The definition of a team is basically a group of people working together toward a common goal. Teamwork is one of the top skills that employers are looking for. There is a task aspect and a relationship aspect in teamwork.

Common elements of high-performance cultures are ones that foster collaboration, open-mindedness, creativity, transparency, diversity, and respect. Great cultures also look to avoid things like micromanagement, politics, and echo chambers. Culture is a direct reflection of leadership. Great leaders do not manage by control, they manage by context.

Team Cultures

Culture is about the underlying beliefs we bring to our team, as well as those that are created once we start to work together. Culture is defined as

  1. A pattern of basic assumptions
  2. Invented, discovered, or developed by a given group
  3. As it learns to cope with its problems of external adaption and internal integration
  4. That has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore
  5. Is to be taught to new members of the group as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

Schein’s model articulates three levels of organizational culture (an iceberg model).

Artifacts and BehaviorsThings that anyone can see if you are observing people in the team.
Espoused Values &
Enacted Values
Shared values and norms for behaviors stated by the organization.
The actual behaviors may or may not match these.
Some of the values are above the surface, while others are a bit below.
AssumptionsDeeply embedded beliefs and behaviors that are not questioned or explored.

Culture therefore is a combination of the things we physically see, the things we claim to be, and the beliefs we do not question. Culture is a function of the interdependent and complex nature of teams and systems. While culture is heavily influenced by formal and informal leaders and teams, anyone can contribute to changing elements of the culture.

It’s incredibly easy to be unintentional about culture and to let it emerge on its own. Leaders and teams that are intentional about creating cultures that contribute to safety engagement and growth will create a more effective team experience and effective team outcomes.

Effective Teamwork

Effective teamwork takes effort and practice. There is consensus and research that effective teams have three particular qualities:

  1. The team performs well.
  2. The team benefits its members in some way.
  3. The team improves its capacity to work together over time.

Teams, that perform well, benefit the members and learn together as a team are effective teams. To develop effective teams, we can focus on creating cultures that allow teams to perform at their best. Allow members to contribute their full value and engage in adaptation and growth over time.

Leading Teams

Within teams, there can be formal leaders who hold a particular role, or there can be informal leaders who emerge as influencers in one way or another. Leaders have a significant influence on the culture. People with power or influence set the stage for how others will expect to succeed in that environment.

Psychological Safety

About 20 years ago, Amy Edmondson surprisingly found the better teams actually reported higher error rates, not lower ones. Actually Edmondson discovered it’s not that the high-performing medical teams actually made more mistakes than lower-performing teams, they felt more safe to speak up and admit them. Team members in the high-performing teams did not fear humiliation, retribution, or getting fired. They felt trusted, they felt safe.

Edmondson coined the term psychological safety to describe the shared belief held by members of a team that the group is a safe place to take risks. It is a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people feel comfortable being themselves.

Psychological safety describes an environment in which people believe they

  1. can speak candidly
  2. share ideas and concerns
  3. admit mistakes

Psychological safety plays a central role in the success of organizations and teams. Wherever people with diverse skills and backgrounds must work together effectively to accomplish challenging goals. Psychological safety is vital to realizing the benefits of diversity. Because psychological safety helps make inclusion a reality. Its inclusion, not just diversity that makes for truly collaborative teams.

It’s important to understand that psychological safety isn’t a one-and-done. It’s a culture which takes time to develop.

  1. Leaders need to model transparency, honesty, and vulnerability. Oftentimes it’s best to be a leader who is the first one to admit concerns, but the last to share your opinion or decision.
  2. Conversational turn-taking. Google discovered that team success was not about who was on the team, but rather success was about how the team established norms of working together no matter who was on the team. One of the most important norms was creating the expectation that every person on the team would talk at every meeting.
  3. Empathy and social sensitivity. To be fully present at work, to feel psychologically safe, we must know that we can be free enough to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations.
  4. Being tough on bad behavior, not just encouraging good behavior. When people do things that are wrong or against the organization’s values, there need to be consequences.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging

Creating a psychologically safe team culture requires recognizing diversity, creating a space for inclusion, managing equity, and fostering a sense of belonging. LaTonya Wilkins, in her book, defines below the surface leadership as leadership based on a deep connection. Wilkins claims that organizations that operate on truly below the surface level do not need separate diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging initiatives.

