“The Culture Code”

March 1, 2021

By Daniel Coyle

Law firm leaders hear a lot about the importance of “culture” in recruiting and retaining top talent and creating a firm where lawyers can collaborate and solve problems in creative ways. But often the discussion treats culture as an elusive and even magical trait, as if some organizations are simply blessed with it at random, and others are out of luck. Where does a healthy firm culture come from? And what can leaders do to foster it?

“The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle sets out to answer these questions. Examining highly successful teams across industries — from companies like Pixar and Google to the Navy Seals — and cultures where things go spectacularly wrong, Coyle convincingly argues that strong group cultures don’t just happen based on the luck of good chemistry. Instead, they are intentionally created by leaders who model and reward three essential skills at every level of the team:

Building safety: To build safety, a leader has to recognize the powerful impact our unconscious brains have on our decision-making. “For hundreds of thousands of years, we needed ways to develop [group] cohesion because we depended so much on each other for survival. We used signals long before we used language, and our unconscious brains are incredibly attuned to certain types of behaviors.”

All of us are wired to look for “belonging cues,” including proximity, eye contact, turn taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch and emphasis to answer the question of whether we are physically and psychologically safe in a given situation. Belonging cues accomplish three things: they invest attention in an exchange, they treat an individual as unique and valued, and they signal that the relationship will continue.

It’s plain to see why creating this kind of safety matters. If an employee can’t get your attention, does not feel valued and worries about her future at the firm, it will be difficult for her to work to her potential. But when team members receive cues that they belong, the group becomes more cohesive and can focus on work instead of fear.

It’s also clear that law firms can feel like very unsafe places. Leaders can take steps to change that, such as welcoming tough feedback, expressing gratitude for all contributions, being very intentional about who they hire and removing toxic people as soon as possible. But it’s not enough to say you want to create safety. You actually have to model it.

Sharing Vulnerability: Embracing habits of mutual risk can drive trust and cooperation in groups. We all understand on an intuitive level that vulnerability tends to spark group cohesion, but we underestimate how important that dynamic is at work. “People tend to think of vulnerability in a touchy-feely way, but … it’s about sending a really clear signal that you have weaknesses and could use help. If that behavior becomes a model for others, then you can set your insecurities aside and get to work. If you never have that vulnerable moment, on the other hand, then people will try to cover up their weaknesses, and every little microtask becomes a place where insecurities manifest themselves.”

Coyle’s book describes the ultimate example of vulnerability and the cooperation it can create in the improv game known as “the Harold,” invented by the legendary Second City writer and teacher Del Close. Here are the rules performers in the Harold must follow:

  1. You are all supporting actors
  2. Always check your impulses
  3. Never enter a scene unless you are needed
  4. Save your fellow actor; don’t worry about the piece
  5. Your prime responsibility is to support
  6. Work at the top of your brain at all times
  7. Never underestimate or condescend to the audience
  8. No jokes
  9. Trust your fellow actors to support you, and trust yourself
  10. Avoiding judging what is happening except in terms of whether you can help
  11. Listen

“The Harold is a group brain workout in which you experience over and over the pure painful intersection of vulnerability and interconnection.” It’s also a pretty great description of an ideal work environment for making the best use of talent and eliminating posturing, backbiting and other counterproductive behaviors that get in the way of good work.

Law firm leaders can share vulnerability by going first in revealing their weaknesses, doubts and needs. This makes it safe for everyone else to tell the truth. They can also overcommunicate the expectation that everyone will go out of their way to help each other, and create ways to publicly reward that behavior. Finally, leaders can encourage others to lead the “huddles” where strategy happens so everyone on the team feels heard and believes that it’s okay to take risks.

Establishing Purpose: An authentic narrative creates shared goals and values for the group. In strong cultures, everyone is on the same page about why they do what they do. “High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal” and those symbols derive meaning from the top down. For instance, Roy Kroc of McDonald’s famously picked up all the trash in the parking lot on his way home from work every day.

One way to create purpose is engaging the team in an exercise called “mental contrasting.” In this exercise, you envision a goal, then envision a future in which you have achieved that goal. Next, you name in a concrete way all the obstacles that stand between the present and that future place. Performing this visualization has been shown to trigger significant behavioral changes that move a team toward greater unity of purpose.

It’s easy to identify a culture that has a solid purpose. Here are some of the signals:

Framing: Team members can articulate in concrete ways what success looks like and how it benefits stakeholders, beyond just benefits to an individual’s ego or monetary rewards.

Roles: Team members understand (because they are explicitly told by leaders) how their individual and collective roles are important to overall success.

Rehearsal: Teams regularly perform dry runs to prepare for high-stakes meetings/matters

Speaking Up: Team members are explicitly encouraged and incentivized to speak up if they see problems. (And the inverse is true: people are not punished for speaking up.)

Reflection: Team members reflect on their work performance, and think about what went well and what they can improve.

Meaningful Symbols: Purposeful teams embrace powerful visual symbols in the workplace that remind them why they do what they do. For the Navy Seals, that’s battle gear of soldiers killed in combat. For Pixar, it’s original hand-drawn concepts that became significant cultural touchstones.

Law firm leaders can increase the sense of purpose in their firms by naming and ranking priorities and being crystal clear about those priorities. They also can measure what really matters to incentivize the behaviors that will actually get them to the intended future of the organization.

The power to create a healthy culture is in your hands. You just have to know the “code.”