Steps Toward Building a Successful Team Culture

31 Oct Steps Toward Building a Successful Team Culture

By Matthew M. Thomas, COO / Senior Design Partner at Design Group International

© 2017

Building a successful team culture can be challenging. Organizational culture is notoriously hard to measure, so how do we know the efforts and approaches we are using are making a difference to positively influence team culture? What cultural elements will make or break our business, and what cultural elements would fall into the “nice to have” or “prefer not to have” categories, but not really affect much?

Indeed, team culture is complex. Nevertheless, research published in 2001 offers strong advice on what elements of team culture have the strongest influence on a company’s financial performance.

In his 2001 book outlining his groundbreaking survey of professional service firms, David H. Maister draws out nine areas of management practice and organizational culture that have direct effects on the bottom line. These nine areas shouldn’t surprise any of us – especially those of us who have led organizations, from the team level on up. It also shouldn’t surprise us that the relationships with the greatest effects on financial performance are those on the team level, more so than the company as a whole.

The nine areas are:

  1. Quality and Client Relationships
  2. Employee Satisfaction
  3. Empowerment
  4. Coaching
  5. High Standards
  6. Long-term Orientation
  7. Enthusiasm, Commitment, and Respect
  8. Fair Compensation
  9. Training and Development

Whole books have been written on each one of those subjects – it could be argued that several of these nine areas have their own industries. There is a lot of information available about those areas of management, some of which is contradictory. There are, however, some basic starting points that can help us take steps forward.

Clarify your Why

We have talked before about how understanding your organizational why is essential to strategy – and it is no less essential to the successful team culture. Nevertheless, there are three other areas that must also be in place.

Build on Foundations of Trust

It sounds basic and often repeated, but good team culture begins with trust. Patrick Lencioni argues that a lack of trust is the foundation for all kinds of poor team performance and behavior. Trust allows for good accountability and capacity to achieve results. As leaders, we act in ways that build trust: doing what we say we are going to do; displaying empathy and being clear about expectations. All members of a team build trust by owning mistakes, instead of shifting blame. Being aware of our emotions and expressing them in ways that do not trigger others’ flight/fight/freeze responses further builds trust and expands capacity. In the end, trust helps people believe us when they see us doing what we say we are going to do: we “practice what we preach”.

Put the Right People in the Right Place

Getting the right people in place, with the right capacities, is another basic, but difficult to execute first step toward a successful team culture. A team that is missing key capacities, or struggles with clashes of personality, will find challenges in execution and delivery on all of Maister’s nine areas of management. Building a team with healthy emotional intelligence goes a long way toward a healthy culture – where no one is too explosive or withdrawn, or (in violation of the principle of trust) saying one thing but doing another. Leaders who approach everyone with the understanding that each person has something to offer are more likely to build strong teams, because they aren’t afraid to move people out who don’t fit, trusting that they will have somewhere else to land, and that moving them along will be better for everyone. Leaders who struggle to do that – especially when it means firing someone – tend to lead teams that struggle. Leaders who make getting the right people a priority (whether through selection, deselection, or coaching), find successful team culture grow and having influence beyond the team itself.

Define Clear Roles

The third major starting point is clearly defining who is responsible for what. With a “why” defined, having the “what” – the goals and objectives clear is often the next step. Defining the “who” from that point assures solid execution. Team culture requires role clarity so that the team doesn’t descend into blame-shifting and delegating sideways and up. Clearly defining “who” also helps teams figure out the “how” of a strategy. “How” is dependent on who is doing what, so an unclear who will lead to gaps in “how.” Team culture benefits from this by helping team members to recognize who is responsible for what, reducing the tendency toward laziness or overwork. Nevertheless, it is the leader, along with the team members, who has to make sure people are clear about their roles and executing on them. Role clarity makes the level of accountability possible to keep projects moving to completion, which improves morale and helps people stay engaged, all of which feeds back into positive team culture.

Taken together, having a clear why, building foundations of trust, and getting the right people in the right place in the right role, will create the right starting conditions to excel in the nine areas Maister discovered in his research. How will you apply these to your team culture?

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