The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 117

Daniel Coyle

The Culture Code

Ever wondered why culture gets so much attention? And can you really do anything about it anyway? Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code, makes a strong case for the importance of culture and why, yes, you can do something about it (and you should). He visited numerous organizations to uncover what makes them successful. Discover the most important words a leader can say, the benefits of a two-line email, and why culture isn’t a soft skill.


The most important words a leader can say? “I screwed that up” @DanielCoyle How can we have the courage to be more vulnerable? @DanielCoyle joins me this week to discuss successful workplace cultures and the power of vulnerability




This transcript has not been edited.

Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

We are fortunate enough to have with us today Daniel Coyle. He is The New York Times best-selling author of The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. If you’re on video, this is what it looks like, and you should run out and buy it, which I’m sure you’re going to want do after this conversation. He also wrote the Talent Code which was a fantastic book and also a New York Times best-selling book. The Little Book of Talent, The Secret Race, Lance Armstrong’s War and Hardball.

Coyle works as an advisor to the Cleveland Indians. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio and in Homer, Alaska. He grew up in Alaska, and he goes back and forth between Alaska and Ohio. The book is an awesome book, and he’s a really great guy.

Dan, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Dan: It’s good to be here, thanks for having me, Peter.

Peter: Dan, you wrote this book, The Culture Code, and it’s very much about teams. It’s about culture, and it’s about teams. We’ll get into the distinction between those two, or how they interplay with each other, I’m sure.

But the first is a very basic question which is that … I receive a million books as people talk to me about coming on the podcast, and there’s a lot of them on teams. I’m wondering … I’m sure you’ve read a million books on teams. The question is, what are you adding to the conversation with this one? What motivated you to write this one?

Dan: Yeah, it’s funny. I got obsessed with a mystery. I write about high-performing individuals and high-performing teams all the time. Through a career as a journalist and, I guess, a frustrated doctor, I was going to be a doctor growing up.

Peter: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Dan: I fell into … Almost went to med school, came this close to going to med school, fell into journalism and got obsessed with this question of, what makes great people tick? Wrote this book called The Talent Code which I visited individuals, these talent hotbeds, really, really talented individuals. While I was there, I saw some things that got me obsessed with the mystery of, what makes a great team?

I remember specifically I was in Spartak, this tennis club outside of Moscow. It produces more champions than the entire United States actually, women champion tennis players. A new player came on the court, and a coach walked over to that player. The player was really nervous, young player, and the coach walked over and said, “Hey, I’m glad you’re here. I want you to do something for me,” and she tossed the girl a tennis ball, and the girl caught it.

It was like this tiny interaction that could easily have been overlooked, and, yet, it was massive. The girl went [inaudible 00:02:57] outsider to being an insider. I got obsessed, what happened there? What’s that all about?

That sent me on a journey that I ended up … actually, also through the work with the Cleveland Indians got to be around a team that was getting better and better and better and better and having all this great chemistry. Those things combined and sent me on this journey around the world looking at great teams, looking at teams in the top 1% of their domain who are acknowledged by experts as having great sustainable performance and great culture. It was Pixar and Navy Seal Team Six, Zappos, IDEO, the San Antonio Spurs, and I was fortunate enough to get inside each of those places and really embed myself and see what happens on the ground.

I come from the point of view of a journalist. I’m looking for proof. I’m looking to see, how they communicate, how they lead. What I wanted to add to the conversation, I guess, was a sense of reality. So many of these books float above the air and above the landscape. I wanted to come at it from a really hard journalist point of view and say, “Okay, let’s push all the lingo aside. What’s happening there? What’s the pattern of behavior?” The human brain is designed to combine into groups in certain ways. What’s that pattern?

Peter: Right, and you came up with three things in your research. You came up with three big categories: safety, shared risk, and purpose. Those resonated with me also. Can you give just sentence or two about each one, so that you ground us in the reality of what you mean by that?

