In work, as in life, we can’t succeed on our own. In fact, the cornerstone of execution, change, and success in any organization is not a single person, but rather teams of people who work together to make things happen.

But why is it that some teams knock it out of the park while others struggle? The secret lies with organizational leadership and management—are you giving your teams what they need to succeed?

Imagine an organization that seems to have all of the ingredients for success:

  • A visionary and charismatic leader who has defined an exciting new direction for the company’s future.
  • Managers who are ready to make the vision a reality.
  • Highly engaged individual contributors.

Yet, for some reason, change remains elusive. The organization, despite outward appearances, struggles to achieve goals and expectations. Why is it that leadership, management, and engagement are not enough?

It starts with culture.

The missing ingredient is often an aligned culture. Ideas, mandates, and good intentions are not enough to drive change or achieve performance results. We humans are a fickle lot, and most of us do not take kindly to change!

To overcome this natural phenomenon, there needs to be a healthy performance culture in place that is capable of creating, adapting, collaborating, and executing.

Cultures are created top-down.

People will take their cues from their leaders as to what behaviors are acceptable, what actions receive praise, and what communication styles are favored. Similarly, team cultures are molded by management. Managers define the human systems through which teams work. Managers have incredible influence over creating an environment that produces results or hinders progress. They define performance expectations, cadence and flow of work, acceptable communication and meeting formats, reporting requirements and capacity.

Unbeatable teams have healthy cultures.

Diagnose the health of a team’s culture by comparing the following lists of characteristics:

Traits of Elite Teams

  • Committed to a clear mission and purpose
  • Clear about roles and responsibilities
  • Highly trusting and respectful
  • Maniacally focused on outcomes
  • Leverages diverse skills and capabilities
  • Operates efficiently—especially meetings!
  • Constructively debates issues, but supports team decisions
  • Demonstrates shared accountability (team goals are put ahead of individual goals)
  • Able to reach closure and produce results

Traits of Struggling Teams

  • Individuals become stuck in singular patterns of action
  • People who challenge are either pushed aside or dominate the conversation
  • No one sets a course, or people don’t follow the direction that’s set
  • Individuals attach double messages to the actions of others
  • Unproductive patterns of behavior prevail
  • Unable to reach closure and produce results
  • Individuals gravitate toward comfortable behaviors
  • Individuals are type-cast in roles

The symptoms listed above indicate if a team has a productive or counterproductive culture. Let’s say you find yourself in charge of a team that’s struggling. How do you turn things around? First, focus on building up the culture.

4 Culture-Building Techniques

The best managers of people know how to foster productive behavior, communication, and actions. They take pains to establish a healthy environment and human system through which their teams can thrive. If you are looking to create the right conditions for performance, here are the 4 most important things to start doing today:

1. Set an example.

Culture starts with you! If you want your teams to have a certain dynamic or exhibit specific behaviors, then be the first one to demonstrate it. Challenge yourself to extend beyond your comfort zone for their benefit. For example, if you want your teams to be cohesive and collaborative, take them out for bonding activities like team lunches or social gatherings. If you want your teams to be creative, nurture their imaginations by providing building blocks, crayons, or modeling clay, and be the first to create something. Demonstrate through your behavior that certain things are ok, and they will follow.

2. Highlight the purpose of the work.

People want to feel proud of their work and believe that what they do has value. When teams have purpose, they tend to be more engaged and higher-functioning. Every task matters. Even something as simple as producing a report can have meaning—it empowers others to make better informed decisions that help the company grow and give employees opportunity. Help them see the bigger picture of how the work they do makes a difference.

3. Celebrate victories.

Our desire for validation and appreciation extends into all aspects of our lives, including work. Find simple and creative ways to celebrate the completion of major milestones and deliverables. Try a milestone mascot or bring in snacks, small prizes, or trinkets to show appreciation. When teams feel appreciated, they get more engaged and perform better.

Celebrating the completion of a sprint.

4. Provide real-time feedback to the whole team.

Most often people think of feedback and coaching in the context of one-on-one interactions. However, there is a huge missed opportunity if feedback and coaching aren’t done at the team level. Proactively intervene on team dynamics as they happen in the room. Positively reinforce behaviors that exemplify desirable team norms and dissuade behaviors that are destructive. Leaders who can play a neutral mediator role will create the space and build the trust that is necessary to constructively poke holes, create, collaborate, and move forward.

When leaders take the time to nourish healthy human systems and to build high-performing cultures, the sky is the limit!

How do you consciously build culture within your organization? Post a comment below.