Culture is the secret sauce of organizational success.
It seems like nearly everyone agrees that culture is hugely important. The culture individuals find themselves in influences their future actions and ultimately their future success or failure. But while many agree about the importance of company culture, what many fail to understand is that the culture of the team matters more than overall company culture.
Even before the pandemic, the most common interactions individual employees had was with members of their team, not random people elsewhere in the organization. And after the great work from home experiment began, those team interactions only became even more dominant.
So, while company culture matters, smart leaders are paying more and more attention to team culture.
In this article, we’ll examine three elements of a strong team culture…and then two ways to create or reinforce those elements on your team.
Three Elements of a Strong Team Culture
When we look at what explains a high performing team culture, three elements come vividly into focus: Purpose, Clarity, and Safety. And it’s best to examine each in turn.
The first element of a strong team culture is purpose. Many leaders believe in the motivating power of purpose, but for many of them, that means grandiose mission statements or big picture vision. But when it comes to individuals and teams, effective purpose looks a lot less like “why do we do what we do?” and more like “who do we serve?” Sometimes that who is a client or customer and sometimes it’s an internal customer like another team or department who relies on the work your team does.
The second element of a strong team culture is clarity—two kinds of clarity in particular. It’s certainly important for a team to have role clarity. Individuals need to know what is assigned to them and what is being covered by others. And teams need to be clear about deadlines and trust that deliverables will actually be delivered. But teams also need clarity around each other’s work preferences, communication styles, and personalities. It’s not enough to know what others will be doing, we also need to know best to talk to others about the work that’s being done.
The third element of a strong team culture is safety—as in psychological safety. This the extent to which team members feel safe to express themselves, take risks, and even admit failure. This doesn’t mean there is never conflict on a strong team. In fact, it means the opposite. It means that conflict is handled with trust and respect and used to push each other’s thinking and find the best solutions available. It also means that when failure happens, the team can properly analyze why it happened and learn from it instead of fighting over who is to blame.
How To Build Culture
Knowing what a team culture looks like, it’s worth considering how these cultural elements get reinforced on a daily basis. There’s a lot to be said for how to build or reinforce culture, but much of it can be reduced to two aspects of our experience at work: artifacts and rituals.
Artifacts or the physical or visual symbols that serve to reinforce the elements of culture. These can be pictures or objects, but they’re also the acronyms or jargon a team uses. Artifacts are the inside jokes or shared past experiences a team refers to often. If we want to use artifacts to build culture, we need to think about the ways we reinforce our people-focused purpose through pictures of customers or stories of great performance. And we should think about the symbols or gestures we may use to remind the team of the importance of safety.
Rituals are artifacts in action. Rituals are the behaviors or actions we take that reinforce elements of culture. As we go through the same rituals, at the same time or just as we share the same past experiences, we feel better bonded to each other and better connected to our culture elements. So, while people-focused artifacts like pictures or stories build culture, so do people-focused rituals like having every employee start in a customer service role. Rituals can also be the series of questions we ask in each meeting that update everyone and reinforce clarity, or the ways in which we call for questions that reinforce safety.
Rituals and Artifacts are subtle reminders of the importance of shared culture, and the more individuals on the team understand that importance, the more they feel like a team. And when a team is built around purpose, clarity and safety—and that’s reinforced through observable symbols and shared actions—it grows stronger and stronger. And eventually, it grows into a team that helps everyone do their best work ever.
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