How To Design Your Team Culture

By Benjie Garcia

In my corporate life and now as a consultant, I’ve had a number of opportunities to help teams improve their effectiveness by operationalizing their mission, vision and values into the day-to-day activities. Oftentimes, our discussion starts with creating an understanding of the process of developing their team culture through such tools as Bruce Tuckman’s Stages of Team Development. 

For newly formed leadership teams, I’ve facilitated a process that enables the team leader and the members to have an open and honest discussion and to get to know each other better including their expectations, beliefs and principles, questions and concerns as well as suggestions.  The process concludes with a set of agreements and actions including follow up sessions intended to review progress of the team’s performance against these.  I have found such tools and processes to be critically important in increasing the likelihood of teams to perform at a high level.

In her book “Your Hidden Game – Ten Invisible Agreements That Can Make or Break Your Business”, Sharon Rich shares 10 ground rules that teams and organizations need to explicitly gain alignment in order to deliver the desired results.  The absence of these “agreements” results in a culture of unspoken rules, unquestioned assumptions and patterns of behavior that can derail the team. She defines “agreements” as a “state of conscious alignment between people: a unified clarity and acceptance regarding shared purpose, expectations, attitudes and actions.”  Incorporating the formulation of these agreements in a team’s norming process will enhance its effectiveness.  I will briefly explain each of these ten agreements:

  • How we will talk about the business.  “Only tell stories that support the results you want.”  Stories are powerful. We make sense of our experiences through stories which are our perceptions of reality. Leaders play an important as role models in paying attention to the message their stories communicate to their teams. The team’s mission, vision and values come alive through the stories team members share with one another. Focus on stories that are empowering (i.e. explore possibilities and opportunities, factual but without judgement, drives action to produce the desired results).
  • How we will make it safe to succeed.  Creating psychological safety is the perquisite for sustainable success. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” It plays a critical role in the working environment and, therefore, impacts employee engagement. Various research reports show how employee engagement affects employee attrition, productivity, creativity, innovation and risk taking. Neuroscience explains the relationships between human emotions and neurotransmitters that ultimately impact performance.
  • What success looks like. This is a commonly used statement but oftentimes refer only to setting financial goals. Setting financial goals is not enough. We also need to define the patterns of behavior (habits) that the team will practice to reach the goals.  These patterns of behavior provide the clarity to the team’s values and ultimately create the conditions for the team to perform effectively.
  • Where we will put our shared attention. High performing teams prioritize their goals and focus on the top priorities. Creating alignment within the team allows it to focus on the priorities that have the biggest impact to the desired outcome. In today’s fast paced world, it is also important to agree on how the team will handle changing priorities when needed. Creating improvement priorities is also important for long-term success to balance the temptation to concentrate on short term goals.
  • Who does what and how. The roles team members play is often interpreted to mean job titles and job descriptions.  Roles encompass these elements but are broader in scope which are frequently left unspoken.  Roles are dynamic, constantly evolving, and fundamentally interconnected.  These must connect to the broader priorities of the team.  As priorities change, roles may also change. This implies that team members need to be adaptable. This also means that boundaries need to be established and understand to avoid inefficiency and conflict.  Role-clarity offers many benefits to the team such as increased accountability, improved collaboration, effective decision-making and high morale.  
  • How the team will decide and follow through. How you make decisions is as important as the decisions you make.” Teams and organizations inevitably create practices on how they make decisions. Such practices and patterns may unknowingly create confusion, conflict and distrust within the team. Establishing explicit agreements on how decisions will be made and communicated creates trust.  This does not imply that consensus decision-making is the preferred practice as it rarely represents true consensus.  Similarly, teams need to establish agreement on their process for following through on their decisions.  Here it is important to recall Agreement number 2 (creating psychological safety) in order to avoid many of the pitfalls in decision-making.
  • How people will share information and coordinate actions. “There is no substitute for working out how you will work together.”  While the benefits to sharing information and coordination seem obvious, many teams fall into the trap of ‘silo-thinking’ either out of ignorance or well-intentioned desire to protect confidentiality of information.  Leader behavior plays an important influence ion such behaviors. Establishing a shared agreement on sharing information can be accomplished using the following discussion points: what is our intention, when will we coordinate, who needs to be in the loop, how much will we share, how will we coordinate, how will team members respond, what information needs to be held in confidence. what will we reward and encourage.
  • How the organization will respond to problems. It is certain that problems will arise within the organization. The perspective of whether members view the situation as a problem or an opportunity makes a huge difference in how they respond.  The risks are that members will ignore the situation, focus finding who is to blame, rationalize it, refuse to address it or even hide the issue until it becomes a full-blown crisis. It is important that the team agree to surface an obstacle or challenge when it occurs. Such an agreement involves committing “to accept and talk about that is not working”, disclosing the facts and taking accountability.  It also means anticipating potential issues and creating a “recovery plan.”
  • How we will utilize failure. “Failure is necessary for success.”  Failure is commonly viewed as an undesirable outcome. However, many teams and organizations unconsciously or unintentionally cause failure through the following behaviors:  ignoring the situation, denying ownership of the problem, blaming people and circumstances, rationalizing and justifying, jumping from solution to solution, overanalyzing the situation, expecting and fearing failure.  An agreement that shifts the team’s perspective from failure to learning, constructive feedback instead of blaming and judgement builds trust.
  • How we will hold ourselves accountable.  Accountability is often associated with blame. In this agreement, team or organization accountability refers to “the ability to count on each other to take action that is consistent with agreed-upon outcomes.” Based on this definition, Accountability encompasses all the previous agreements.

Each team or organization will have to formulate a set of agreements that they believe works for them through a process of discussion and consultation.  Transforming this into a culture means creating new habits for team members. This is a collective journey where having measures and milestones will serve to guide the team to achieving their desired culture.

Source: Your Hidden Game – Ten Invisible Agreements That Can Make or Break Your Business, Sharon Rich, 2018

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