Dan: Yeah, big picture, what three things? There’s three things that every group has to do to … Whether they’re a group of honeybees or a group of Navy Seals or a team at Zappos or us talking on the phone here, it’s you need to connect. You need to actually have something that connects you into a group. Then you need to share information. Then you need to have a direction like, “Where are we going together?” No matter what you are, those three functions have to happen.

You can almost picture a flock of birds or a school of fish moving through a complicated landscape. They got to connect. They got to cooperate, share information, and they have to have a direction in order to function as a group.

The way our brains are built, is there’s this deep grammar that we use to connect. We use safety, signals of safety, this language of safety. When you feel safe, you will connect with someone.

Next, how do we cooperate? How do we create and share information? We do that through sharing vulnerability, by showing weakness and openness. That’s how we share information.

Then, how do we determine direction? That is about purpose and story. The large picture of this is if you align your behaviors and get tuned into these signals … It doesn’t have much to do with words, actually. It’s funny. Words are just noise most of the time. But if you get into what the scientists would call signaling behaviors, signal connection, signal safety, signal vulnerability to create exchange of information and signal purpose to create a shared direction.

It’s more like leadership is a … We think about culture as a soft skill. I found exactly the opposite. It’s about clarity. Great leaders send these signals really clearly to connect, to share information, and to create purpose. It’s not this, “Oh, we just have a good vibe. We just have good chemistry in our team.” Uh-uh, no, there’s an exchange going on of patterned behavior over and over again.

Peter: Let me ask you a question, because I’m curious about the way you’ve described this, and I just came off of teaching a five-day leadership program. I was talking a lot about emotion. Emotional courage, the willingness to feel things. We did some exercises around it.

One of the people in the program said to me, “It helps me … ” This was not a “soft guy,” and he said, “It helps me … I was having a hard time connecting when you said emotion.” Then what he next said surprised me. He said, “But if you use … ” Because I’m talking to them about where they feel it in their body. If you’re feeling something, where in your body do you feel it? He said, “If you use the word energy instead of emotion that would be helpful to me.”

I think of energy when you walk in the room, and you feel someone’s energy. You feel a certain way. I think of that as much more soft language than emotion which feels to me harder. You’re talking about these behaviors very concrete, tangible visible things that people do, maybe not words, that create a sense of safety or project a sense of vulnerability.

I’m curious whether that word energy whether it resonates? Whether you feel like people have a certain energy that articulates or that projects safety? If that is something beyond saying a word or tossing a ball, or whether that energy is built out of saying a word and tossing a ball? Is my question … Does my question make sense?

Dan: That’s interesting. No, that’s interesting. There are so many different ways to get at this, and it comes down to the feeling you’re creating in the other person and being in tune with it.

There are many ways that that tennis coach could have gone over and tossed a ball to the little girl to welcome her, right? There’s a lot of different ways she could have done it. But the authenticity of that interaction … That’s another word maybe we can throw into our soup here, it’s the … She created a feeling that she intended to create. She was in tune with what she was creating in that person. I think great leaders do that.

There was a moment in hanging out with the San Antonio Spurs, Greg Popovich, they had this … I tell this story in the book, they had this devastating loss, and typically … NBA Finals they were about to win the championship, they get beaten. His response was to gather everyone and to have a dinner together.

Peter: I love this story.

Dan: One of the assistant coaches talked about seeing him as devastated as any of … It was the moment right before the bus or the players pulled up. He was as devastated as any human has ever been. He takes a deep breath, and he gets control over his emotions, and then, he starts … The bus pulls up, and he starts greeting people warmly at the door and creating, almost like … It turned into this happy occasion.

It was an incredible feat of communication leadership, but at the very bottom is this emotional athleticism. This discipline that he has in order to get over himself, which is really, really hard to do. To get over … He had been trying for this championship for decades. His dream had just been shattered. But he was able, in that moment, to take a breath, get over it, and put his attention into creating the kinds of interactions that he wanted to create. To me, it’s just a jaw-dropping act of leadership and emotional discipline.

