How to Build a Great Team Culture (Even if You’re Not CEO)

Turn Your Team Culture Into A Cultural Oasis

Every week we receive calls about team culture that go something like this:

“Karin and David, I want to build a great team culture. I really do.
I want people on my team to feel safe to speak up and share ideas as you describe in Courageous Cultures.
And I love the culture of accountability and trust you describe in Winning Well.
But I’ve got to tell you, our corporate culture is a bit of a hot mess right now.
Is it possible to build a great team culture even if the rest of the company is not quite there yet?”  #AskingForaFriend

What is Team Culture?

Our favorite definition of culture comes from the marketing guru, Seth Godin. “People like us do things like this.”

An easy way to think about your team culture is simply, “On this team we _________.” Culture is how values translate to day-to-day behaviors.

So even if you’re working in a toxic corporate culture, you can choose to be deliberate about the things you do on your team. We call this approach a “cultural oasis.” Think of your team or your circle of influence as that oasis in the desert of your overall culture.

When people interact with you and your team, how can they come away refreshed? How will they experience respect, be seen, and treated with dignity? You don’t need to wait for a top executive to tell you to value innovation. You can show your team that YOU value innovation, by consistently asking for their ideas and responding well.

For some great tools on building team innovation
download our FREE I.D.E.A. Incubator Guide

Where to Start: How to Build a Cultural Oasis

The most important point to remember as you begin any kind of corporate culture work, whether it’s for your team, department, or the entire company, is this: words don’t build culture, behaviors do.

It’s not what your team SAYS they value at the company offsite. It’s what they DO when they get back to their physical or virtual offices that makes a difference.

With that said, it’s worth carving out a few hours to align your team members around your aspirational values and how they translate into behaviors.

1. Define Your Aspirational Team Values and Behaviors

As the team leader, you can define the aspirational values as a starting point and involve the team in the definitions. Or you can work together to align around key values. If your company has corporate values you believe in (even if they’re not being lived out at the moment) you can use those values as a starting point– and spend your time talking about and defining what they could mean for your team.

If you want to involve the team in selecting the values, it’s helpful to give everyone a chance to think about the aspirational values in advance and be prepared to discuss why they are important.

Sticky notes are an easy way to get people talking and to look for themes. Have each person write down their desired team values (one per real or virtual sticky note). And then group the sticky notes together in common themes.

2. Translate the Values into Concrete Behaviors

When we do this work with teams in our strategic leadership programs, most employees find choosing the values is the easy part. It’s the art of translating these values into concrete behaviors that can be more challenging.

For example, we were working with one team that selected a core value of “compassion.”

Then, as they worked to define how that meant they would treat people externally (e.g. their customers, their suppliers, and their industry peers) and internally (their employees) the behaviors seemed straightforward at first.

For example, “We truly listen to people and their needs and work to make their lives better.”

But what happens when an urgent and important client request would cause your entire team to work all day Sunday? The compassionate response for your client might be to do everything you can to meet their needs.

Of course, there’s also the issue of translating compassion into behaviors for your employees as well. How does compassion play into that Sunday request?

Testing these aspirational values against real-world competing pressures provides real clarity, and helps guide problem-solving and decision making down the line.

3. Build Infrastructure to Support Your Values

If your title doesn’t start with a “C” you likely aren’t going to change the compensation or performance appraisal system to align with your team values. But, you have a good bit of influence over what you pay attention to, celebrate, and ignore.

Teams with great team culture consistently look for ways to recognize and celebrate behaviors that are aligned with their values. They also have a deliberate conversation about operating norms.

For example, if you say you value work-life balance, but there’s an unspoken expectation that emails from you will be returned immediately no matter what time of night, you’re sabotaging that element of your desired team culture.

Or, if you say you value teamwork, but look the other way when a high-performer belittles his co-workers, you’re inaction will speak louder than your words.

4. Hold One Another Accountable for Upholding Team Culture

In great team cultures, team members act consistently with the values that the team agrees to.

If we say we value integrity, it means that we can count on one another to do what we say. Not only are we all striving to follow-through on commitments, but we also hold one another accountable for keeping commitments as well.

For help in building accountability into your team culture see: How to Provide More Meaningful Performance Feedback.

5. Conduct Regular Check-ins to Assess Progress

You’ve defined your values and related behaviors and tested those behaviors against challenging scenarios. And, you’ve built a deliberate support infrastructure. Your team is working hard to live the values in the work they are doing every day, and holding one another accountable.

The next step is to create a regular cadence to talk about progress. We often work with teams to translate their aspirational behaviors into a simple team check-in. Then once a quarter, the team sits down to self-assess the progress on their team culture, celebrate what’s working and talk about what they can do to get even better.

Don’t wait or wish that your corporate culture would improve to help your employee engagement. You can start today by building a team cultural oasis.

Want More Ways to Build a Cultural Oasis for Your Team?

Our latest book, Courageous Cultures: Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of MicroInnovators, Problem Solvers and Customer Advocates, provides a road map to build a high-performance, high-engagement culture around sharing ideas, solving problems, and rewarding contributions from all levels.

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