Being complex and unpredictable by nature, team culture poses quite a few challenges for leaders. Learn how to get it right with our guide to thriving together.
While many leaders agree that culture is very important, not all of them fully understand this phenomenon. Culture is complex and not easy to measure. Culture is, to some extent, unpredictable – because it develops naturally, along with the people who build it.
Culture determines whether people belonging to it will be happy or not, how work processes will be taking place, and whether the company will become profitable. Yet, it may be confusing for a leader to figure out how to control company culture – and team culture in particular, as its basic component.
In this article, we'll discuss how you can create a healthy team culture – a culture that would promote productivity, personal growth, and financial prosperity.
Team culture can be defined as a set of values, behaviors, and practices that characterizes an organization. It describes how people work towards a common goal and interact with each other.
At the same time, team culture works as a guideline, creating a paradigm of rules, both spoken and unspoken, for team members to follow in their interactions with leadership, customers, and other stakeholders.
Team culture should not be confused with company culture. Within one company, different teams may represent different variants of the same culture, adding something unique to it. Each team member has a unique personality and, of course, this does have an impact on the way a smaller group behaves. David Burkus, an author and an associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University, explains:
Company culture is hugely important… But most people’s experience of company culture is going to be filtered through team culture, filtered through their experience of the 6, 8, or 10 people they interact with the most.
For a leader, to build a strong, positive team culture is critically important. Without it, a team may experience toxic behaviors, reduced productivity, high employee turnover, and many other unpleasant things.
Culture matters. A good culture gives your organization a competitive advantage. It attracts better candidates, retains talent, increases employee engagement, and helps deliver the best customer service.
According to the Gallup research, a strong culture increases team performance metrics - in particular, the research showed it can increase the net profit of an organization by 85% over a 5-year period.
A healthy team culture is one where people respect and support each other. They trust their colleagues and know they can rely on them. Such a healthy working environment creates conditions for people to produce the best results, unleash their creativity, and bring the company to success.
People will typically be more enthusiastic where they feel a sense of belonging, and see themselves as a part of a community than they will in a workplace in which each person is left to [their] own devices. – Alfie Kohn, an author
David Burkus mentions five main things that define a great team culture:
Purpose is not necessarily an organization’s mission statement, written on a plaque in big letters. What matters is that the team knows their work makes a difference. This knowledge strongly motivates people to do their job better.
True purpose has nothing to do with bonuses. Promotions are worth celebrating, but they’re not the purpose. This is why the leaders of a team should constantly remind their people of the purpose they all pursue together as a team, making sure individual goals align with team one.
Speaking of clarity, we refer to the clarity of the roles and responsibilities of team members. Everybody on the team must understand how their work fits. Many teams are very integrative, which means that team members depend on each other and need to collaborate.
However, roles and responsibilities are not the only things that require clarity. People on the team must know about the skills and abilities of each other. They should also know about such things as personal preferences – for example, preferred methods of communication (like phone, email, or a personal meeting.)
Clarity of information helps people collaborate. When we know what we’re doing, who’s doing what, and how we can best work with each other, it considerably increases the productivity of the whole team.
Psychological safety lets people feel free to take risks, express themselves, and speak up when they disagree. You can share your opinion, and you won’t be judged. By daring to suggest a fresh idea or by challenging the ideas of others (in a respectful manner!), you get a chance to find the best solution.
These are things that are understood only by those who are a part of the team. It could be inside jokes or acronyms – basically, any things that come from a shared team experience. Behind each of the team artifacts, there is a value. For example, if a team has a free lunch, and it’s supposed to reinforce the feeling of community, then it’s an artifact.
Rituals are like artifacts – these are specific actions we do that are unique to the team. Their role is to reflect a sense of clarity, purpose, and safety.
An icebreaker at the start of every meeting, a monthly off-site activity – these are examples of rituals.
With this information in mind, we can determine several markers that distinguish a great team culture from a mediocre or poor one:
Healthy team cultures are people-positive. They promote an empathetic attitude among team members, encourage productive conflict, and build an environment where employees can express themselves and willingly contribute to the well-being of the organization.
