that you’re going after together. It’ll evolve sort of like an ecosystem, a million different really cool solutions for a million different situations.
It’s not about big culture; it’s about microculture. Every team has its microculture. It’s about talking about that and cocreating the language you’re going to use to describe answers to the questions, “What are we doing? What are we about? Why do we work? How do we connect? What’s the biggest problem we face?” In the book, I call it a “mantra map.” A person who really embodies this is restaurant owner Danny Meyer. Some of you probably eat in his restaurants: Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Café—he’s got about 20 of them, and they’re all wildly successful.
It’s about microculture. Every team has its microculture. It’s about talking about that and cocreating the language you’re going to use to describe answers to the questions, ‘What are we doing? What are we about? Why do we work? How do we connect? What’s the biggest problem we face?’ In the book, I call it a ‘mantra map.’
He started one restaurant, and it was a huge success. Then he opened the second, and they both started to fail because he couldn’t be in two places at once. He was the culture. When he was around, you knew how to put the saltshaker out, how to talk to people, how to walk, how to move, and how to treat people. When he was gone, stuff started going off the rails. He did something really smart: he closed both restaurants and went off on a retreat, and that’s when he started building his mantras.
The one he created for his true north was “creating raves.” It wasn’t serving good food. It wasn’t making money. It wasn’t getting a three-star Michelin review. It was creating raves. He ends up training around that, posting that wildly, and talking about it all the time. And just like a magnetic field, it orients everybody toward where they are going: “Did I create any raves today? Where am I going? And how am I going to get there? What’s going to stop me?” That is really accessible and incredibly powerful.
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