Peter: There are so many things that can get in the way of it. One of the things that I’m hearing from you is that he, first of all, was clear about the outcome he wanted to create, and then he made a decision about how he needed to show up in order to create that outcome. Then he was able to gain control over his emotions.

One of the things that I think gets in the way, in that particular situation … I thought of Popovich, and the story that you told in the book around it, which is that there’s a lot of people I know who would say, “I don’t want to make people feel better after a loss like that. I want them … Because, otherwise, they’re not going to be afraid of losing next time. I want them to see how serious it is, so they work even harder in order to get it.”

I guess my question is, what do you say to that person who says that to you?

Dan: I think there’s often this dichotomy that we carry around with us that says I can either be tough, or I can be nice. That I have a choice. I have to choose between those two.

What I saw over and over again in the best cultures that I visited, and I visited some pretty good places, is that they’re really, they’re really tough. They’re really excellent, and they’re really nice.

Those two things are a false dichotomy. You don’t have to choose to be nice or tough. As one of the assistant coach puts it, “Coach Pop does two things. He tells you the truth,” which is really hard to hear sometimes. He’s very tough, as we know, and “He loves you to death.” He is giving you the most high-octane feedback you’ve ever gotten. At the same time, he’s making a reservation for you and your wife at a restaurant and ordering the wine for you and asking how it went afterwards.

Those things are not … You should not keep those things apart. You can actually do them both. They strengthen each other, and they both build a relationship.

I think that idea that well, I’m going to put on my tough hat now. I’m just going to … Those guys can tough it out. That can work in some situations, actually. Being an authoritarian leader works for simple problems. It works for simple actions. If you want your group to do very simple things.

But when things are complex or fast-moving or rely on learning, you really need to continually … As Popovich would say, “Fill their cups.” Fill people’s cups, so that they have the energy and the connection and the sense of belonging and safety which is the foundation of all good teamwork.

Peter: It also seems to really take a tremendous amount of humility. We briefly talked about this. But I feel like in sometimes in my experience with senior leaders in organization, there is an inverse relationship between how smart they are, and how capable they are of creating safety. It’s almost like they’re smart, and they either work too hard to show people that they’re smart, or they have… They think they have a better answer, or maybe they do have a better answer. Yet, the way they approach that gets in the way of creating a climate of safety and works counter to what they’re trying to produce in the organization.

Dan: That’s so true. I haven’t thought it quite as clearly as you have expressed it right there. But yeah, there is an inverse relationship between IQ and the ability to do this or at least raw intellectual horsepower.

I kept meeting the same people that were very smart, and they probably did have a lot of the answers. But where they were really smart is in realizing the impossibility of them truly having all the answers. They could have some suggestions. They could have some context, but they were constantly focused on, how do I get a conversation going around this and support that conversation?

There was a phrase that I heard, actually from Dave Cooper who’s a Seal Team Six Commander who trained the people who did the Bin Laden raid. His phrase was “a backbone of humility.” I love it, because we typically think of humility as meekness and as being subservient in some way. That’s not accurate actually.

When you’re talking about a group in which knowledge is distributed and problems are complicated, humility is not an option. It’s a biological requirement. The discipline with which you need to wield it is impressive.

It’s a strength when a leader says, “Admit some weakness,” or creates a conversation that actually shows people the truth of what’s going on. That’s not weakness. That’s being really, really smart, because you’re not just leading. You’re helping people discover the answer for themselves.

Peter: You say something, I think really true and very interesting and also something I hadn’t really thought of before but feels really important which is that vulnerability precedes safety. It precedes the ability to take shared risk.

So often, people wait for a safe environment in order to be vulnerable, and, yet, you can’t create that safe environment without being vulnerable. What have you seen … I’m always interested in this, because when you look at great teams or great people, you’re looking generally at the people who are already exhibiting those behaviors.

But when people are reading these books and trying to apply them, they’re in a place where they’re not already demonstrating, and they have to learn. Somehow the skill of having the characteristics versus the skill of developing them feels like a very different skill. I’m curious what advice you have, or if you’ve seen people who didn’t have that courageous vulnerability and then developed it, and what they did. What kind of advice can you give people to develop the courage in a sense to take those kinds of risks and to create the culture within their teams that will help them to be most successful?

