Cracking the Culture Code

In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle digs into strong cultures, sharing the signals and skills you need to transform your school relationships.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: May 11, 2021

In The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle asks, Why do some organizations add up to more than the sum of their parts, while others add up to less? The answer, of course, is culture. Talk of workplace culture has exploded over recent years, especially in the private sector, where research shows that group culture is the strongest indicator of success. In fact, according to a study from Harvard, a positive culture increases a company’s net income by as much as 756% over just 11 years. Culture saturates a work environment, affecting every employee and stakeholder. Whether you’ve experienced a toxic workplace culture or an excellent one, you know.

But even if you can easily identify its effects, it’s hard to pin down exactly how to create a strong group culture. “We all know that it works,” Coyle writes. “We just don’t know quite how it works.” He spent years researching and visiting top-performing companies widely lauded for having strong cultures, attempting to crack The Culture Code.

Coyle uses human psychology and his own observations to show that great cultures share three skills: fostering safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose. As humans, we are wired to want to belong to a group. Implementing these skills ”taps into our social brain” by creating interconnected relationships that draw us together and give us a shared purpose.

Organizational culture is ultimately defined by relationships. As a district leader, it’s important to create an environment that satisfies your team’s innate human needs for belonging and purpose. This increases interactions throughout your district, creating relationships built on connectedness, growth, and a shared goal.

As Coyle points out, culture isn’t inherent in an organization’s DNA; it’s built through intentional efforts to create relationships and shared purpose. Throughout the book, he explores real-world examples of how each culture-building skill works, then provides practical ideas leaders can use and adapt to create strong organizational culture.

Coyle’s ideas are based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with the ultimate goal of helping your employees reach self-actualization. Sound familiar? That’s because you’ve probably encountered and implemented these ideas before, whether as a classroom teacher or as a coach. Just as teachers establish classroom cultures that drive students toward growth and purpose, you can do the same for your district team. These are skills you already have as an educator; it’s just about applying them in new ways.

Sending Signals

Before really diving in, it’s important to understand how your district’s culture is built in the first place—on relationships and interactions. Culture is formed through a multitude of small signals that convey each team member’s place within the district.

It’s easy to see this through the customer service lens. If a parent walks into a school and sees trash on the ground, or is greeted by an unwelcoming employee, they’ve just received a host of signals that begin to shape their understanding of your schools. The same is true for your team; their interactions with leaders and coworkers shape their relationships with the district.

Employees learn the culture of your district by interacting with the nearly infinite number of signals sent throughout your schools every day. They can receive these signals at any time: a passing conversation with a team leader in the hallway, an in-depth discussion about equity, or even the signage plastered throughout a school. Changing a culture is ultimately about changing the signals being sent out by everyone representing your schools—starting with you.

Although key moments are important—like a teacher’s first interaction with their principal—a positive first impression won’t last long if that teacher feels unwelcome every day after. Culture, like any relationship, is built up over time through everyday moments. Shaping your district’s culture hinges less on big moments and more on those seemingly mundane interactions your team has with you, with one another, and with their physical and digital spaces.

In strong cultures, these signals are never subtle. Because most interactions are small, if you want to shape your culture, these signals must be vivid and clear. In fact, Coyle says that no matter what signal you’re transmitting—whether you’re listening to your staff or working to involve all voices—it should feel like you’re overdoing it. What feels like too much to you will be just enough in the eyes of your staff.

Whether or not you realize it, you and the district are constantly signaling your culture. The key to a strong culture is shifting the signals you and your schools are sending, starting by creating a sense of safety and belonging.

Fostering Safety and Belonging

When Coyle shares how top-performing cultures build safety, he’s talking less about physical environments and more about social and emotional well-being. It’s about having a sense of belonging—feeling connected, valued, supported, and safe to fail.

To build a strong culture, leaders must build genuine relationships that signal to team members that they are connected, safe, and share a future. Coyle writes about Gregg Popovich, the legendary coach of the San Antonio Spurs and longest- tenured head coach in American professional sports. Popovich is known for giving tough feedback, but he’s also beloved by his players, past and present. The reason why is deceptively simple: He shows them he cares.