DEIB is part of the below the surface cultural DNA.

LaTonya Wilkins
DiversityDifferences represented in your team, like race, ethnicity, age and gender identity.
EquityEquitable access to resources, opportunities and advancement.
InclusionA space where each person’s perspective is solicited.
BelongingA sense of being a valued, and accepted part of things.

To build effective and ethical teams, we need to be aware of and seek diverse perspectives, and pay attention to group norms for engagement. So creating a diverse team comes down to focusing on being a “below the surface leader” or a REAL (relatable, equitable, aware, and loyal) leader, as LaTonya Wilkins defines in her book.

We can practice two specific skills related to creating diverse and inclusive team cultures rooted in psychological safety: empathy, and vulnerability.

Ethical Culture

Scandals like fraud are typically a result of a culture that facilitates unethical decision-making. Ethical culture is defined, in a highly cited in 1990 paper, as:

  1. a subset of organizational culture
  2. representing a multi-dimensional interplay
  3. among various formal and informal systems of behavioral control
  4. that are capable of promoting either ethical or unethical behavior.

Or more simply, whether a culture facilitates ethical behavior is influenced by:

  1. formal structures like policies and rules,
  2. hierarchy and reporting lines,
  3. informal norms like how people treat each other, and
  4. unspoken rules about what topics are up for discussion at work.

The corporate ethical virtues model identified eight normative or instructive elements of culture that can lead to more ethical outcomes:

  1. clarity
  2. congruency of supervisors
  3. congruency of management
  4. feasibility
  5. supportability
  6. transparency
  7. discussability
  8. sanctionability

Developing ethical cultures is a process that starts with paying attention to those formal systems and informal norms. It’s about creating an environment that fosters ethical decision making and encourages problems to rise to the surface instead of being swept under the rug. This requires communicating purpose, building trust with actions and living the team’s values every day.

Team Hierarchy

In a study in 2015, hierarchy was measured by the cultural value of power distance, which refers to the distribution of power in teams:

  • High power distance teams are ones in which the leader has clear authority
  • Low power distance teams are ones in which the power is more equally distributed among the team members.

In this study, the researchers found that teams from a high power distance culture were more likely to reach the top of the mountain, but we’re also more likely to have people die along the way. It makes sense that high power distance leads to improved coordination and more efficient decision making. But it’s also more difficult for people further away from the leader to have their voice considered. Hierarchy, therefore, can influence the ability to create cultures of safety.

However suggesting that simply removing hierarchies will solve problems and teams and organizations is a solution that’s bound to fail. Adam Galinsky and Joe Magee defined the social hierarchies as an implicit or explicit rank order of individuals or groups with respect to a valued social dimension.

Galinsky and Magee go further to note that there are two primary bases of social hierarchies: status and power. Status and power are related and can interdependently influence an individual’s place in a hierarchy.

StatusThe extent to which an individual is respected or admired by others. Those, with higher levels of referent power that comes from being respected and liked, might be more likely to attain status in a group that puts them at the top of that status hierarchy.
PowerAsymmetric control over valued resources and social relationships. Having legitimate power or power over pay, rewards or bonuses may give people power in a hierarchy.

However, status and power can be distinct and that an individual can have high power and low status or vice versa. Hierarchies can be beneficial but they can also get in the way of creating cultures of safety. Power and status both have the potential effect of distancing those at the top of the hierarchy from those at the bottom of the hierarchy.

We need to be aware of the type of hierarchies that are present, and create structures that continue to emphasize inclusion, and the fostering of ethical cultures, and effective decision making.

Culture of Engagement

Creating a space for motivation requires upending some traditional assumptions about leadership. Leaders need to create the space for team members to engage, to develop a team culture of development, growth, and to allow individuals to tap into their intrinsic desire to solve problems, collaborate, and create value through their work.