Dan: That’s a cool question. It’s a funny, actually, I just got back from San Diego where we did this event with a big group, this giant company. They were struggling with the same thing. They needed to collaborate better. They needed to be more open with each other.

What we came up with was their leader stood up … Actually, Dave Cooper has a saying he says, “The most important four words a leader can say are, ‘I screwed that up.'” The leader got up and told a story about something he screwed up at. Boom.

Step two, everybody at the different tables got a partner, and they each shared, loop, the [inaudible 00:15:37] loop is the key word here. They each shared a story. Then they reflected on the reasons why they don’t tend to share those stories. What barriers are there? What fears are in the way? Then shared those out.

It was … It took 40 minutes. It was really a small thing. But I think it contained most of the ingredients of this process which is permission first. If your leadership isn’t going to be open, then it’s … You really need to have that be part of it. That needs to be a key part of it.

Peter: Their vulnerability can’t be, “My biggest mistake was perfection.”

Dan: That’s kind of funny. The guy did that a little bit. I hope he’s not listening, but he half-assed it a little bit. It was like, “Yeah, I had this project that was too successful.” It was something like that.

But it still worked. That was the interesting part. It still worked, because he was at least from where he was to where he showed a weakness, and everybody responded to it, and everybody was ready. That stepwise, you have to crack it open and the root word of vulnerability is womb, so expecting that it feels funny and difficult and weird.

The other key word in here is loop. That it’s not a one-way street. You have to create pairs where each person is opening up a little bit and sharing something. It is something that feels strange at first to do that.

However, the analogy I have is it’s sort of like getting in shape physically. We know that when we experience pain, we get stronger in the gym or running. It’s exactly the same in group life. That little pain of vulnerability, of opening up about weakness is what creates closeness.

We typically think about it, as you say, exactly wrong. We think, “Oh, I’m going to trust you, and then I’m going to open up and be vulnerable.” That’s exactly backwards. Those moments of vulnerability create trust.

Peter: Right, it’s … I’m also thinking about a team I know where the leader is very willing to be vulnerable. But lacks some of the strength necessary to create that standard within the group. There’s a senior leader who’s the exact opposite, who’s not only the exact opposite but a little bit of a bully, maybe not a little bit.

The fact that he allows that behavior to exist kills … It dilutes any positive impact that his own vulnerability would be. His vulnerability then ends up reading as weakness. It’s seems like there’s this combination of saying, “I’m going to be vulnerable, and intolerant of the kind of behavior that dings the safety that I’m creating in the group.”

Dan: Right, the backbone of humility there.

Peter: The backbone of humility.

Dan: The other thing that helps people, I think, in their move to make this part of daily life is to frame it around learning. When you talk about what you’re bad at that can either be framed as you’re pretty bad at that like that’s incompetence, or it can be learning.

I saw tons of examples of that. I saw a really vivid one at Pixar where the leader Edwin Catmull … Actually, I heard this story 10 years after it happened. That’s how resonant of a story it was. He came up to some young engineers who were working on some new way of coding, and he watched them for a while. They were kind of nervous. The boss is watching them. Then he said to them, this one sentence that they remembered 10 years later, he said, “Hey, when you guys are done, could you come up to my office and teach me how to do that?”

Super-simple, but when you frame vulnerability around learning, you create … What an incredible signal of learning and of saying, “I want to learn from you. Please learn from me.” These are simple signals, but they carry a lot of impact.

Peter: So much of this is around communication. When I look at a lot of the examples in the book, it’s like we really have to be so skilled at communicating a way that our intention matches our impact, so that what we’re trying to get across does. It requires a tremendous amount of skill as communicators. Did you find that to be true in what you saw?

Dan: Absolutely. It came down to just the tiniest nuance. Even there was something that one of the Navy Seal Commanders told me where he said, “Your face has two settings. It’s either closed or open.” He was even talking about the frontalis muscle here.

