GUEST BLOGGER:  Mark S. Smith, Executive Coach & Author

[This is a modified excerpt from Distinctions: 52 Lessons in Leadership by Mark S. Smith]

Great teams often have the togetherness that shows itself in continued relationships outside of the organization. Poor teams don’t even want to get together within the organization, let alone outside of it.

The leader’s role, therefore, is to create the right culture that will build team spirit and engage each member so that they will want to work for the greater cause of the team rather than themselves. And not only will they be prepared to do that, but also, they will want to do that willingly. Moreover, they will want to inspire others to do the same. Below are instructions for an activity you can facilitate to get your team talking about what culture they want and how to build it.

“Best Team Culture” Activity Instructions

Step 1:With your team, set up three columns on a flipchart or virtual whiteboard.

Step 2: In the first column, list three to five ideas about what you want this team to be known for. In other words, the attributes that team members and others will describe as the culture.

Step 3: In the second column, write down the specific things that team members will do and say to reflect the characteristic in column 1. This is the “proof” that the cultural element in column 1 exists.

Step 4: In the third column, describe the consequence or reinforcing system that will ensure that the culture is sustained. What are the symbols, language, rewards and other elements that will reinforce your culture?

Step 5: Allow members of the team to put the culture into action.

How to Build the Right Culture

Question: Is your team culture creating competitive advantage?

Culture is not an abstract idea. Culture is a set of observable behaviors that are reinforced over time by people and systems. Remember, sustained behaviors are determined by the consequences you provide. Consequences, both positive and negative, are the key to changing and sustaining behaviors. When you choose what behaviors to reinforce and which ones to extinguish, you are intentionally shifting the culture of your team.

Many organizations attempt to put in place a culture code or set of core beliefs to drive the desired culture. While this may serve to create an agreed baseline, the sustainability is determined by what you and others do, or don’t do, in response to behaviors. Putting systems in place that focus on the consequences is essential to sustaining a culture that drives high performance in teams.

An important part of this sustainable system is the behavior of the leader. As the leader is perhaps the most important provider of consequences, his or her response has more influence over the sustained behavior, and therefore, culture, than any other element. This is true of both positive consequences, like praise and celebration, as well as negative consequences like reprimands.

How the leader responds to behavior that is counter to the desired culture is also important. If the leader allows dysfunctional conflict, the propagation of negative stories or a lack of openness, they are, by default, encouraging those behaviors. Put succinctly, “what you permit, you promote.”

A good leader will also recognize that formal and informal systems have a role to play in sustaining the desired culture. Implementing defined ways of working is an antecedent meant to trigger good team behaviors. These are ineffective unless accompanied by a regular assessment of how the team members are doing at putting them into practice. At its best, the established goals of the team and performance objectives will map easily to the desired culture as well as business performance. This is a basic management tenet that I learned as young industrial engineer: Tell me what you measure in a system and I will tell you how it performs.

A great team culture has to be one of openness and honesty so that constructive criticism can be given and received in order to enhance overall performance. If there is a barrier to being open, and to giving and receiving constructive feedback, the team will not grow, learn, or develop in the face of adversity. At the heart of this important characteristic is the idea of “collective responsibility,” in that the responsibility for demonstrating honesty, candor, and openness must be shared to have a positive impact on the team.

The development of team identity can also be achieved through the use of symbols that are unique to the team. Many organizations create special symbolism to instill a sense of uniqueness to the group, thus bringing its members closer together. Countries have flags and customs, fraternities have special mottos and symbols, and sports teams have their own individual ways of celebrating. These unique symbols tie the team together.

I experienced a great example of using a symbol to reinforce a performance culture while working at IBM. As members of an industrial engineering team at a manufacturing facility, each person on our team had responsibility for reaching critical performance milestones for a set of assembly processes. The leader of the team had mounted a ship bell outside of his office. When any member of the team reached a milestone, they could ring the bell, alerting everyone that indeed a milestone had been achieved. Whenever the bell sounded, everyone would gather to see what milestone had been achieved and what they could learn from it. The sound of the bell sparked conversation and congratulations and highlighted the team’s achievement and togetherness.

As often happens, this practice spawned a new language that was also unique to the team. Team members started referring to advancement toward key milestones as “ringable opportunities.” With its unique language and symbol of unity and progress, the bell became a powerful consequence of behavior that ultimately reinforced the desired culture.

Leaders who forsake culture do so at great risk to competitiveness. If you examine closely the strategies, technologies, and operational structures of competitors in the same industry, you will likely conclude that there is not a great deal of differentiation. Your competitors have the same markets, similar technologies, substitute products, comparable supply chains, and delivery mechanisms. If you do have an advantage in one of these elements, it can likely be replicated within a year or two.

Culture is the core differentiator that cannot be replicated.

As Peter Drucker first said, and Mark Fields of Ford Motor Company popularized, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Further Reading

Change the Culture, Change the Game, by Roger Connors and Tom Smith. Portfolio, reprint edition, 2012.

Want more Lessons in Leadership?  Get Mark’s book here

Mark Smith is a strategist, facilitator, leadership coach and entrepreneur. Mark has worked in 48 countries with hundreds of senior leaders of corporations, government organizations, non-profit foundations and industry associations. In 2016, Mark published “Distinctions: 52 Lessons in Leadership” which is now the foundation for a senior leadership development program delivered to hundreds of leaders around the world. Mark received his Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from Pennsylvania State University and his Masters in Business Administration from Syracuse University. He has formal certification in Executive Coaching from Stanford University.

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