Popovich goes out of his way to make his team feel seen and known. Whether it’s mock-wrestling with a player twice his size, hosting a private dinner with the team after a tough loss, or asking about a player’s child, his small, everyday interactions show his team that he values them as complex human beings. He is signaling that his team belongs and that they are important.

This may not seem earth-shattering on the outside. However, these small signals gradually build authentic trust, allowing players to accept his trademark tough feedback. Because of the relationship that Popovich has built with them, they know his criticism is coming from a place of respect and a desire for his players to achieve their best.

Coyle also points out that instilling a sense of belonging is not about charismatic leadership; it’s about getting people to form relationships and engineering ways to make that happen. Your goal as a leader should be less about “rah-rah” moments and more about bringing strangers together as a unified team.

Because a strong culture is ultimately about creating an ever-evolving set of individual relationships, Coyle admits that while you can aim to engineer connections, you can’t take a paint-by-numbers approach. It’s a fluid skill that takes work and training—not a program you can simply implement.

But while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, Coyle does offer some practical ideas for creating regular signals that build safety. Much of it is common sense—like listening and embracing your own fallibility—but he emphasizes how obvious these signals need to be. For example, thank-you’s and signs that you’re listening must be overcommunicated. These practical suggestions aren’t exactly novel, but Coyle is reminding leaders of what they do best: build relationships.

Of course, Popovich hasn’t won five NBA championships just by wining and dining. He leverages the relationships he’s facilitated to make players feel safe and secure so they are willingly vulnerable enough to get better. Fostering belonging and safety for your team doesn’t just make your district a better place to work—it enables vulnerability.

Sharing Vulnerability

Like belonging and safety, you likely know that vulnerability is important. But as Coyle points out, many have a misconception that vulnerability is about being “touchy-feely,” when it’s really about “sending clear signals that you have weaknesses, that you could use help.”

While conflict is uncomfortable, it’s a necessary part of improving your district. For example, say you’re meeting with faculty and staff about how to address equity gaps. If teachers aren’t comfortable being vulnerable—and maybe even wrong—they’ll be afraid to voice their ideas and concerns.

As the superintendent, you’re the one who needs to signal vulnerability first and foremost if you want the district to follow. But leaders are also responsible for overcommunicating an expectation of vulnerability by establishing spaces where conflict and tension create cohesion.

Coyle shares how groups like SEAL Team Six and Pixar spend intentional time openly and candidly evaluating their own performance within their teams. You can obviously form teacher groups or other systems to get input, but Coyle is clear that if you want vulnerability to drive the district’s culture, it has to start with you.

Establishing Purpose

Purpose ultimately answers the question of why we’re even here. Belonging and vulnerability are important, but the whole goal of an organization is to maximize human effort toward a shared vision. Strong cultures cohere around what a team is doing together, so focusing on a shared purpose makes your mission the true center of your culture.

This skill is already widely practiced in education. Most teachers want to be educators for higher-level reasons like making a difference in the lives of children. However, in order for a mission to become a shared purpose, it has to be authentic, and it has to be communicated constantly and consistently. Just because you have a mission statement doesn’t mean it reflects the internalized feelings of the individuals within your schools.

Coyle explains that high-purpose environments, no matter the industry, are “filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present and future ideal.” These small signals, like sayings, mottos, posters, and signs, create clear messages for those in and outside of the group as to what the district’s mission and goals are.

Having a clear and bold shared purpose also provides a great litmus test for choosing new team members to join the district. For example, Dr. Lupita Hightower has built a culture in Arizona’s Tolleson Elementary School District based on the simple idea that every student can be successful—no exceptions. During interviews with teaching candidates, Tolleson leaders plainly ask, on a 1-10 scale, if candidates believe in that idea. “Our students need 10’s,” Hightowers tells us. “They don’t need 9’s or 9.5’s.

Leading the Way

In his epilogue, Coyle shares his own experience as a poetry coach for a local group of public middle school students. By giving the students more ownership, listening to them, creating strong connections, making it safe to fail, and uniting them behind a shared goal, he has helped his students excel like never before.

The point is this: Leaders like you already have the tools you need to create strong cultures. If you can model, nurture, and grow those skills in all of your stakeholders, you’ll be well on your way to cracking the culture code.