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Leading and Shepherding Team Culture

Culture is a collection of beliefs, behaviours, and states of being that are held by a group of people at a particular time. It is often described as “how we do things around here”. It exists on multiple levels, from small groups such as teams or families, through to broader groups such as social classes, national cultures, or pan-national cultures. It is complex, messy, and near impossible to design and create in an orderly way.

That said, culture is integral to the performance and operations of a team, and it can be changed to improve team performance. The key question is ‘how’. Before we get to the how, however, we need to understand the ‘what’ and ‘why’.

Team Culture Infograph

The Why: Culture affects nearly everything we do. A negative team culture will kill performance, increase staff turnover, and can lead to anti-social and destructive behaviours. The scandals that have plagued financial organisations in the last decade show that even cultures that often appear desirable (competitive and high-performing) can be toxic and exploitive. A positive culture can conversely improve productivity, engagement, enjoyment and promote pro-social behaviours.

The What: So what is culture made up of? It’s still a debatable term, but culture is broadly accepted to be the collection of stories, experiences and memories that unite a group of people. Culture builds identity and inclusiveness (word of warning—it can also foster exclusiveness and otherness)

So, we know why we need to focus on culture, and what culture is. Now the tricky part—how do we make team culture what we want it to be? Here are three key tips to get you started…

    To Change Team Culture, Focus on its Components. 
    It would be near impossible, and certainly very time consuming and expensive to change all aspects of culture in one initiative (not that it stops organisations from trying). Culture is highly complex, and even at a team level, it is better to focus on chaning the component parts, rather than chaning the culture directly. You will need to have the destination in mind, but rather than mapping out a detailed journey, the process will be more like shepherding your flock. 

    So, decide on what your ideal culture looks like. Don't try to design it, just describe it. Make it a rich description that covers all senses. Then, identify the behaviours and experiences that would demonstrate that culture. These are what you need to focus on to foster a desirable culture. 
    Reflect through Rewards. Rewards must reflect the desired culture. People will respond according to the rewards. If you want a collaborative team that works well together but recognise, reward and promote on the basis of individual performance you will create conflict. Individuals within a team will behave in a way that benefits them, rather than following a myth of a culture. It’s imperative that organisations look at how they reward and value soft skills, focussing solely on results runs the risk of building an organisation of hyper-competitive, and ultimately destructive, super-chickens.Ongoing Guidance and Tweaking. People are complex. Culture is complex. There will be unintended consequences and flow-on effects. You must be on the lookout for these and tweak the system to manage them. It’s useful to remember the old adage to ‘seek first to understand’, often the rationale behind behaviours is not immediately obvious and it’s easy to misappropriate meaning, but if you truly want to create an ideal team culture, you need to understand the motivation behind them (tip: don’t ask ‘why’, that comes across as judgemental, there are better questions to ask). Remember that culture management is not a set-and-forget process. People in your team will change. There will be changing forces external to your team, and external to the organisation, you need to be cognisant of these and adjust accordingly.

Cultivating a strong team culture takes time and continual effort. You cannot design a culture, implement a change piece, and then forget about it assuming the work has been done. Rather, you need to constantly shepherd your team towards the ideal culture. Have your destination in mind, and realise you are working with individuals that may not behave in ways you would foresee, and external influences will affect your journey. Instead of planning a detailed map, you will need to guide and constantly tweak your direction by focusing on the behaviours and rewards that reflect the desired culture. When you successfully manage behaviours, experiences, and rewards, you will find that an effective culture develops organically.


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