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Building small team culture

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Businesses talk a lot about team culture. If they don’t talk about it they should. It’s a clear performance multiplier. Whatever euphemism we use to describe it – the oil that makes a team work together, team morale, what we value, how things work around here, our mission and vision – team culture is a universal feature of every team. Definitions of team culture commonly include statements around values, ethics, and/or some form of concept of teamwork and how people treat and relate to each other. My own definition, using lay terms rather than academic ones, is that team culture is the amalgamation of individual choices with regards to what is OK and not OK to do around here. After all, team culture is not what we say it is but what others watch us do. That’s culture. Building the culture you want, however, is easier said than done.

Most businesses build team culture via accident or design. The former most commonly arises due to lack of awareness of the power of team culture (until something goes wrong) or lack of skill and courage in establishing a desirable one (usually because some eggs need to be broken to make an omelette and there is a reluctance to do that). The latter most often arises by management-led efforts to discuss what is important and why, and what needs to happen to reach the objectives of what has been agreed as a ‘desirable’ culture. That is easier said than done, particularly for small businesses – those with less than 20 employees – that comprise approximately 90% of the businesses in most developed economies. All businesses build their culture based on the examples set by their leaders and the conversations their leaders choose to have. In small businesses, where the leaders reach across all if not most employees, their influence on the development of culture is profound.

Recently I spent time with a team that had acute performance requirements. Within a tight timeframe the success or failure of the venture was clearly known in advance. The team was comprised of a range of individuals from different backgrounds, with different expectations, some of which knew each other and others who did not. They were required to operated in an unfamiliar environment without support, and yet in the presence of distraction. Not all small teams possess these characteristics. However, it provides a useful case study in the development of a positive team culture ‘on the fly’ so to speak. Not every team has the resources and time to articulate and design a set of values, or overtly talk about how we treat each other and what expectations are. This is made more difficult when the individuals involved are strong individualists, competitive by nature, and young. The key determinant of team culture in this case, are the actions of team leaders, both those formally appointed and those that informally exist (i.e. more experienced team members or more dominant personalities that others listen to). So, what are the factors that team leaders need to consciously aware of that, over time, creates a positive and desirable team culture?


A vision that unifies


All teams need clarity as to why they are there and what, ultimately, determines success or failure. We need a way to keep score and evaluate how well we have done, but more importantly, what is required to achieve that. This can be done through group conversations, informal and informal, individual conversations, or even using informal and unplanned opportunities when they it arises to talk about, discuss and reinforce why we are here. The whole point is understanding that despite individual differences in journey, skill, and knowledge we are all unified by a specific goal and we can all contribute to each other’s success through the habits we have operating as individuals and as a team.


value diversity


 Every team brings people together from different backgrounds, different experiences and perspectives. Embrace these, share points of view, welcome an alternative way of looking at a problem. Listen, learn and don’t be alarmed or defensive by variety. A mixed-breed puppy is more resilient than a thoroughbred, and often a lot more fun.


clarify how we each contribute in our own way


How we behave, how we react, what we acknowledge through what we say and how we say it shows what is important to what we value as a team. Those possible values are many but three or four stated values, values that are real and reasonable, that define how we behave towards others and each other are critical as they give a structure around what we talk about and why we talk about it. Integrity, hard work, respect for each other, a commitment to learning, gratitude, faith, dedication, fun, leading by example….whatever the values the key ones must be stated, defined, and lived by. Those values are broken down to individual process goals that together contribute to the team objectives.


embrace opportunities to bring people

other, discuss what is important and

provide essential information


Avoid information vacuums. Doubt provides room for speculation and confusion, and results in energy expended on trying to access information without the understanding of that information or an awareness of its accuracy. Actively work to minimise the rumour mill. Make asking questions easy. Ensure responses are as consistent and accurate as possible in their delivery and meaning.


show trust


 This may seem counter-intuitive to some but it is important that people feel believed in. If you don’t, then the question has to be asked as to why they are there. Look for opportunities to show and demonstrate it. Clear boundaries must be provided, formally and informally as to what is and is not acceptable and why. This doesn’t mean there is no monitoring or scrutiny, but rather that the most effective discipline is self-discipline. And self-discipline cannot be imposed, it must be chosen.


early conversations 


Explore issues before they arise and plant a seed for a constructive conversations after they arise. Get to know each other. Share information, look for opportunities to recognise achievements, embrace moments where we can learn from each other. Make awkward conversations easy. Respect privacy and engage with discretion and consideration for how others might react or what they might be afraid of or worried about.


In the case of the team I was fortunate to be part of the above factors were the key ingredients in building a team culture that became one of the most successful teams of its type in the history of the venture it was involved in.