We sustain our behaviors when we’re intrinsically motivated around something. Leadership is a whole lot different than telling people what to do. Leadership is about inspiring people, seeing people for who they are, bringing people together and being able to synthesize disparate ideas and helping people align around a common purpose.

How do we create an environment where people are interested and willing to, and capable of engaging with their work? The key is understanding motivation, because motivated employees are engaged employees. Various factors can be grouped into two broad categories:

Extrinsic motivatorsExternal nudges that can encourage someone to do something:
Pay, bonus, incentive, prize.
Gratitude, offering to support,
Intrinsic motivatorsSome internal drive to do the work:
1) Autonomy or choice.
2) Competency or mastery.
3) Relatedness or purpose.

We are shifting from leading by direction to leading with empathy, which influences employee engagement, by asking questions like

  1. What would you do?
  2. What value do you bring?
  3. What do you need to be best at your work?

However it’s actually easier to shut down engaged employees than we might think. There are various ways in which we as leaders may inadvertently facilitate disengagement, e.g. unreasonable goals, unexplained change or micromanaging.

When we think about motivation as engagement, what we’re really doing is upending the role of the leader as director to one as facilitator of helping people solve problems. Giving employees the tools they need to own their work, and then trust that they can create the value you hired them for, goes a long way toward creating an engaged employee environment.

One way to engaging our teams and ourselves is through thinking about 3-dimensions of work: social, technical, and cultural.

Social perspectiveBuild trusting relationships.
Communicate transparently.
Engage ourselves with others on the team.
Technical perspectiveDeploy problem responsibility.
Provide resources for teams to solve problems.
Cultural perspectiveCreate an equitable and safe environment.
Establish norms and expectations.
Connect to purpose.

Engagement doesn’t happen overnight. Start to cultivate your own engagement by understanding your own motivation and then model that for your team.

Business on Purpose

A team is a group of people working interdependently to address a particular set of problems or work processes. Teams with very clear shared goals perform better than those without shared goals.

Purpose ensures that team is heading in the right direction together, and provides meaning and significance to the work we do. If purpose is a combination of a clear vision and the underlying why behind the work your team is doing, we have evidence to suggest that purpose has a positive impact on team outcomes.

Having a clear team purpose helps to increase transparency and communication and expectations:

  1. It helps people understand whether being a part of that team is the best thing for them.
  2. It helps cultivate a sense of meaning through a clear idea about the impact everyone is having.
  3. It creates a shared experience that can facilitate bonding.

A value stream is simply the set of actions in a business that work together to create value for the final consumer / customer / end user. It does not matter whether you are client-facing or not, everyone in the organization needs to have a clear understanding of the value that the organization provides.

Once you understand the concept of the value stream, then you can ask yourself, “what value do you provide in your work?” Once you are clear on the value you provide as a team, think about “what is the impact you want to have?” If you can find ways in which your work is helping you grow, this can help you connect a purpose, because “our purpose as humans is to grow”.

Mitigating Burnout

Christina Maslach defines burnout as a psychological syndrome that emerges as a result of prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. Maslach identified 3 key dimensions of burnout that span all professional careers:

  1. Overwhelming emotional and physical exhaustion.
  2. Cynicism and detachment from the job and coworkers.
  3. Sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

Burnout diminishes productivity and increase employee turnover. Burned out employees and beleaguered teams exact organizational costs. They negatively impact the bottom line.Basically, burnout is bad for business.

To mitigate burnout, firstly acknowledge it. Have a working knowledge of the key dimensions of burnout and then share that knowledge with others.

Secondly recognize risk factors, which can be grouped along 6 key domains: workload, control, reward, community, fairness and values. Creating a culture of engagement means being mindful of those burnout risk factors.

Lastly, seek to prevent it. Some tech giants institute “wellness days”, other companies have started to offer increased paid time-off and child or elder care benefits, as well as encouraging and embracing flexible work schedules and remote work.

