Understanding the Foundations of a Great Team Culture
"Cultures are not built, they are created"
Reread that quote. A culture, whether it be something as large as your entire organization, or as small as your team, is a complex whole that is created organically through the manifestation and implementation of consistent behaviors, actions, and practices. When a new person joins an already established work culture, they can read the employee manual to get a sense of what the team is about, but what really resonates are the actions of their team members in their daily tasks.
Regardless of the industry you are in, the foundations for creating a great culture within your organization and team are always the same. Through these behaviors and actions, we can set the base for a great culture to emerge.
Who do we want to be?
In the case of a startup company, the founding members have the best purview of who they want to be and where they want to go. If you are starting a new team or taking over an existing one, you need to first take a step back and determine who you want to be, what will define you and your team, and what you see as the implementation of your guiding principles to achieve that goal. In its simplest form, this can be a set of tenets laid out on everyone’s desk that drive people’s actions, or a few keywords that reinforce those values. Whichever form it takes, remember that it must be clear. If you can’t articulate it in 30 seconds, how do you expect someone to understand it and follow it?
If people are constantly asking for clarification, then you need to clean it up and simplify it.
In any team, there will always be failures and successes – whether it be for the team itself or an individual who made a mistake. A cornerstone of any great team culture is to ensure that when failures happen, they are treated the same as successes – what did we do wrong, how can we learn from this, what do we do next – those are the approaches to failure that breed trust within a team.
If every failure is harped upon and made an example of, then you’ll never get to see the benefits of empowerment, determination, and passion that shine through in those toughest moments. It must be emphasized that in these scenarios, trust goes both ways – just as you need to trust those on your team when they fail, you too should be trusted by your team when you fail and make mistakes.
It’s not always easy, but when that commitment to knowing that everyone is working towards the same goal and possibly stumbling along the way to get there, the commitment to achieve is further emboldened.
From knowing who we are and trusting one another, a sense of empathy starts to emerge where we know the success of the team is not tied to individual performance, but instead to that of the team. When this is understood, as a team, we work harder to listen more and talk less, understand someone’s weaknesses and identify where we can help, and give respect to those around us.
New team members often bear the brunt when a lack of empathy is in place with words such as, “I’ve already explained it enough times, what’s taking so long to understand it?” when really what should be said is, “what can I do to help you wrap your head around this or understand what to do next?”.
Empathy as a part of culture forges the bonds for our final piece of building a great culture. Empathy really comes into play in our feedback channels to one another. A great team culture needs to have a proper feedback mechanism in place where team members feel open to receiving critical feedback on their performance. Providing it at the same time and knowing the feedback given and received is for the benefit of the team and not hidden agendas.
Capacity for Growth
A good culture works on what you are doing today, grinding through tasks, checking off boxes, while looking like superstars. A great team looks to the future, what is coming down the pipe next, what should be thought about, what factors are going to affect us, and how we hit that challenge coming down the road. When a team is built for the capacity of growth, they are not looking for quick wins and pyrrhic victories, instead, they are focused on long-term growth, development, and sustainability. It’s when all the other elements to a great culture are in place that we can truly consider the capacity for growth. When a project goes badly based on a new approach, the team doesn’t assign blame, they learn from the mistake and move forward, not returning to the status quo, while staying committed to growing and trying something new.
While looking at each piece of a team culture, one might assume that you could have three pieces of a foundation and skip the one that doesn’t affect you today. But this would be a failure as all pieces must work together in unison, bound by an unflinching desire to create something that can withstand the good times as well as the bad without the team feeling the effects one way over the other.
You can’t build a culture, but you can create one.