Joshua Burke / Culture / June 11th, 2014

Defining Team Cultures Within Your Company

Humans like working in groups. Banding together forms bonds, it makes us more effective.

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We talk a lot about company culture and team culture. It’s a huge selling point for most businesses – everything from hiring to sales can hinge on the perception of “culture.” But other than the shared values and actions that tie us together, what is culture? And how do you define yours?

Though we like to think of it as a single thing, a culture is made up of many overlapping and supporting cultures that come together to improve the whole. For a company like 352, with 3 offices that are growing all the time, our cultural identity is a fluid thing, but it has a few constants. The way we work together defines our culture and our culture describes who we are.

A Culture of…?

We often refer to culture in regards to large groups like an empire, nation or region’s acquaintance with fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science. These large cultures are actually an amalgamation of many smaller subcultural groups.

The culture I’d like to talk about goes far beyond that into the realm of microcultures. We are all part of microcultures, and we often form them voluntarily, usually in order to work together to accomplish a goal. When we operate in teams, we behave as cohesive units forming our own unique microculture influenced and developed by individual personalities flowing together, within the large culture of our company. How a team works together to reach a common goal forms the team’s dynamic, and it is the display of that dynamic that defines the team’s culture.

Culture is by definition the display of behaviors. When you know the culture of a team or organization, you can better understand its strengths, weaknesses and overall health.

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You’ve heard phrases such as “a culture of peace and prosperity” or “a culture of crime and corruption.” These labels tell us about how a group’s members operate.

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Finding Your Culture

“My team has a culture of __________.” Since we know culture has many variables, you may have more than one answer. Talk it out. Now ask:

  • How would my teammates answer?
  • How would others outside of my team or organization answer?
  • What habits do we have that are contributing to our culture, how we’re perceived, and how we perceive ourselves?
  • Do we want to change our culture?

A Culture of Individuals

Every team is comprised of individuals, so take a look at how the individuals within a team respond to new circumstances. These individual responses combine with the responses of  teammates to yield a unified response of the team as a whole. How a team responds and reacts to change illustrates how a team works together and can determine the team’s potential for future success. And as individuals, we have to learn to work with other individuals.

A Culture of Understanding

It’s all too easy to make snap judgments about people, especially if your habits don’t jive right away. Simple annoyances can become huge rifts if you’re not careful. Healthy teams push themselves past those judgmental attitudes. Rather than focusing on their differences, they strive to understand each other and adapt. In fact, strong teams will establish guidelines and systems that accommodate individual quirks for the benefit of the team, bolstering individual contributions to the team.

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Take a personal interest in your team members… anticipate their needs.

Take a personal interest in your team members, how they think, why they do the things they do, and then anticipate their needs. This helps us predict how our behaviors will influence team actions, allowing us to structure workflows and communications that are implemented efficiently.

Make the same observations about yourself and your own quirks. Self-assess. Knowing your own areas of improvement and working independently to correct them will eliminate the need to spend valuable time and effort as a group on matters of contention. Promote the idea that differences are OK, as long as they are not counter-productive to the team’s workflow and output. You may find that conflicts are more easily resolved in a culture of understanding.

A Culture of Communication

Communication is about sharing ideas. The problem is that we have so many ways of sharing, and all of them require us to use paltry words and pictures that can be easily misread or misunderstood. When your team communicates, try to begin with empathy.

Empathy has a “feel good” connotation, but it’s simply about seeing things from another person’s point of view. When you write an email for example, read it back to yourself and ask “how will the recipient read this?” You might choose to rephrase, being more direct, gentle or detailed with your communication. Empathy is most effective when you truly understand someone, so take the time and learn how each teammate thinks.

Before making judgments, ask questions.

Culture blends our strengths while supporting our weaknesses.
Culture blends our strengths while supporting our weaknesses.

When you are on the other end, try to be a good listener, again using empathy. Try to see past the words and mannerisms and understand the person’s intention. Before making judgments, ask questions. Clarify any possible confusion.

You might feel like these habits slow you down, but they quickly become second nature. Sharing ideas becomes easier in a healthy culture of communication.

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A Culture of Responsibility

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A team risks failure when people and issues are left unchecked. Even under the best of intentions, things can run off the rails very quickly within a fast-paced team. Preach the importance of rooting out communication problems ahead of time. There are many factors that can contribute to a destructive team culture but none are more serious than an inability to communicate concerns to fellow team members.

Complacency and a desire to be uninvolved in conflicts can be as destructive as the conflict itself. Pacifism, evasion, and turning a blind eye to problems fosters a culture of abandonment that splinters a team, leaving concerned members feeling alone in the conflict. We shared a method for reducing these barriers to communication, the Fist of Five, but there are some fundamentals to a culture of responsibility.

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  • Remember, you’re a team. No member should ever be left alone to deal with problems.
  • Have frequent team discussions to settle internal issues.
  • No team is immune to conflict. Everyone has their own opinions and ways of working, but the healthy team works to unify them in the best way.

It’s only human to desire safety and comfort. Most people shy away from confrontation – it’s uncomfortable. We’re afraid to hurt others and reluctant to admit failure in ourselves.

However, a neglected issue can quickly snowball into an enormous powder keg of contempt and anxiety that threatens to never be resolved. Don’t let that happen. Don’t hesitate out of fear. Confront issues proactively and constructively. Make sure it’s obvious that you aren’t attacking – instead, we want the team to solve a problem together.

  • Attack the smaller issues as they pop up to stay ahead of the game.
  • When dealing with issues do it with compassion and understanding, not anger and rage.
  • Don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Staying calm and collected keeps your mind open to understanding.
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Cultural Growth is a Cycle

Nothing is set in stone. People are dynamic, and we can alter the choices we make. We can shift our attitudes and set goals for ourselves. A team’s culture can evolve and grow over time. It all starts with identifying where you are now, setting a common goal and taking action as a team.

Make your team culture one you can all be proud of.

  • Christopher Burns

    This is a great wake up call for me. We have a great culture today but we need to be intentional with the things we do to make sure it stays that way. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Joshua Burke

      Very welcome sir!

  • Jennifer Fix

    Great thoughts, Josh! A great higher calling for honesty and transparency and reminder to work together. I particularly liked this: When you are on the other end, try to be a good listener, again using empathy. Try to see past the words and mannerisms and understand the person’s intention. Before making judgments, ask questions. Clarify any possible confusion.

    • Joshua Burke

      Thanks Jen! You rock! Communication is a very complicated process and we communicate so frequently we can forget to focus on the fundamentals… which can quickly lead to frustration.