There are a lot of factors that go into creating a positive team culture. But before we dive right into that, it is important to first make sure we know what we are talking about when we say team culture. There are many different ways to define a team and just as many different types of culture. Putting two nebulous words together can lead to confusion; confusion rarely results in success.
Defining the team
Step one is to identify the team. Are you referring to the entire business and the organizational culture you want to develop? Or are you taking about a small committee that will work together to accomplish a specific task or goal? There are dozens of teams – groups of individuals coming together with a common purpose – that fall in between those two extremes.
How you apply all of the following steps will be determined based on how you identify your team. Every team is unique, because the individuals who comprise it will all be unique. The personalities on your team and the personality you co-create with them for the team, all start with how you define the team. Don’t overlook this step.
Defining the culture
It is important to recognize that every team within the larger organizational culture (macro approach), will have its own unique subculture (micro approach). Each time you bring a group of people together, the way in which they work together becomes the specific culture of that specific team. General definitions of culture describe it as the social behaviors and norms shared by a group of people. In other words, the mutually agreed upon actions of and interactions between team members.
All too often, leaders let team culture develop by happenstance; this usually results in discord among members. The culture starts to look like a group of six-year olds running around a playground without any structure. Intentionally creating culture allows you to shift the free for all into a known game with clear rules and expectations.
Characteristics of team culture
When bringing together a team and creating a culture for that team, there are some overarching characteristics to consider. These common features of a team culture can take on a variety of shapes, so it is important to understand each one separately. You must also consider how the characteristics will influence each other. [For a quick summary, download my free document – Characteristics of Team Culture.]
Teams must have a common purpose. You should have this clearly established before recruiting any team members. This includes what the team is expected to achieve and within what type of time frame. If the purpose is long-term, like overall business culture, then you should have timed benchmarks for certain changes to take effect. If the purpose is short-term, you should begin with a clear end date in mind. Team members must understand and feel committed to this purpose if they are going to engage productively.
Team members must have a shared vision of what success will look like. This is important as everyone needs to be on the same page as to what the desired outcomes will look like. This is more than just having a shared purpose. It is understanding what impact success will have for the company and each individual member. How will success of this team move the company forward and how will it benefit the career path of each member. For individuals this may be new skill development, a chance for a leadership role, or simply networking opportunities that put them on the radar screen for future promotion potential. Having a vision of success gives everyone something to strive towards.
If you don’t want to have team members vying for power or challenging each other’s power, the power structure must be clearly identified and communicated from the start. How will decisions be made and who sets the direction? How will input for decisions be gathered, discussed, and what process will be used for reaching final decisions? Who does the buck stop with? Having this clarified right from the beginning can reduce tensions when conflict arises regarding decisions.
Communication Tools and Flow
Outline how the team will communicate and which technology tools will be used. Where does the flow of communication start and end? What types of things should be communicated to the team, how often, and in what format? Who is responsible for which types of communication and what type of response time is expected? Be specific about these expectations. Culture is demonstrated by how people communicate with each other. This makes having clearly established processes for communication essential for effective team culture.
Each team member needs to know what and how they are expected to contribute. You need to clearly define everyone’s role and what is expected of them on this team. Think back to your purpose and make sure you have the appropriate roles that will support that purpose. Everyone you have on your team should be bringing something specific to the table – a skill, a knowledge, a perspective, a connection, etc. Each member needs to know why they are on that team and how their individual effort contributes to the purpose and the success of the team.
You need to have an intentional plan for how you will acknowledge both individual contributions and team achievements. Meaningful recognition goes a long way in sustaining motivation for continued effort. This doesn’t need to be anything formal. It can be as simple as verbal praise during a team meeting, a written note, or a social media post. The key is to make sure the recognition is specific as to who was involved, what was accomplished, and how it benefits the company. Recognition helps people feel connected to the team and confirms that they are contributing towards its purpose and success.
You need to take into consideration the environment your team will be working in. Will interactions be in-person, through conference calls, video conference, or other? How much will be group work and how much will be individual? Is this team virtual, physical, or mixed? Make sure the expectations you set will function effectively in the environment.
Putting it all together
Almost all work in today’s world is achieved through teams. Whether it is being a star team player or a stand-out team leader, your professional success depends upon your ability to effectively develop, manage, and function in a team setting. When it comes to positive team culture, everyone has a role in that culture. Culture is all about the way the team interacts, and successful interaction involves everyone on team.
A culture in which people want to work together begins with those in leadership. Leaders must clearly define the values and standards of the desired culture – and they must actively live by those values and standards. Leaders must set the example for how teams are to interact and work together. And that example must be consistent. By planning the culture you want your team to execute and conveying that information to everyone involved, you have the standards of accountability for consistent behavior.
When you clearly articulate the culture being created to all of the team members, they understand the expectations and how they fit into that culture. This allows them to contribute to the culture and the work of the team in a productive and meaningful way.
Every time someone is added to the team or someone leaves the team, the team culture will undergo a shift. The team leader needs to make sure that these shifts don’t comprise the overall team culture. By starting with clear definitions of purpose, success, power, communication, contribution, recognition, and environment, these can be easily conveyed to new team members. Whether you call it ground rules, orientation, or onboarding, having clarity around your desired team culture and being transparent about those expectations is what makes the difference between a group of people working and a group of people working together.
Revised November 2021. Origianlly published under The OD Pro in August 2019.