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Applauz Book Club: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

Published: January 26, 2021

Last Updated: February 7, 2024

  8 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux


In this instalment of Applauz Book Club, we summarize Culture Code and explore ideas about building and sustaining great work cultures.

📖Applauz Book Club is a series that outlines noteworthy ideas from popular books on the topics of work, HR strategy, and management. To see last month’s Applauz Book Club article, click here.

The spaghetti tower challenge is a classic team-building exercise. Teams are given a handful of supplies: spaghetti, tape, string, and of course -- marshmallows. 

The challenge for all the teams is to build the tallest free-standing structure in under 20-minutes. A marshmallow always has to be at the top.

In the opening chapter of The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle offers an interesting anecdote about the spaghetti tower challenge. Researchers have conducted experiments with different types of people battling each other at this classic challenge — for example, business students versus kindergarteners.  

When it comes to business students vs kindergarteners, which one do you think would win the challenge? 

Like many people, you probably assume the business students will succeed. They are more experienced, intelligent, and have greater skill.

But in reality, the opposite is consistently found to be true: kindergartners win the spaghetti tower challenge time and time again. 

Group success: interaction matters more than experience or skills

What can the findings of this experiment teach us about optimal teamwork? When it comes to maximizing group performance, skills or talent aren't always the most critical components. What matters more than crude intelligence or skills is how a group interacts. 

For example, Coyle explains in the spaghetti tower challenge; the business students appear to be collaborating. However, in reality, their interactions are mostly about "status management" rather than true collaboration.

In his book, Coyle explains how any group can overcome these tendencies and tap into a few simple but powerful collaboration methods. As a result, a group of ordinary people can "create a performance beyond the sum of their parts."

He breaks down the secret sauce of highly influential groups into three core components. You could also approach these components as your company culture objectives.

  • Build Safety
  • Share Vulnerability
  • Establish Purpose

Through a thoughtful investigation of some of the world's top-performing cultures, like sports teams and military groups, Coyle unravels the mysteries of highly successful groups. In doing so, he helps communicate critical principles and methods any leader can use to cultivate a top-performing team.

That said, many people could benefit from the ideas in this book:

  1. HR leaders who want to understand how to cultivate strong work cultures and generate high performance.
  2. Managers who want to drive greater performance and collaboration among team members.
  3. Company leaders who want to know how to develop high-performing groups at a higher level.

Let's start by diving into each component of highly successful groups and highlight the most significant research and examples from Coyle's investigation.


The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups


Think about a work environment that feels cold and hostile. For example, coworkers always pitted against each other, making jokes at each other's expense, or secretly rooting against each other. Can you imagine anyone performing at their best in this stress-filled environment? Probably not!

In his investigation of strong cultures, Coyle found that the opposite of stress -- a powerful feeling of safety -- is a fundamental characteristic of a highly successful group. 

When Coyle visited these close-knit teams, he noticed something unique when the members would talk with one another. A distinct pattern of interaction started to emerge. 

Coyle notes some positive behaviours he identified when observing strong cultures in their natural habitat:

  • Sat close in physical proximity, often in circles
  • A great deal of eye contact
  • Physical touch (handshakes, fist-bumps, hugs)
  • Lots of short energetic exchanges (no long speeches)
  • High levels of mixing, everyone talks to everyone.
  • Few interruptions
  • Lots of questions
  • Intensive, active listening
  • Humour, laughter
  • Small, attentive courtesies (thank-yous, etc.)

He observed that these interactions were consistent regardless of the type of group, whether he was studying a military unit or an inner-city school. 

In his book, Coyle speaks to Amy Edmonson, a professor who studies psychological safety at Harvard. Edmonson explains why a feeling of safety is so integral to the success of a group.  

She explains the opposite of safety is rejection, and the fear of rejection is so deeply ingrained in the human psyche.

At one point in evolutionary history, we humans relied on our social support systems for survival. If, for example, we were rejected by our community, it was a life or death situation. As a result, evolution has hard-wired us to be extremely wary and fearful of potential rejection.

