Because business is a “team sport,” considerable attention must be paid to the influence that the team as a whole has on its members and, inversely, the impact of its members on the team at large in terms of relationships, collaboration, and, ultimately, performance and productivity.
How important is it to build a positive and high-performing team? Well, have you ever been on a “downer” team? I’m talking about one that is permeated with negativity, unhealthy communication, competition, and conflict? It sure doesn’t feel good and it can definitely interfere with the satisfaction and performance of its individual members. How about a team that isn’t highly motivated? It’s certainly difficult to stay motivated yourself.
I consult extensively in the corporate world where I help executives and companies to maximize individual and team performance. One of the most important areas I focus on in this work involves helping senior management to create a culture in their company that is positive and high performing, resulting in maximum individual and organizational performance.
A culture is the expression of a team’s values, attitudes, and beliefs about how a company should function. It determines whether, for example, the team’s focus is on revenues, employee satisfaction, customer service, or individual vs. company success. The culture is grounded in an identified sense of mission and shared goals, for instance, creating new products, increasing market share, or making a contribution to society.
Many corporate teams are complicated by the fact that companies are often “siloed,” meaning that one part of the company may have little involvement with another. In other words, the success of one individual or business unit may not be directly linked to the success of others. Yet, I’m sure that you would agree that the culture of a corporate team writ large, whether healthy or unhealthy, has a real impact on its individual members and the smaller units with it. For example, a team that is in constant conflict or has a atmosphere of stress will bring team members down, from C-suite to the boots on the ground, and this unpleasant milieu will also hurt individual members’ satisfaction and productivity. Conversely, a team culture built on positive energy, support, and even fun will lift everyone up, make them feel comfortable and supported, and the results will show it in increased performance, productivity, and the bottom line.
The corporate culture creates norms of acceptable behavior on a team, either explicitly or implicitly conveying to members what is allowed and what is not. These norms can dictate to team members how to behave, communicate, cooperate, and deal with conflict. When clear norms are established, everyone on a team is more likely to abide by them.
Very importantly, the culture creates the atmosphere that permeates every aspect of a team’s experience. Is the atmosphere relaxed or stressed? Supportive or competitive? Process or result oriented?
All of these qualities of a culture have real implications for how the team functions, how its members get along, and, crucially, how the team members perform and produce results. When a team has a defined culture that is understood by all of its members, everyone feels an implicit pressure (in the good sense) to support and live by that culture.
How a Team Culture Develops
Leaders can allow the culture of their team to develop in one of two ways. First, it can emerge naturally as an expression of its individual members. The benefits to this “organic” approach is that team members feel a sense of ownership for the culture because they created it. But there is a risk that the creation of the team be unfairly shaped by one or a few team members who may be particularly assertive or controlling, leaving other members of the team feeling marginalized and powerless. And a real danger can arise when the team culture is hijacked by a small subset of the team who are more interested in exerting their own power over the team, however unhealthy it might be, than in collaboration and “if the team wins, we all win.” The result can be a truly toxic culture that serves neither the best interests of the team as a whole or its individual members.
The second approach, and the one that I recommend, is for leaders to take an active (though not dominating) role in the creation of a team culture. Through your leadership and open discussions with team members, your team can identify the values, attitudes, and beliefs that you and your people want to act as the foundation of the team culture. You can also discuss what all of you feel is important in terms of the atmosphere you want to create, the expectations the team has about its behavior, and the way in which team members communicate. This collaborative approach to team culture will ensure that you are in a position to guide the discussion in the general direction that you want while still allowing members to feel a sense of ownership for the culture and, as a result, more likely to support and live by its dictates.
In addition to the over-all culture that leaders foster to best serve the goals of the entire team and the needs of all of its members, subgroups within the larger team, for example, the software team that’s a part of the overall IT team, can also create their own cultures. These subgroup cultures better reflect the individual personalities of their subleaders and members and the unique goals that they are pursuing for the betterment of the company. These subcultures also allow team members who may be unable to take a leadership role in the larger team as a whole to exert influence within their subgroup.
Questions to Ask
I encourage you to sit down with your team to discuss the kind of culture all of you want to have. You should ask the following questions (and any others that you think relevant:
- What values do we want to act as the foundation for our team culture?
- What attitudes and beliefs about business and our team do we want to hold?
- What are the goals that the team wants to pursue?
- How do team members want to treat each other?
- What kind of atmosphere do we want on our team?
- How can we express this culture in our everyday actions and interactions?