Most leaders agree on the importance of building a positive organizational culture. There’s a growing collection of research on just how powerful positive cultures are for productivity, profitability, engagement, and employee well-being.
But many leaders put their focus in the wrong places when seeking to build that positive culture. They equate well-being or company culture with perks and benefits. So, they try to add cool perks like free food or a gym in the office. Or they create new benefits like flexible work arrangements or wellness programs. And while most employees won’t say no to these new perks, most organizations that add them don’t find they add much to the positivity of the culture.
That’s because positive culture doesn’t come from perks or benefits. It doesn’t flow out from the offices of senior leaders. Positive organizational cultures come from the accumulation of positive team cultures. Most employees’ experience of work is really the experience of working with the teams they serve on. So, teaching team leaders how to build a positive team culture will have the largest impact on creating a positive organizational culture overall.
In this article, we’ll review four actions team leaders can take to build a positive team culture.
The first action to build a positive team culture is to foster connections between teammates. This isn’t about making sure everyone knows each other’s name, or assigned roles, or even personality types. Research suggests that when people report having friends at work, they’re more engaged, more productive, and more innovative. In addition, fostering social connections reinforces a team mentality. When people connect with and care for others authentically, they are much more likely to put the needs of the team over their own ambitions, and much less likely to act in selfish or self-serving ways that degrade the culture of the team.
One way that leaders can foster social connections is by taking advantage of “unstructured” times the team is together but not focused on work. This could be dedicated times like shared meals or activities, but often the first few moments of a meeting (or last few moments depending on the team) work just as well to create space for people to talk about their lives outside of work and connect with others on a more meaningful level.
The second action to build a positive team culture is to show empathy. Empathy is key for a team to collaborate and communicate well. Research from Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan showed that leaders who empathize with their people build a sense of individual and teamwide resilience. It is inevitable that teams will face tough times. Projects come in over budget, past deadlines, and sometimes not at all. And when that happens, the culture of the team will make the difference between resilience and resentment.
And it’s the leader’s role to go first in showing empathy. Leaders must demonstrate empathy and take the time to understand and show consideration for the uniqueness of individual team members. If done well, that sets the tone for the rest of the team to mimic that behavior and build empathy across the entire team.
The third action to build a positive team culture is to offer help—and create a community of help on the team. Teams that go out of their way to provide help and support to each other are not just more positive, they’re more productive. But researcher Heidi Grant has found that people at work are slow to ask for help. They assume either that others can see their needs and aren’t helping or that if they did ask for help, they would be rejected.
This suggests that leaders can increase the level of helpfulness on a team on two important ways. First, by looking for setbacks or roadblocks in people’s work as they’re discussing it—asking questions like “what’s blocking your progress?” can help team members better communicate needs. Second, by being vocal about providing help. If teams see leaders pitching in to help often, they’re much more likely to turn helping into the norm on the team. And research suggests that when leaders are seen as more self-sacrificing, the team becomes more committed to each other.
The final action to build a positive team culture is to encourage candor. Positive team cultures aren’t defined by constant consensus, they’re marked by candor and respectful conflict. Positive teams seek to constantly improve their performance and individual skills, and that doesn’t happen without frank discussions about lessons learned and changes needed. Amy Edmondson at Harvard University has spent her career proving that teams with candor and psychological safety perform better than just about any other team.
And leaders play an important role in building psychological safety and encouraging candor. Leaders are best positioned to create the space for discussion and to model the vulnerability needed for true candor. How leaders respond to “crazy” ideas and, perhaps more importantly, how they respond to feedback will determine how safe people feel to speak up. So, leaders ought to be upfront about their failures, open about their requests for dissenting opinions, and grateful when those first few teammates take the risk of offering it.
These four actions put teams well on their way to a more positive culture. But it won’t happen overnight. These are not one-and-done actions, but rather habits of leaders that develop into team norms of behavior. When done consistently, these actions compound and make team culture more positive which compounds and makes the entire organizational culture more positive and shapes it into a place where everyone can do their best work ever.
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