No wonder they are characterized by a low turnover, which is beneficial for the organization. Losing employees is expensive, as it means you need to spend a lot of resources on hiring and training new people.
Unfortunately, many leaders still struggle to find the recipe that would let them create a strong team culture.
David Burkus explains that the reason is that leaders focus their effort on the wrong things – things that look deceptively rational to do:
A lot of leaders have put their faith in the wrong places to build that positive organizational culture. The first place they look (that’s potentially the wrong place) is perks and benefits, right?
So they look at what can we do to add increased flexibility, work-from-home options, maybe we can add a gym to the office, or a cafeteria, we’ll do free food on certain days… it doesn’t consistently deliver results in a positive organizational culture.
According to Burkus, such an approach may form a distorted mentality that puts a team higher than an individual. While perks may send a message that people on the team are appreciated, it also may create unhealthy competition.
But what can you do to build a healthy team culture?
Start by identifying the core company's values that will guide your team's culture. These values should align with the organization's mission and vision, and reflect the behaviors and attitudes you want to foster within the team. Clearly communicate these values to all team members and ensure they are understood and embraced by everyone.
Your personal core values define who you are, and a company’s core values ultimately define the company’s character and brand. For individuals, character is destiny. For organizations, culture is destiny. – Tony Hsieh, an American entrepreneur, a retired CEO of Zappos
The examples of core team values to demonstrate in the workplace could be:
Building an effective team culture begins with leadership. As a leader, it's crucial to embody the core values you have established and set the tone for the team. Lead by example, demonstrating the behaviors and attitudes you expect from your team members. Your actions will influence others and encourage them to follow suit.
When leaders are not just fair but self-sacrificing, their employees are actually moved and inspired to become more loyal and committed themselves. – Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and author
As a leader, be ready to help – and offer your help. At times, it means leaders do tasks that aren’t their responsibility. There is nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, by demonstrating self-sacrifice, leaders create a cycle of reciprocity, where you offer help and get help in return. This way, they build a positive culture of mutual support and resilience.
Leading by example for me is a lot about showing humility and asking for help. One thing I’ve always noticed… is that especially our junior staff can struggle to ask for help because they feel like “Oh I should know this already…” So I am always out there asking for people to help me with anything I’m stuck on. – Rowan Savage, co-founder and CTO at Runn
Create an environment where open communication is encouraged and valued. Establish channels for team members to express their ideas, concerns, and feedback. Encourage active listening and ensure that everyone's voice is heard. Regular team meetings, one-on-one sessions, and anonymous feedback mechanisms can all contribute to fostering open communication within the team.
Even in asynchronous environments – where people work in different time zones – it’s still possible to have good communication. It may take more than one day to get an answer, and it may take longer to make a decision. However, when organized properly, async communication may have many benefits:
At Runn, everyone has the chance to take their time and actually respond and share their opinions. Suddenly, you get a lot more voices rather than just the loudest ones. – Rowan Savage
Promote collaboration and teamwork by providing opportunities for team members to work together on projects and initiatives. Encourage cross-functional collaboration, where individuals from different departments or areas of expertise can share their knowledge and skills. Foster a supportive environment where team members feel comfortable collaborating, sharing ideas, and leveraging each other's strengths.
If a team member is actively engaged, it’s a good sign that they have a positive attitude towards working with us and are feeling excited about their role… That’s why, at Runn, we make a point to check in and offer help whenever we notice a change in someone’s level of engagement. – Rowan Savage
Acknowledging and celebrating team achievements is essential for building a winning team culture. Recognize individual and collective contributions and celebrate milestones and successes. This can be done through public appreciation, rewards and recognition programs, team outings, or other forms of celebration. By acknowledging achievements, you reinforce the team's sense of accomplishment and motivate them to continue working together towards shared goals.
