Add That Special Sauce to Your Team Culture

Photo by  Chris Liverani  on  Unsplash

Fly on the Wall on an Honest Conversation 

 Ben, Keisha, and Dana are mid-level leaders in a large nonprofit that conducts environmental research. They have comparable positions in the company so they sometimes meet to touch base and compare notes. Today, they’re meeting two days after a day-long team building retreat the senior leadership has organized to strengthen team alignment. This is the second such retreat so far this year.

 “So, what did you think?” asks Dana, cautiously.

 “Well, it was nice to have a day away,” says Ben, cheerily. “And I loved the location. Such a great view! Some exercises we did were eye opening.”


 “Oh, you know, it’s always the same thing. We do interesting exercises and learn more about ourselves and each other. But it’s always the same when we go back. I wish our senior leaders would address the drama and negativity with the people most involved. We spend all this time trying to create a positive team culture but we never get to the real issues.”

 “Here, here,” adds Keisha.

 What Not to Do

 Does this sound familiar? As a team member and a facilitator, I’ve had similar experiences. Well-meaning retreats intended to improve team culture. And sometimes there are transformational results. 

But it also happens that teams continue to “get by.”  The positive, motivated people step up and other members hang back.

 What’s the solution? Team culture isn’t something you can mandate even if you’re the boss. 

 Here are some approaches that might not work, at least by themselves: 

  •  Hold more team building events while ignoring the undercurrent of tension. You risk turning off even the most motivated team members, like Ben, Keisha and Dana.

  • Surface the undercurrent of tension directly.  This can sometimes lead to transformational results. I’ve been part of team building experiences where unaddressed tension is explored in a safe space, with remarkably positive outcomes.  But it also can backfire.

  • Address the behavior of individuals contributing to the undercurrent of negativity through supervision.Holding people accountable for their own behavior is important no matter what else you do. But it’s not guaranteed to address overall team dynamics.

  • Focus on skill building around communication and dealing with conflict.This can be a powerful complement to any other effort to enhance team work but it may be insufficient. 

  • Give up on team building efforts entirely, ignore the situation and hope it will correct itself.What’s that saying about wishful thinking…?

 Try This Option

 So, what’s a leader to do? One approach to influencing team culture that seems to hold promise is establishing a regular practice of sharing success stories. This helps to focus attention on real examples of successes that are already happening in the team. Look for what already works within a team or organization. Highlighting that is a powerful yet subtle principle to influence team culture. 

 One company I’m familiar with sends out regular emails to all employees sharing positive actions taken by team members. These stories bring to life the company purpose, values and their goals/success metrics for the year.

 Here’s an example:

 Recent Internet Service Provider Disruption

 Recently, our Internet Service Provider (ISP) had a disruption which caused all of our internal files and systems to go down. We were in the middle of one of our busiest crunch times and disruption of phones and systems could have been disastrous.

 Because our IT Team had prepared in advance for situations like this:

Our recently implemented cloud-based phone system and email remained operational during the outage.

Also, due to proactive practice for situations like this, the IT Team was able to get our internal files and systems up and running on our back-up ISP within 30 minutes of the outage discovery.

The IT Team takes its role in the success of the company seriously and knows that access to our services is critical. As a result, the Team planned appropriately for situations like the above. Thank you!

 Great examples of our company’s commitment to impeccable service. It also reflects our Leadership Values and also our Success Metrics:

 Leadership Value–Understand and Convey Vision: To have the right solution in place, the IT Team had to understand and communicate a clear vision. 

 Success Metric–Client Retention: Having proactive planning and consistency with our technology allows us to keep client projects moving, a way to keep our clients satisfied and distinguish us from the competition.

 How might this story impact on the IT Team? IT, and other support functions, are often under-appreciated and over-criticized. To get public credit for their effort could well be a source of pride. But not just generalized pride. The way the story is told communicates the behavior that’s valued and how it contributes to overall organizational well-being. It also sends a message to other readers that this behavior is encouraged. 

There is a tenet of Appreciative Inquiry that “you get more of what you persistently pay attention to.” It’s also backed up by extensive neuroscience and psychological research. Focusing on what you want is more powerful than paying attention to what you don’t want. These success stories are shaping perceptions, providing examples of what’s valued and subtly influencing the positivity of the team.

 Here’s a caveat, though. This is not a magic bullet! It’s not a substitute for having the fundamentals of team culture in place, like supervision, acknowledgement, communication, and role clarity. But they can complement these more direct efforts, like a special sauce for your team culture. It adds a subtle quality that pulls everything together. 

 Do We Have to Start a Program?

 For one answer to that question, let’s return to Ben, Keisha, and Dana.

“Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way,” suggests Dana.

 “What do you mean?” asks Ben.

 “Well, sometimes it seems like we’re trying to fix what isn’t broken. Why don’t we pay more attention to what’s working now with our team and highlight that? We don’t even need to make a big deal about it. I know that other organizations have official "success stories” but that seems so elaborate. What if we each pay attention to examples of positive team culture and share what we notice, and why it’s so great, with the people involved? We can get fancier later. What do you think?”

 “Hey, what do we have to lose?”

 What do you have to lose? 

 How have you used success stories to influence team culture…formally or informally? How has it worked for you? Please leave a comment in the Comments Box.