Despite our current conditions being very different from how our ancestors lived, these survival mechanisms are still hard-wired in our brains. Consequently, if our coworkers' behaviours or actions resemble rejection, it can easily be interpreted as a threat. In turn, this causes a stress response. In other words, in a group setting, we are hyper-vigilant of the potential signals of rejection others are giving off, whether imagined or real.  

To that end, the only way to keep stress and anxiety at bay in a group setting is to signal belonging and acceptance to each other continuously.

Coyle stresses that communicating belonging must be done frequently for safety and trust to be supported. It's not something you can do once and be done with. Creating safety is something that must be consistently maintained. 

For example, if you are a manager, you can reassure your employee that you think their ideas are great. Or say "good point" when they bring up something interesting, even if you might not use that idea in the end. Weave these signals of belonging into your interactions every single day.

Coyle shares an example of a leader with a remarkable ability to spark belonging and build safety with his highly successful sports team, Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs coach.

Coyle explains how Popovich was highly attuned to his group and made sure to act and behave in ways that signalled acceptance and closeness. For example, he would frequently host group diners. Team members would have long evenings filled with wine, food, and good conversation. Popovich always made it a point to connect with each team member as well. Giving them each his undivided attention during the evening. 

Popovich’s attentiveness and consistent effort to connect with all his team members paid off.  The San Antonio Spurs became a highly successful sports team -- ranking as the most successful team in American sports over the last two decades.

In the last part of the section, Coyle offers "ideas for action." In short, he gives readers some actionable tips to apply the principles of safety building on a day-to-day basis.

He gives a few important examples, such as:

  • Overcommunicate your listening: This means showing the person you're talking to that you are genuinely listening with your body language and eyes. Lean in and affirm what the speaker is saying with words like "uh-huh" and "gotcha."
  • Spotlight your fallibility: Building psychological safety starts with being humble -- especially if you are a leader. Coyle explains safety is fostered when leaders are able to open up and show they've made mistakes and invite others to give input by saying, "I could be wrong here," or "what am I missing."
  • Overdo Thank-Yous: Coyle explains that whenever he's investigated highly successful groups, the amount of thank-yous he hears is "slightly over the top." There is strong scientific evidence that gratitude sparks cooperation.
  • Hire carefully and eliminate bad apples: When people behave in hostile or antagonistic ways, these attitudes have a tendency to spread like a virus. This is why all of the high-performing groups Coyle studied had a "very low tolerance for bad apple behaviour."
  • Make sure everyone has a voice: Coyle claims that this tip is easy to talk about but challenging to accomplish. He recommends that companies launch regular forums where anyone can bring an issue or question to a group's leader, no matter how controversial it might be.


Vulnerability is not a word you often associate with our professional lives or work. However, Coyle asserts that vulnerability is an essential part of creating a high-performance team or group

Coyle explains if you look at highly cohesive groups in action, you will "see many moments of fluid, trusting cooperation." However, if you look closely, you will see that beyond the surface, there are also moments that don't feel so beautiful. For example, a clunky, awkward moment that is fraught with tension. Paradoxically, navigating these difficult moments fuels vulnerability and gives rise to trust.

Coyle gives an example of how certain groups engineer these moments of discomfort. For instance, Pixar hosts "BrainTrust" meetings. When a film is in production, directors and producers come together to give their most candid opinions of the film. The creators will "analyze the film's flaws in breathtaking detail."

Although these meetings are not always fun -- no one likes to receive criticism of their work -- these meetings allow the movies to get better.

Coyle cites the work of Dr. Jeff Polzer, a professor of organizational behaviour. Polzer explains that people tend to think of vulnerability as something "touchy-feely." But it's only sending a signal that you have a weakness and that you can use help. When others model that behaviour, then everyone can set their insecurities aside and get to work. 

Pulzer explains, however, the most crucial part of sharing vulnerability is how the receiver responds to the gesture of vulnerability.

For example, does the receiver share something about themselves in turn? He describes these interactions as a "vulnerability loop." This is a fundamental requirement for trust and cooperation. 

This idea rubs against our common intuition. In other words, we often believe that we have first to build trust between two people, and only then can we reveal vulnerability. But expert research shows that it's the other way around! Vulnerability comes before trust. Simply put -- vulnerability engenders trust. 