To build a culture of celebrated achievements, David Burkus recommends the following techniques:
For example, you could do it in a way of a competition where every team member writes down their daily wins on a board, and whoever gets the biggest number, wins. Or you could just ask people to share at least one win every day – through email or any other way that works for the team.
You give people the opportunity to bring voice to the things that are important to them, to mark significant things of progress that you may have not noticed – but that they are noticing. – David Burkus
This way, you as a leader may get an understanding of what motivates your people and use that information to further inspire them.
Tie your small wins to certain milestones to mark progress. It will help you see your wins as a part of a bigger process – for example, as a part of a larger team’s objective or a project.
Most probably, people on the team enable each other to get their wins. This is why it’s important to thank those who helped you.
There are people who are served by your work. It could be a customer, another team, or a whole organization – so remember that you make a difference in someone else’s life, and celebrate it.
Support the growth and development of your team members by providing opportunities for professional development. Offer training programs, workshops, and mentoring opportunities that help enhance their skills and knowledge. By investing in their growth, you demonstrate that you value their professional development and are committed to their success.
Personal growth and professional development require mostly being treated like an adult, which is pretty much the opposite of what happens in most workplaces. People need to be able to make decisions. – Jefrey Pfeffer, an American business theorist
The trend of self-management is becoming more and more popular – and for a good reason. Many leaders start to understand that employees might add much more value if they’re given more power, in particular, the power of decision-making.
The ability to manage your own work does not only help people grow professionally – it also positively impacts the development of business, fostering creativity, greater responsiveness, and adaptability.
Encourage a healthy work-life balance among your team members. Promote flexible work arrangements when possible, and emphasize the importance of self-care and well-being. By prioritizing work-life balance, you create a supportive environment that values the overall happiness and satisfaction of team members.
We have a really strong culture of not doing overtime… If someone works on the weekend – to fix something urgent – we give them twice that time off later. And that’s recorded and planned on Runn.- Rowan Savage
For people, social connections are more important than you might think. The research conducted by Sarah Pressman, of the University of California, showed that for people with poor social connections, the probability of early death is 70% higher.
People who are in good relationships with their colleagues tend to be more committed and work effectively as a team.
Empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work. – Daniel Goleman, a psychologist, the author of “Emotional Intelligence”
Empathy may help see each others’ weaknesses and strengths, notice moments when people need support, and understand where they can be trusted.
There will be times when the team will face difficulties. There will be obstacles to overcome. Some projects will inevitably appear more difficult to accomplish. When external factors you can’t control make your work harder, empathy can be the key to building resilience and a positive team culture.
A strong team doesn’t deny reality. Team members who are able to admit when something went wrong achieve more – because they let themselves learn from their mistakes.
In her book “Radical Candor,” Kim Scott explains that leaders who honestly discuss problems and failures with their teams actually contribute to their professional development and the success of their business.
You may be wrong in your opinion, but when you don’t share that opinion, you don’t give the other person the opportunity to correct you. – Kim Scott
However, candor doesn’t equal rudeness. Scott underlines it’s important for leaders to care personally for their employees, treating them as humans in all cases.
Psychological safety is the ability to fully express yourself at work, to ask for help, and to admit your failure. On the team, psychological safety plays a very important function – it eliminates fear. It means that instead of self-censoring and self-criticizing, people actually look for the best solution to problems.
People on the team typically have different ideas and suggestions. Fear of blame often doesn’t let them vocalize their ideas. But when leaders make it safe for people to speak up and even fail, fear disappears.
For jobs where learning or collaboration is required for success, fear is not an effective motivator. – Amy Edmondson, the Professor of Leadership and Management at HBS
Leaders should not be scared to demonstrate their own vulnerability. By being honest about their faults, leaders send a message to the team that it’s okay to not be perfect.
Your team cultures form your company culture. And your company culture defines your image in the eyes of customers and competitors. It all starts with a team, with a small group of people whose behaviors and values can eventually impact the future of your organization. So pay attention to what’s going on in that little world and see what you can do to build a desired team culture.
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