There's one thing that high-performing teams have in common: a strong team culture. We all know it’s important – but how do you actually get there?
The truth is: whether it’s the result of conscious efforts or a sum of the values and behaviors each individual brings to the team, your team will have a culture. And the quality of that culture will impact both the wellbeing of your team members and your team’s performance.
With an increasing number of people working remotely, creating and maintaining strong team cultures is becoming even more critical. When we don't see each other daily at the office, we need to find new ways to reinforce the feelings of belonging and purpose that will allow people to perform at their very best.
According to Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, authors of the book Remote:
"You don't need everyone physically together to create a strong culture. The best cultures derive from actions people actually take."
What is team culture?
Team culture can be defined in many ways, but it all boils down to how your team members feel and act when they’re at work. It’s the implicit social order shaping the attitudes and behaviors of everyone in the team.
Team culture is the set of norms and values that define what behaviors are deemed positive or negative; what is accepted and what is considered unacceptable. Or as Frances Frei and Anne Morriss put it:
"Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is, of course, most of the time."
Now, why is this so important?
Many leaders fail to realize just how vital team culture is, often expecting it to just happen and focusing on strategy instead.
But this is a dangerous mistake that can quickly become costly. "Culture eats strategy for breakfast" is a punchy and often repeated quote that carries a lot of truth. Because however elaborate your business strategy is, it will not get you far if it’s not supported by culture.
Benefits of a strong team culture
Many of the benefits stem from the simple fact that with a strong team culture, people are happier at work.
A strong team culture means a loyal and productive workforce, while the absence of one will have the opposite results. Any team leader who fails to recognize the importance of a strong culture will soon see the effects, as employee churn increases and productivity decreases.
In addition, research suggests that happy employees are up to 20% more productive than unhappy ones.
How to improve team culture
Luckily, there are many ways to improve your team’s culture. As always, awareness of the need is the first step. Put culture on the agenda and invite everyone to the discussion.
An honest inventory of where you stand today and where you want to go provides a good starting point. You could even invite an external facilitator and devote a full-day workshop to the topic, or assign internal culture ambassadors.
To help you make the most impact in your team, here are seven important steps to build a stronger team culture and improve employee satisfaction.
7 steps to building a strong team
1. Start from the top
Strategy and culture are the most important tools at any leader’s disposal. While strategy offers the logic for where you want to go, culture is what will make your team want to get there. This means that culture is not something that can be outsourced to HR. Instead, it should sit at the core of every leader’s responsibilities.
It also goes without saying that culture must be modeled by your leadership team. Just as we like to say about children: team members will do what you do, not what you say.
2. Set clear expectations and give frequent feedback
For a team to perform at its best, transparency is key. Expectations of each team member’s performance must be specified and very clear. Well-defined roles and expectations, combined with frequent and honest feedback, builds trust and reduces stress.
Take the time to evaluate projects together to learn and evolve as individuals and as a team. Remember that the road to success is paved with failure. For a strong team culture, treat failures as learning experiences, and never accept finger-pointing and blame games.
3. Define your team values...
Strong team cultures come in many shapes and forms. What works wonders in one place might not work at all in another.
Taking the time to define the values guiding your team will be time well-spent. Let this be a team exercise so that everyone feels included and can buy into the final product.
Create a document where you define what you want your team to be, what you don’t want it to be, and use value words to describe how you want to treat each other.
This document serves as a guide for the whole team, and will also help new hires to integrate quickly and understand your culture.
4. ...and repeat them often
Repetition is the mother of all learning. Don’t expect to define your team values and then be done with them. Just like your team goals, your team values need to be repeated – again and again. Revisit them regularly and discuss how well they are aligned with your reality.
Are there gaps between your aspirations and your day-to-day situation? If so, take this seriously. Identify problem areas and try to come up with solutions together.
5. Recruit for cultural add as well as cultural fit
Culture fit is a term that has long been used in recruiting to describe candidates that will be able to adapt to and appreciate the values of an organization. Good culture fit usually means people are happy at work, quickly adapt, and that employee retention is higher.
But there is also a danger of focusing too much on culture fit. As humans, we tend to hire people just like ourselves, which is a fast way to hinder diversity and let group-think contribute to poor decision making.
Awareness of this has given birth to the newer term culture add, referring to candidates who will enhance the current culture and bring something new to the table. Cultural adds bring diversity to your team, which is also well-known for its positive effects on performance.
6. Combine individual KPIs with shared goals
By setting individual goals as well as shared team goals, you encourage team members to work together instead of competing with each other. Team goals should be defined so that it is in everyone’s best interest to work as a team to achieve them.
Clarity is of utmost importance here. Everyone in the team should know what you're working toward, identify if you're heading in the right direction, and understand what success looks like. A North Star metric can be a great help in keeping everyone aligned and motivated to reach the same overarching goal.
7. Create psychological safety
"There’s no team without trust," says Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google. For two years, the tech giant monitored team performance and found that there was one trait the best-performing teams shared. They all had team cultures characterized by psychological safety; cultures that allowed for mistakes and viewed them as learning experiences.
Environments where people are ready to take moderate risks and aren’t paralyzed by the fear of consequences are places where people will dare to be creative and think outside of the box. This is exactly where most businesses need to be to succeed.
Psychological safety means an atmosphere of trust and respect that encourages team members to communicate, create and innovate.
Build an engaged team, and you’ll get happy customers
The most effective way to ensure your company provides a great customer experience is by creating a culture of putting customers first. When your team truly wants to connect emotionally with your customers and their pains and needs, that’s when the best results happen. And that’s the magic of strong team culture.
So, the real question is: can you afford not to focus on culture?
Remember the seven steps to improve team culture:
- Start from the top
- Set clear expectations and give frequent feedback
- Define your team values...
- ...and repeat them often
- Recruit for cultural add as well as cultural fit
- Combine individual KPIs with shared goals
- Create psychological safety
By implementing these steps, you will provide your team with the best possible conditions for staying happy, healthy and reaching long-term success individually and as a business.