That said, sharing trust and vulnerability does not come naturally for everyone. That's ok! Coyle reassuringly asserts that any group can build better relational habits with practice, repetition, and time. He gives readers a few key ideas to create an environment of vulnerability and trust.

  • Ensure that leaders are vulnerable and often: A leader's vulnerability can be the most powerful vulnerability expression. In any organization, an effort to build trust through vulnerability must start at the top.
  • Deliver negative feedback in person: If you share negative feedback only through a faceless chat app like Slack, you're missing out on a significant opportunity to build vulnerability and trust. So as much as possible, you should always deliver negative news or feedback face-to-face.
  • Listen like a trampoline: When you listen to your team members, make sure to do more than nod attentively or offer knee-jerk solutions. Ask questions to get to the root of the problem. Or instead of just nodding and saying "Uh-huh," say "tell me more about that," or "say more." Taking time to peel back the layers and fully understand what someone is trying to express is the key to driving vulnerability and trust between people.
  • Aim for candour, avoid brutal honesty: Aiming for candour means ensuring feedback is smaller and more targeted. Feedback is aimed at the person's behaviour, rather than criticizing their character or personality. In short, candour is honest but free of harsh judgment or criticism.



According to Coyle, creating an environment of purpose means consistently answering these questions: "what is this all for?" and "what are we working towards?"

Coyle explains the key is consistency. You can't entirely explain the mission and purpose to new employees through one medium alone. Leaders should be communicating purpose and mission -- in both small and big ways -- regularly. 

In other words, the goal isn't to only create purpose but to deliberately sustain it. Doing this leads to what Coyle describes as "high purpose environments."

These environments are "filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and future ideal." From a scientific perspective, people are very responsive to this pattern of signalling. 

When high-purpose environments are achieved, employees are more productive and effective. 

Coyle gives an example of an experiment conducted by Adam Grant and an organizational psychologist.

The University of Michigan asked Grant to investigate the university's call center workers. These workers were tasked with calling alumni and asking them for donations, and they had been performing below standard recently. 

Grant had a plan. He knew that a portion of the donations raised at the call center went towards scholarships. He thought perhaps the call center employees would be more motivated if they understood where the donations ended up.

So Grant tracked down a few scholarship recipients, and he got them to come into the call center and share their personal story of how much the scholarship meant to them. As a result of this simple yet effective method, Grant saw an immediate improvement in worker performance and donations.

What's interesting is the task (to call alumni for donations) remained the same. Most interestingly, none of the incentives changed either. Merely receiving a "clear beacon of purpose" made a massive difference in the call center employee's performance. Ultimately, a high-purpose environment was created by creating an emotional connection between the employees and their work.

At the end of the section on establishing purpose, Coyle offers some tangible steps companies can take to cultivate high-purpose environments.

  • Drastically over-communicate your priorities: Coyle explains that leaders are "inherently biased to presume that everyone in the group sees things as they do." When in fact, they don't. This is why leaders should drastically over-communicate the company's values and purpose.
  • Figure out if you're aiming for proficiency or creativity: Generating purpose will look different depending on whether your group aims for ability (delivering machine-like reliability) or creativity (building something original.) Understanding where your group aims for proficiency and where it aims for creativity will help create purpose in the right places.
  • Embrace catchphrases: Cultish jargon may seem corny, but Coyle insists that slogans that are simple, action-oriented, and forthright are vital to building high-purpose environments.

Final Thoughts

Culture Code affirms one critical thing about cultivating collaborative and cohesive work cultures: it's the little things that, when done repeatedly, add up over time to make the most significant impact.

Simply put: When it comes to creating high-performing teams or healthy company cultures, small and consistent efforts win over big and sporadic efforts every time.

So, the next time your company rolls out a new strategy or HR initiative, run the idea through Coyle's components of culture and ask yourself, "does this idea or initiative support psychological safety, vulnerability, or establish purpose in any way." With this exercise, you'll be sure all the ideas and initiatives you put in place will help build a strong foundation for your company's work culture.

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