Cultivating Meaningful Work

When we feel a disconnect between our work and why we are doing it that can lead to disengagement. Finding ways to cultivate meaningful work in our teams and ourselves can lead to improved team outcomes.

Meaningful work is a subjective experience of existential significance resulting from the fit between the individual and the work. This essentially boils down to the fact that meaningful work is unique to each individual and requires that there be some alignment between the person and the work being done. Existential significance means that the person perceives their work as making sense of their reason for existing in the world.

Those who experience meaningful work tend to have higher levels of engagement and satisfaction with their work. Meaningful work has both personal and organizational implications. It not only makes us better team members and leaders, it makes us happier humans. Meaningful work is correlated with life satisfaction, life meaning and general health outcomes.

The idea behind work orientation is that we have different relationships to the work that we do, different ways we perceive and engage with our work. There are three primary types of relationships: job (material benefit), career (promotion and growth) and calling (meaning and purpose).

If you can create meaningful work for yourself, then you can create the space for meaningful work for others. First, you have to take responsibility for your choices and for your career path. The bottom line is that as individuals we won’t always be handed meaningful work. In fact, we have to create it for ourselves.

What can we do as leaders to create the space for meaningful work in our teams? We can tap into our knowledge of intrinsic motivation by providing the space for them to do something called job crafting. Job crafting is the process of customizing your work by choosing to change tasks and relationships without having to necessarily seek permission to do so. What is most engaging about job crafting is that you have the power to shape parts of your work to make them more interesting to you, or to help you find ways to provide value towards others.

Professors Dutton and Wisniewski identified three primary types of job crafting:

Task craftingTesting out different ways to accomplish your tasks.
Relationship craftingBuilding new and different social connection that can help you find ways of engaging with your work.
Cognitive craftingConsidering the purpose of your work or changing the way you look at the tasks you do.

Meaningful work is important to true engagement. Meaning isn’t just about doing something you love, it’s about feeling connected to the why, about recognizing the value you create and about growing along the way.

Culture of Growth

Creating Cultures of Problem-Solving

Cultures of problem solving exist when the norms and expectations facilitate growth and learning through the process of value creation. They nurture all team members to encourage learning and contributions and focus on continuous improvement.

Blanket solutions refers to a paradigm in which problem solving is solely the purview of the leaders and others in the team or organizations are simply functionaries that carry out the vision. This leads to rework, overburdening and mistakes.

Problem solving for complexity refers to a culture in which each person brings unique value to the team because the responsibility for solving their piece of the problem lies with them. Leaders provide structure, but they do not tell people how to think. Problem solving responsibility is deployed to the best person for the job, and the leader ensures that that person has the tools he or she needs.

Luckman and Florey describe the transformation process from the blanket solutions to the problem solving for complexity through the four A’s: awakening, awareness, action, and actualization.

Awakening refers to that we wake up and realize that we need to view our role as leaders differently. The leader’s job is ultimately to change the culture of the company that they represent and the people they represent. And they have to go through the process of transforming that company and that culture into a different paradigm and different mindset.

Awareness refers to seeing the world in which we live differently. More specifically, it refers to upending some assumptions that we have about the way work is done, about the way we connect with people, and about the purpose of organizations. Cultural change requires a paradigm shift or different mindset. This is when we shift from old assumptions to new assumptions. The shifts in assumptions include:

  1. Purpose (from making money to delivering value)
  2. Worldview (from reductionist thinking to systems thinking)
  3. Complexity (from control to emergence)
  4. Social (from blame to internalization)
  5. Individual (from knowers to learners)

Action refers to creating the structure to allow the culture to evolve. We can think about action in three parts:

  1. Having a framework for problem-solving,
  2. Growing respectful connections, and
  3. Accelerating organizational learning.

To accelerate organizational learning, we can implement structured reflection to ensure that every change we make is evaluated for its effectiveness and adapted if necessary. There are many frameworks for structured reflection and learning in teams and organizations. One of them is PDCA (plan, do, check, adjust).

