When Mary started her new job, she was excited about the work and eager to connect with her team. On her first day, she met everyone and genuinely liked the people she would be working with on a regular basis. As the weeks progressed and she started settling in, she began noticing subtle hints of an undercurrent. She couldn’t quite identify why or how in concrete terms, but she sensed themes of cynicism and apathy in the attitudes of her coworkers.
After a few months, she realized that her imagination was not running wild – her team members all behaved according to a set of invisible rules and ideas that she was not privy to. Yet these rules and ideas held a powerful influence over the way her team worked together. Mary was discovering – and learning for herself – her team’s (not so great) culture.
Team culture is the unseen force that teaches team members what to do and what not to do. It shapes how the team operates for better or worse. Team culture exists within the larger organizational culture, which is situated within the broader national culture. Each level of culture brings its own dictates of what is “normal” and imposes silent expectations of how individuals should be behave. The trouble with culture is that it’s rooted in deeply held beliefs and assumptions that are often difficult to uncover and even harder to change. Yet, a toxic culture can do more harm than any other team dysfunction.
Wise team leaders know that fostering a healthy and thriving team culture is vital to top performance. Culture flows from deeply embedded ideas, which can be hard to change, especially because they can be hard to identify by those immersed in the culture. However, culture is also dynamic, in a constant state of re-creation. Your current team culture is either being reinforced or reinvented on a daily basis.
A team’s culture is never completely good or completely bad, positive or negative. There are always a mix of attributes – some that serve the team and others that don’t. For example, a team with a culture that values long work hours may accomplish a lot but the culture may also push its members to the point of burnout. The goal in getting to the core of your team culture is to intentionally and thoughtfully consider the characteristics that define your team’s culture. Once you know what they are, you and your team can keep what works and revise what doesn’t.
Four Ways to Foster a Thriving Team Culture
Start Seeing Culture. While team culture exists in the underlying attitudes and beliefs of the team collectively, its effects are more clearly evident in the behaviors that are visible. We often attribute problematic behaviors to individual team members, but trends of behavior may be the result of a problematic culture that needs to be fixed. Pay careful attention to what behaviors are rewarded and what seems “normal.” Think about your own assumptions and what gets communicated on a regular basis. Be sure to look beyond the surface to begin uncovering the deeper layers of your team culture that need to be reinvented. Invite input from your team members to understand how the culture empowers or constrains their contributions to the team.
Infuse New Meanings. Team stories and rituals all have meanings that new members learn as they integrate with the team. From inside jokes to talk in team meetings, shared meanings transfer the underlying team culture from member to member. When you’re trying to recreate aspects of the culture, you have to create new meanings. Sometimes this means telling new stories – like repeating the story of the time when Pete handled a mishap with humility. Sometimes it means reshaping rituals to send a new message that aligns with the culture you’re creating. Either way, culture shifts happen subtly and over time as the team infuses new meaning into its work and adopts new attitudes.
Focus on Growth. All change, including cultural change, is part of a learning process. When you put in the time and effort to develop the team, you’re setting a precedent for growth. As team members add new skills and fresh knowledge to their repertoires, the culture will begin to reflect that growth. Growing team skills includes both the technical skills that team members need to do their jobs as well as the collaborative skills to work well together. It also means embracing learning opportunities and encouraging team members to do the same. Focusing on growth will reshape team culture through continuous improvement and high value on learning.
Empower Cultural Change. Claiming to want culture change is one thing, but empowering the team to create the change means giving permission in tangible ways. Empowering cultural change requires team members to adopt new attitudes, revise old rituals, and infuse new meaning. It might mean setting new boundaries for how late team members can work so everyone gets the message that life outside the office is important. Perhaps it means setting aside monthly team meetings devoted to team development so learning together becomes a priority. Or it might mean giving new meaning to the way the team celebrates work anniversaries or project milestones. The key is that lasting change doesn’t happen without concrete efforts to do teamwork differently.