How to unlock the hidden power of team culture

Culture is supposed to eat strategy for breakfast. But, it’s leaving many organizations hungry for better results.

A positive culture provides the right environment. It encourages people to create their best work possible. But, the increasing focus and investment on organizational culture, is not moving the needle.

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Employee engagement is at an all-time low. That’s the key finding of recent research by ADPRI, conducted in 19 countries.

The global study of engagement reveals that only 16% of employees are fully engaged at work — 84% are just going through the motions.

Culture is not the problem — our approach is.

People build the culture, yet managers want to control it. That’s the paradox of culture. Leaders think they can create a homogenous one. And expect everyone to behave in the same way.

The best-performing teams practice cultural fitness, not just fit. The overall culture does not only shape them — they shape it too.

What if we shift the focus from corporate culture to team culture instead?

Culture Is Not a Homogeneous Beast

Managers assume that teams will collaborate which other. They fall into the collaboration trap, as I wrote here.

Each team has its own way of doing things. That’s why collaboration is hard — even between two teams from the same organization. No one wants to share their secret sauce.

Regardless if it’s an executive, cross-functional, project-based or informal team — each has a particular culture. Acknowledging this is vital to fix engagement.

Organizations know that engagement leads to productivity, innovation, loyalty, and more. But, most are failing to improve it.

We got engagement all wrong.

That’s the key conclusion of Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall in-depth HBR piece. Organizations usually have two extreme solutions to fix engagement.

The first is culture — companies focus on the employee experience to improve engagement. The second is the person per se — to fix performance, companies try to develop skills, and motivation individually.

It turns out that the most effective way to improve performance and engagement is to focus not on culture or individuals — but on the team.

What really matters — the authors explain — is if people do most of their work on a team (or not).

As Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code, writes:

“We presume skilled individuals will combine to produce skilled performance in the same way we presume two plus two will combine to produce four. We focus on what we can see — but individual skills are not what matters. What matters is the interaction.”

Belonging to a team drives higher engagement — even within the same company.

Employees who are part of a team are more than twice more engaged than those who did most of their work alone. But, great teams drive even higher engagement.

Teams shape individual performance.

A team expands everyone’s perspectives. Teammates have individual skills that complement each other. Our colleagues’ feedback increases self-awareness and performance.

Google discovered that moving ‘low performers’ into a different team drastically improves behavior and performance.

Transferring people to a new, different team generates measurable, positive outcomes. It increases learning, productivity, innovation, and leadership.

Team culture is tangible — it boosts happiness, creativity, innovation, and resilience.

Team Cultures Are Tribes

“We are drawn to leaders and to their ideas, and we can’t resist the rush of belonging and the thrill of the new.” — Seth Godin

Humans can’t help it. We like to belong to something bigger than ourselves.

People like to be part of a tribe — the smaller the group, the stronger the affiliation.

As Seth Godin explains in his book Tribes:

“A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.”

Being part of a tribe is a powerful survival mechanism. Groups make us stronger. We perform better collaborating with like-minded people.

Tribes are a two-way street — we both contribute to and take from the group.

A team needs three things to become a tribe: a common purpose, shared rituals, and a trusted leader.

Godin wrote, “Tribes need leadership. Sometimes one person leads, sometimes more. People want connection and growth and something new. They want change.”

Successful tribe leaders are authentic, generous, and intellectually humble. They are aware of their fear. And willing to embrace discomfort.

Great leaders challenge the status quo in spite of fear, not because of it.

Fearless leaders bring the tribe together. They create movements that inspire people to follow the mission. Great leaders main priority is the tribe — and only the tribe.

“You can’t have a tribe without a leader — and you can’t be a leader without a tribe.” — Seth Godin

According to the ADPRI global study, people are 12x more likely to be fully engaged when teams trust their leaders.

A highly successful team culture doesn’t mean lighthearted. People care about doing exceptional work. Solving big problems together drives excitement — not the ping pong tables.

So, what creates a sense of belonging and connection among high performing teams? Daniel Coyle outlines three signals:

1) You are part of this group

2) This group is special; we have higher standards here

3) I believe you can reach those standards

The power of team culture seems obvious, right?

However, most teams are not represented on org charts. About half of the teams where great work happens are invisible to management.

Research shows that the person who knows why teams exist and who is on them is actually the team leader, not HR.

Companies can’t see the tribes — their best work is invisible.

Unlock the Power of Team Subcultures

To change what one person does, change what the people around them do. That’s the power of team culture.

Here are some key recommendations based on my consulting and research.

1. See the teams

The first step is to make teams visible. To leverage the power of team culture, start by identifying formal and informal groups. Buckingham and Goodhall recommend using real-time technology to better understand and support team members.

2. Build Psychological Safety

Creating a safe, trustworthy, collaborative, and creative environment not only encourages people to speak up. Psychological safety permits teams to develop a culture of their own. They don’t need to bottle their emotions.

Removing fear raises the bar. Trust is not just about getting along well. It also develops a robust low tolerance for bad apple behavior. Like New Zealand All-Blacks’ rule: “No dickheads allowed.”

3. Encourage subcultures — don’t neutralize them

Most clients resist their advice. They feel that encouraging team culture will create chaos. On the contrary, autonomy — both at an individual and collective level — increases accountability and performance.

Real work happens on teams. It’s easier to increase belonging and alignment within a team.

Team culture feeds the overall corporate culture — and the other way around. What works for one team might not work for another.

Do all successful teams have the same habits and rhythms? What about small versus large teams? What are Do the best ways for team members to share information vary according to the type of team they’re on?

4. Change happens from within

When we try to change everything, we end changing nothing. Transforming an organization requires changing one team at-a-time. Organizations are networks of tribes.

Instead of a top-down approach, we must drive change from inside-out.

Teams are agents of change. Decentralize innovation and transformation. When confronted with a performance or an innovation challenge, ask yourself, “How can we address this through our teams?”

5. Strengthen bondings

Getting to know other team members build trust and collaboration. That’s the number one goal most teams want to achieve, according to our research. They want to strengthen internal bondings. The quality of the relationships affects the quality of the work.

Understanding working styles, personal perspectives, and what everyone brings to the table is key. It helps complement and trust each other.

6. Create cultural exchanges

Design experiences to cross-pollinate best practices. Create “internships” to allow team members how others work. Host monthly meetings, for teams to share their secrets and successes

Rotating people boost learning, creativity, and engagement, as I explained earlier.

7. Leverage team rituals

Teams have codes and specific ways of doing things. Some define the outcome, other their culture. Well-designed rituals create a stronger, emotional connection with the work. They make it more meaningful.

Rituals shape the culture, not just behaviors. Rituals bring together purpose, autonomy, and mastery — the three elements of motivation 3.0.

Make Your Tribes Visible

Don’t underestimate the power of team culture. It’s not that the overall culture doesn’t matter. But, instead of a top-down approach, design and build your culture by leveraging existing team subcultures.

The shift is not smooth, though. All transformations are human, emotional, and messy.

As Seth Godin wrote, “The only thing that makes people and organizations great is their willingness to be not great along the way.”

It’s time to unlock the hidden power of team culture.

This article first appeared on Medium