All the good leaders I saw, they had this open face. It’s not a coincidence. This tiny, tiny nuance that you think, “Is that really important?” The answer is yes, yes it is really important. You keep seeing that pattern over and over again where these …

The other piece of it that comes to mind is a lot of the leaders that I met were extraordinary learners. Learning happens in a loop. You’ve got experience, and then you have reflection.

I think in our modern … In most of our lives, we’ve got plenty of experience. We have no shortage of experience, but where we do have a shortage is of reflection, of having habitual opportunities to capture what happened that day, to reflect on it and to distill out something useful.

Keeping journals, keeping notes, keeping files on your phone, taking the … getting into the rhythm of learning where you get the maximum. You take experience in, and then you get something out of it. I think that was something that all the leaders that I met did, and something that I think everybody could steal from.

Peter: What gets in the way? Why do … It’s so simple and straight forward. Why do people not do this?

Dan: I think it’s just the rush of life. There’s always that pressure of the next thing and the next call, and life comes at us faster than it ever has. To actually carve out time for some solitude and mindfulness can be one of the most powerful things you can do. It feels inefficient, but, actually, it’s a hell of a lot more efficient than just racing from fire to fire.

Peter: Did you find low-risk ways of starting to demonstrate these behaviors? I think about the leader who is hesitant to be vulnerable, because they think it will read as weakness, or they think they’re smarter than the group. All these … I’m listening in my head to the kinds of things people might say that might make them resistant to connection or resistant to focusing on purpose in a way that draws people along with them, as opposed to telling them what to do. Can you offer some low-risk or lower-risk or ways of dipping your feet in the water around these behaviors?

Dan: You bet. Here’s one … One of my favorites is from Laszlo Bock who now works at Humu who used to be the head of People Analytics at Google. He calls it the two-line email. You send it to your group, and you say, “Hey,” two lines, “please tell me one thing you want me stop doing and one thing you want me to keep doing?”

Peter: I just did this with my children.

Dan: Did you really?

Peter: I just did this. I was on a chairlift in Jackson Hole. and we were in a gondola, so they couldn’t get away. We were in a five-person thing. I said, “Tell me one thing you really love and want me to continue doing as your dad, and one thing that gets in your way.” It was … I learnt a tremendous amount. What I learnt was, they like that I’m funny, and I am … In one form or other, they said I’m not patient enough. I don’t listen, and I interrupt. The youngest was, “You interrupt me all the time.” I said, “Really?” He starts talking, and then I interrupted him, and they go, “And you’re funny.”

But I really … It changed the way I parent. I realized I’m not slowing down enough for what my kids need. I think that’s a great thing. Sorry, continue the story, but it just-

Dan: So cool. I love that. I love that. I guess the other thing I would say easy is, think about … Use the following phrase, “Tell me more.” I think a lot of times when we get a question as a leader, our instinct, more than instinct, it’s a reflex, is to answer, right?

If someone brings you a problem, I’ve got the answer right here. You try to add value and adding value is often not the smart move. The smart move is to unearth, to surface what’s really going on, surface the tension. Why did they come to you? If someone comes to you with a problem, the key phrase to use is, “Tell me more about that.”

Then the next thing I would say is, pay attention to the size of your lunch table. When you look at the research, and you look at the sociometrics around this stuff, people who eat lunch at their desk alone are missing out on a huge opportunity, and people who eat with one person are missing out on one. There are a lot of companies who’ve gone to these bigger lunch tables in order to create that dense layered multiple interaction that can drive connection and creativity and create closeness.

Peter: I love how concrete that is. That’s so smart.

Dan: Then at dinner, just to continue on the parenting thing, the conversation you always have as a parent with your kids is, “What did you do today?” That conversation has never gone well in the history of humanity. Never happened that you’ve had good conversation.

Instead of that, you lead with your failure. Find something you messed up that day, lead with that, and then see what happens. You’ll be creating some vulnerability loops. You’ll be creating some conversation, sending a really big signal, “Hey, perfection’s not what we’re about. Let’s learn, and let’s laugh, and let’s talk about some fun stuff.” Yeah those would be the things to start off.

