Teams are a central part of our work experience. Jobs that could have been solitary at one time or another happen more efficiently and at higher quality because we work in teams. The number of teams we form, along with the size of those teams, has increased dramatically in recent decades.
And much of a team’s performance comes down to its culture. Yes, the talents and skills of individuals matter. But without a positive team culture, those same individuals will fail to achieve the level of performance they’re capable of. The common set of norms and behaviors on a team are what guide their collaboration and determine their performance.
In this article, we’ll outline 5 practical ways to build a positive team culture that will help your team thrive and succeed.
The first way to build a positive team culture is to clarify objectives to the whole team. This might seem like a very basic way to start, but so much of what triggers conflict and disengagement on a team stems from the team working to complete vague tasks in the service of unclear goals. Clarifying the team’s goals, it’s plan of action, and its deadlines and deliverables provides the foundation on which a positive team culture can be built. It brings a sense of contribution and importance to each member of the team to know how their work fits in with the team’s purpose and how that fits into the larger organizational mission. And it provides accountability to the team that’s difficult to enforce without that level of clarity.
The second way to build a positive team culture is to outline expectations to the team. People need to know what is expected of them, that’s what is meant by clarify objectives. Expectations takes it a step further and outlines that a completed objective looks like, so the team knows how to tell that they’ve achieved it. But outlining expectations also means outlining the expectations of behavior on a team—especially interpersonal communication and collaboration expectations. Many times, the relationships between teammates get strained because of taken for granted assumptions or assumed responses that don’t match reality. So, clarifying how we’re going to interact (even going so far as clarifying what medium of communication will be used for which topic) can go a long way toward eliminating assumptions and improving communication.
The third way to build a positive team culture is to include all. One of the more consistent findings in organizational psychology is that high-performing teams, and teams with great cultures, are marked by conversational turn taking—ensuring everyone on the team is heard. Inclusion is a vital part of a positive team culture for obvious and nonobvious reasons. It’s obvious because who wants to be part of a team that ignores them? But less obvious is the way that being deliberate about hearing and including all opens up a diversity of ideas and possible solutions and makes it more likely new and better ways of achieving objectives are found—without that diversity teams can get stale and performance can start to slide.
The fourth way to build a positive team culture is to recognize the good behaviors you see. As a leader, one rule of thumb you can count on is that you’ll get more of the behaviors that you celebrate. So, when teammates demonstrate civility in dialogue or inclusion in discussion, celebrate their positive interactions. When teammates go above and beyond, praise it. Teams with great cultures (and great performance) praise and appreciate each other more than standard teams. It’s a habit for them. And that habit of praise starts with leaders who are deliberate and consistent about praising good behavior and good results any time they see it.
The fifth way to build a positive team culture is to reinforce purpose. Positive team cultures are cultures where teammates feel a sense of purpose, and meetings are imbued with a sense of collective purpose. Specifically, positive team cultures are ones where everyone on the team knows who is served by their doing a good job—and so they work harder and support each other to do a better job. This can be difficult for individual teams. Organizations have mission statement or vision statements—but it’s hard to see how a specific team fulfills that mission. Positive team cultures are ones where leaders (typically) have taken the time to discuss how the day-to-day work of the team serves that mission and then who benefits from that mission being accomplished. It’s not about reciting the mission statement; it’s about recalling why the task at hand matters.
If you’re starting from a negative team culture, it may take some time before these actions start turning around the culture of your team. That’s okay. Stay deliberate and stay consistent on each one of them and overtime as expectations get clearer and purpose gets reinforced, teammates behaviors will change for the better. Culture is a habit, and habit aren’t built overnight. But habits (and hence culture) are the difference between teams that drain us and teams that allow us to do our best work ever.
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