A Book Review: The Culture Code Reveals the Power of Safety

“When we talk about courage, we think it’s going against an enemy with a machine gun. The real courage is seeing the truth and speaking the truth to each other.” –Dave Cooper, Retired, Commander Master Chief, SEAL Team Six (From The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle)

Why is it so hard to see the truth and speak the truth to each other? Why does that demand courage? And, can any team reach their potential without this ability?


Safety: The Foundation of High Performance

Daniel Coyle, in his new book, The Culture Code, offers three necessary cultural elements of what he calls “highly successful groups.” These elements are safety, vulnerability, and purpose. After reading the first few chapters, I became convinced that safety should be the primary focus for every leader, especially project leaders.

I’ve always thought of safety at the office and in my work group as physical safety. Coyle refocused my attention to emotional safety. Frankly, I am surprised I haven’t seen it before. I’ve been reading and writing about project team performance for about twenty years. I’ve always known trust was crucial to creativity and innovation, but Coyle’s angle brought a fresh light on the foundational role of safety. His point is that for teams to reach their potential, each member must feel safe enough emotionally to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is critical to giving and receiving authentic feedback, which is the only way a group will improve its performance. Purpose provides the North Star, and feedback within the group is directed toward serving the purpose. That logic is tough to dispute.

Project teams are temporary and formed to accomplish something unique. Teams solve problems and make decisions every day. Versatile’s high-performance team checklist lists nine strengths that enable a team to survive the “give and take” of creativity and problem solving while maintaining trust and keeping relationships intact. But, I have to admit that emotional safety has always been assumed, rather than explicitly spelled out.

Coyle’s logic, that safety precedes trust and trust precedes authentic feedback and team learning, lays bare the importance of establishing emotional safety within our teams. The quote earlier in this article comes from a key story in the SEAL Team Commander’s evolution as a leader. In Cooper’s early career, he advised a superior that a particular course of action was dangerous and should be avoided. That superior ignored Cooper’s advice, and the result was exactly what Cooper had feared. From that experience, Cooper determined to be the kind of leader that invited opposing points of view and encouraged criticism from every member of his team.


The Primary Focus of Every Project Leader

Do you want your team to “see the truth and speak the truth to each other”? What could be more important? From creation of a business case and charter, through risk identification, scheduling, and daily problem-solving, your team is making decisions and working through conflicts.  Every day of every project is affected by team culture. Pick up Daniel Coyle’s Culture Code. He illustrates his theme with stories from a wide range of teams and follows up with specific actions for the reader. I predict his lessons will stick with you and reignite your focus on team culture.


Book Image Source: danielcoyle.com/the-culture-code

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Written by Eric Verzuh
Eric Verzuh, PMP, earned his PMP in 1992. He is the author of the bestselling Fast Forward MBA in Project Management and the PMP® Deep Dive, a better, faster, and more fun exam prep program. You can contact Eric via email at EVerzuh@VersatileCompany.com.
1 Comment
  1. Great, crisp and inspiring take on the theme of maintaining High Performing teams: What works to keep relationships intact and your teams continually learning! Thank you for the describing the foundational role of safety to be present to giving and receiving valuable feedback.
    Also, liked that specific lessons available from the stories and examples from this author.

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