Peter: That’s great. I’m curious, Dan, how this book and the research in this book has changed you and your behavior? How do you do things differently than maybe you were doing before?

Dan: That’s funny that dinner table thing for sure. I coached a team, and, actually, they were writing team. There was a writing competition here, and, so, [inaudible 00:25:30] doing short stories and then getting rated, it’s really fun.

It was a small school, and, the first few times I did it, I was the sage on the stage. I had the answers. I was the guy. I’m a real writer too, so-

Peter: Yeah.

Dan: … [crosstalk 00:25:44], and I would give these really fascinating lectures, I thought.

It wasn’t … It was okay. It wasn’t working great. After I got into this, I completely flipped it and just … I brought in examples of mistakes I had made, my manuscripts all marked up. I really tried to, first of all, create a lot of safety by talking about what they loved writing about. I used pop songs. We’d analyze pop songs. We created this ring of feedback where everybody’s giving each other feedback. I really took it from being the source of knowledge about writing to creating this really integrated team where they were giving each other really good feedback and learning every day.

We ended up … It was really fun. Having a … we had a pretty successful run. It was fun to be able to tap into that, because they’re not difficult to do.

It’s interesting that you talk about emotion in your world, because that to me is at the core of it where you’ve got to be willing to give up your conventional model of that authority figure in order to do something that is not any harder. It requires a little more reflection. It requires a little more attention to nuance and detail, but it’s actually easier. It’s actually an easier way to lead than if you have to carry all that knowledge around and have to be the man all the time and be the answer and be the source of everything.

It’s actually much easier when someone has a problem to say, “Tell me more. What do you think?” Because they probably have the answer way better than you do. Yeah, it definitely has had a big impact in the way you approach groups and teams.

Peter: That’s great. I think about these leaders who try to … Who feel like they … when someone comes to them with a problem they do have the answer. They really feel like they have the answer, and they give the answer. Then because they’re in a hierarchical rank role, then the person probably doesn’t follow up with what’s going on.

One of the sad parts about that, besides the fact that we’re sub-optimizing from a team perspective, is it really isolates the leader. They do end up eating at their desk, because they become disconnected from the people around, and it’s very lonely. That’s why people talk about leadership being lonely.

You’re not only creating … The Culture Code, this book doesn’t only help you figure out how do you … It doesn’t only solve for the team, but it solves for an element of leadership that I think most leaders often struggle with.

Dan, it is such a pleasure talking to you. The book is The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. Dan Coyle, wrote it. I really … It’s one of my favorite books of the year, and I really enjoyed reading it. I really appreciate you being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast. Thanks so much.

Dan: It’s been so good knocking around with you, Peter. Thanks so much.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review.

A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit

Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode and thank you for listening.


  1. Sunil says:

    Great discussion! The key word for me in this discussion, I would pick “vulnerability” which creates some deep learning opportunities towards process improvement. Yes of course safe environment is the key, then only team connect to it’s bigger purpose. I always in constant touch base with my colleagues and teams to improve the outcome by adding more significance and processes to ensure safety. I really like the honey bee example how it connect with purpose and direction. This is really interesting.
    Thanks Peter and Dan wonderful!

  2. Another gold interview, thank you. I really appreciate how accessible these are – both in delivery, and in content.
    Some interviews get ‘mired’ in the buzz words of the day. The language and content in your interviews is always inclusive, and ‘keep it real’. This certainly adds to the value your listeners gain.
    We are fortunate to now have an incredible Prime Minister who models honesty and vulnerability.
    E.g. when asked about an ongoing problem recently, she said “Yes, we absolutely need to do better, and here’s what we are going to do”
    That immediately gave everyone involved licence to move past the problem and into the solution. No blame game, no side stepping, just own it and move on.
    Exciting times!
    Thanks for all your work, Peter.

  3. Bob says:

    Arguably one of the best to date, lots of useful ideas and useable content.

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