Actualization means that supporting the evolution of your team culture to a culture of problem-solving starts with you, the leader. Implement PDCA cycles on your own problems that you’re facing as a leader and share that journey with your teams. Creating a culture of problem-solving is a process. It starts with us as leaders and team members. Modeling the behaviors we want to see, encouraging problem-solving with the right people, and learning consistently over time.

Manifesting Creativity

Growth requires thinking outside of the box, and cultures of growth require thinking creatively. But creativity in the context of leadership and teams refers to looking at a problem in new ways to generate unexpected solutions that contribute to innovation.

In the context of working in teams, creativity can be defined as generating ideas that are both novel and useful to solve business problems. In fact, creativity is largely about looking at things from different perspectives. Therefore, creativity can help us learn, see things from different angles and ultimately grow.

Creativity is emergent from a change in perspective. There is some overlap between creativity and innovation, but innovation is the process of taking an idea and bringing it to market. So innovation is more concerned with the sort of the marketing of things.

We cannot take in and remember all information in the world at once. And so our brains work to focus on what we need. This is the value of shifting perspectives to generate new knowledge, to engage in creative thinking.

Creative cultures are built intentionally, by:

  1. focusing on the norms that facilitate the ability to make mistakes and learn
  2. facilitating opportunities to shift perspectives without punishment
  3. encouraging a willingness to evolve and grow

Cultures of creativity have to be psychologically safe. Leading cultures of growth requires cultivating the space for creative thinking among team members. Creating the space for creativity means establishing norms that:

  1. encourage people to challenge assumptions
  2. brainstorm unique and maybe even initially unpopular ideas, and
  3. feel comfortable sharing new perspectives in the group.

The PIECE model incorporates a lot of the norms that really matter if you are going to encourage creativity:

  1. Participation
  2. Independence of thought
  3. Elaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Exploration

Creativity is core to cultures of growth.As leaders, it is important to foster creative thinking at the individual level, as well as within the structure and norms of the team.

Navigating Change

With change comes uncertainty, and learning to work with and through uncertainty is important for teams and team culture. The eight-step Kotter model for handling change suggests that leaders need to:

  1. Establish urgency
  2. Create a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a change vision
  4. Communicate the vision for buy-in
  5. Empower broad-based action
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Never let up
  8. Incorporate changes into the culture

We can explore the idea of change from the perspective of creating a culture that facilitates change, one in which people feel safe, ready to author the change themselves, they feel engaged and willing to grow. We can create a culture of change by first understanding two fundamentals:

  1. the nature of teams as complex adaptive systems (CAS) and
  2. why resistance to change emerges.

A complex adaptive system or CAS describes a set of elements that all interact with each other in nonlinear ways. Kevin Dooley defines a CAS as an aggregate of interacting agents that behaves and evolves according to three key principles:

  1. Order is emergent as opposed to predetermined.
  2. The system’s history is irreversible.
  3. The system’s future is often unpredictable.

Leading teams is not about enacting a particular model of leadership, rather it’s about navigating the complex interplay of individuals, relationships, internal and external pressures and work goals and outcomes.

There are cognitive reasons why we resist change. Our brains like routines. It helps us to free up space to think about things that are more important to us. There are also emotional reasons why we resist change. Facing uncertainty and change can make us feel nervous, anxious or fearful. When we feel these emotions, our defense mechanisms enact and we put up armor to protect ourselves and this makes us more rigid and less likely to accept change.

We can use the following principles to create cultures that navigate change effectively. First don’t impose on the system, large scale-change is possible, but it needs to be integrated in a way that appreciates the complex adaptive systems nature of the team.

Second, now your people and points of influence. Systems thinking encourages us to look at the agents and the relationships between the agents to understand how information flows and how outcomes emerge.

Third don’t expect conformity or consistency. Appreciate emergence. Instead of telling everyone what to do, tell them where you’re going as a team, paint them a vision and allow team members to provide the value they were hired to create.

Fourth, focus on the point of delivery. And fifth, build trusting relationships.

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