Building team culture is important in any organisation, be it business, government or the community services sector. A strong team culture has the capacity to improve productivity through greater job satisfaction and heightens engagement within a team. As the founder and CEO of EveryMan Australia, a community service organisation which supports men with high and complex needs, I’ve seen that team culture plays a particularly crucial role within our sector. The more workers experience the organisation they work for as ‘living its values’, the more committed they are to supporting the organisation’s goals by doing the work necessary to reach its targets.
All too frequently, a team culture looks strong and durable, only to collapse suddenly, with management unable to understand how it happened or what to do about it. Faced with the need to build a team culture, I’ve seen the best intentions fail completely, and changes implemented that didn’t last or make a noticeable difference. I’ve encountered very little that could be called transformational, qualitatively different change that’s lasting and self-sustaining. In this article, I share six common approaches to building team culture that simply don’t work and the method I used to transform and grow my employees into successful team members.
Six common but unworkable ways to build team culture
1. Having a ‘magic’ team which lasts forever
Every so often, ‘magic’ teams seem to happen organically and without design. Everyone gets on, performance levels are high and outcome attainment is over and above what is expected. Then one of the high-performing members leaves. The magic disappears, teamwork is impacted and members feel abandoned and pressured to increase their performance and cover the gap. Resentment builds and is directed at the team leader or manager, making them responsible for the team’s performance, or at the departed for leaving them behind. People form protective alliances while waiting for management to find a new team member which will bring the magic back.
2. Relying on a ‘Diamond’ team member
The Diamond is a key team member who provides something really special to the organisation. They’re the person to call on during a crisis or for high-level client support that others aren’t considered capable of providing. The Diamond often has great personal qualities that people immediately warm to – they’re kind-hearted, creative, courageous, generous and intelligent. They know the job inside and out and are always ready, willing and able to step into the breach.
With the Diamond, team culture is irrelevant: while they get on with the important jobs, the others are mostly left to fill the gaps or go into the field as the Diamond’s shadow. Team leaders and managers who over-rely on the Diamond may stop paying attention to the rest of the team and miss signs of staff skill gaps or growing fractures in team relationships, both of which are critical for team cohesion and performance.
3. Sending the supervisor for external training
When management is faced with an ineffective team and they don’t know what’s needed to resolve the issues, one common strategy is to send the team’s supervisor for external training to learn some new ‘tips and tricks’. If this isn’t part of a well-resourced implementation plan to establish a fit-for-purpose approach with new practices across the organisation, then there’s no organisational investment in effectively changing the culture. Given that the supervisor is the only one receiving the training, it’s not surprising when team problems continue. Without awareness of what’s needed at the organisational level, responsibility gets handballed down from the executive through to the supervisor – the last in line to hear the question, ‘We organised that training, so why haven't you fixed it?’
4. Giving the team skills training
When a team isn’t working well, staff conflict, absenteeism, presenteeism and complaints about stress increase, and job satisfaction and engagement levels diminish. There have been some notable incidents where I’ve seen management respond to this kind of team crisis by organising client-focused skills training. The logic behind this approach seems to be that well-trained people who feel professional pride in being more effective with their clients are less likely to be affected by an underperforming or dysfunctional workplace culture. There is even a perception that the team members’ pride will somehow translate to an improved team culture. However, not directly addressing culture as the foundation of team functionality doesn’t lead to lasting improvement.
5. Shuffling the deck – restructuring the problem away
When enough time has passed without change, an organisation may try moving people around. Managers will have some (not necessarily correct) ideas about the best people to keep in place and who should be moved on to other positions or out of the organisation. New positions redistribute roles and responsibilities, and the responsibility for team dysfunction and underperformance can be laid at the feet of those who left. However, the organisation’s culture is left untouched, and everyone knows who’s being lined up to fail next.
6. The unbiased sledgehammer – bringing in a consultant
If methods one through five have been tried and team culture still hasn’t budged, organisations may bring in a consultant to identify where the problems lie, who’s responsible, and specifically how and where they’ve failed. Consultant recommendations are thought to be more reliable because they come from outside, even though they’re based mostly on internal hearsay and feedback. They rarely hold whoever commissioned their contract accountable for the organisation’s woes, such as the CEO or Board members. And if they do have criticisms, they’re generally couched in opaquely diplomatic language, compared to the bluntness reserved for other parts of the organisation. Responsibility is sheeted home to individuals, and recommendations are generally compliance-leaning and directed at performance monitoring, policy development, risk management treatment and staff training.
Building team culture the effective way
Having experienced each of these, some more than once, I realised a few things.
Cultural transformation requires an intense and sustained whole-of-organisation effort over at least two or three years.
When people are committed to their personal development and becoming team members, their capacity for contribution takes a quantum leap.
The buck stops with me. If I’m not willing to challenge myself to be a continuous and lasting demonstration of the training in action as the CEO, how can I expect it from anyone else?
Over the last three years, the team culture-building strategy undertaken at EveryMan has made an enormous difference to our workplace culture. Our strategy involves a sustained introduction to, embedding and disciplined practice of coaching-based personal development. In this approach, every member of the organisation receives support to grow personally through a mix of coaching sessions, training workshops and medium- to long-term programs that build trust and effective communication. These programs use a highly-relatable framework centred on human beings – the Being Framework™ – alongside a strong, methodical and well-researched assessment tool – the Being Profile®. This approach enables our staff to develop themselves personally and professionally and track their development over time. Many of our team members have coaches and some are trained as coaches themselves. The training is present in work conversations and supervision, and, being integrated in this way, it makes a difference to the real-world issues we deal with in the organisation daily.
For many years, one of my primary goals has been to create an organisation whose people love coming to work every day. Influenced by the ineffective approaches to cultural change I saw and participated in along the way, I learned to see problems when building team culture as being in the way rather than pointing the way. Shifting priorities in organisational planning to intentionally give people the opportunity and the means to grow as human beings, alongside the growth their professional training and development delivers, has been the key. Ultimately, EveryMan's commitment to providing a strategy aligned with our values that works for the organisation and employees alike and expands the capacities of each person to make a difference has been the means to building a strong team culture. The results are truly revealing. Other organisations have even asked us what recruitment provider we use because we seem to have such a great team.
When people grow, so does the organisation. As physicist Douglas Hofstadter put it, “The soul is greater than the hum of its parts”.