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team culture

5 Ingredients in Developing a Strong Team Culture

This morning I had the opportunity to go to the Next Level Indiana Fund Summit. It was an event where members of the capital venture arena addressed what the scene looks like here in Indiana. These members included government officials, representatives from the various funds, and entrepreneurs who had successfully built their businesses through funding. As I listened to these talks, a particular concept came up to me again and again. Each organization had a strong team culture.

What’s a Strong Team Culture Look Like?

When you think of a team culture, you might think of a particular sports team. I’ve written about various examples of sports teams with great cultures in the past. Duke Basketball, Duke Football, and the Colts are recent examples.

From these examples, we can see that culture is made up of certain parts. A culture has values, beliefs, attitudes and the certain behaviors that are important to the team. We can also see that if culture isn’t intentionally defined from the start, it will likely be defined by the weakest link.

If we let it get this far, then that’s when we feel we have to implement all kinds of precise rules, processes, and systems.  When this happens, members of the team feel like their personal perspective doesn’t matter. It demotivates your A-Team members. That becomes a much bigger problem REAL quick!

Essentially this is what we saw with the Colts when Ryan Grigson was General Manager. While he might have been a great talent scout and brought in a few good assets to the team, unfortunately, he didn’t set the right culture. Therefore, when then coach Chuck Pagano had to do his job, he practically had to babysit the players for every play. Unfortunately, he wasn’t too great at being a micro-manager and we ended up with plays like this. As a result, over time there was an overall feeling of distrust between the players, coaching staff, and the front office.

When Chris Ballard came in to take the reigns, he knew this had to change. So, from the very get-go, he started to define the new culture of the team. Add in Frank Reich last season, and you have a team of high trust, where the effective players believe in each other, the organization, and where it’s going.

Building a Strong Culture

So now that we have a bit of an idea of what a bad culture can yield vs a good culture, how do we build a strong one?

A good example of building a strong culture can, again, be seen in this recent post about the Duke football team.

But if I was to summarize that particular post, there’s a few takeaways that we need to have.

1. Single Team Vision

The first thing we need to realize is that while a team might have many voices, it has one mission and one vision. This means that the vision is a team effort – including the leadership. When they act and do things a particular way, the team will take notice and start to do what they see leadership doing.

Meaning, if the leadership wants the team to put in the hard work, they’ll have to put in work first.

Remember there’s no such thing as leading from behind.

2. Abundant Belief

The next thing we should notice is that a winning team believes that it is a winning team. This means that the leaders believe in the team, the team believes in each other and the leadership, and even more so, each individual on the team believes in themselves.

3. Appreciation of Ourselves and the Team

Many times, we leaders have a hard time appreciating our own little wins. Reason often is that we’re so focused on accomplishing the vision that the little wins we have along the way, don’t really count. They’re what’s supposed to happen. We might feel a little bit of satisfaction, but that’s about it.

However, when something doesn’t go quite the way we want it, that’s when we usually get somewhat emotional. And it’s because of this tendency that many of us tend to get sucked up into a downward emotional spiral.

That being the case, as leaders, we need to so gratitude towards our own accomplishments as well as those of our team members. If you need help with this, there’s a few resources I’d recommend. The first is the Five Minute Journal. If you’re not familiar with this journal, it’s an actual daily journal that helps you appreciate the things that went right during the day. That way you can get in the habit of appreciating what’s going right for you personally. If a hands on version isn’t your style, there’s an app for both iOS and Android.

Then, there’s the 5 Love Languages. And while many think this is for romantic relationships, there’s actually an edition for the workplace. This book is useful when you’re trying to learn how to show your appreciation of those in your immediate circle.

And last but not least is the John Maxwell book called the 25 Ways to Win with People. If you’re familiar with his book called Winning with People, then you’ll want to grab this whenever you need a refresher.

4. Active Participation in Team Discussions

One of the things I’ve noticed with winning teams is that all members of the team have a chance to input their thoughts on what’s going on. As a leader, it’s your job to help the members of your team feel that they’re welcome to offer their input. Of course the best way to get them to do this is to ask more questions. And when they respond, actually pay attention and get clarity on what they’re saying.


When we pay attention to the members of our team, we can bring out the best in them.

5. Live with Intention

As with all things, we need to keep focus on the fundamentals. So, it’s important that we keep our vision in front of us. If you work with your team in person, put the vision somewhere where people are constantly reminded of it. For example, the Colts have done this by issuing a shirt that reads 1-0 – meaning do what you can do now to put yourself in a position to win the next game.

With this focus on fundamentals, it’s easier for leadership to develop and uphold a particular standard of work ethic.

Action Steps

Ideally, the best time to start working on a team culture is when you’re new to a position. It was always so much easier for me to set the expectations of a classroom on the first day as opposed to week 5 or later.

However, if you do find yourself in a situation where you need to develop a culture for a team you’ve been leading for awhile, then there’s no better time than now to get started.

Of course, you’ll have to use a little bit of change management to successfully move the team from where they are to where they need to be.

So, a possible suggestion of this is to give them the new vision and let members of the team help you figure out the details in how that’s going to be accomplished. Then once you have the details in place, work on the expectations. How are you going to do things and how will they do what they need to get done? And then after that is determined, work with them on figuring out a process of accountability. What happens when they don’t get a certain task done a certain way and on time?

Using this type of communication will certainly help your team form and develop a new culture.

Fostering a Real Culture By Expressing Real Expectations

“People look to time in expectation that it will eventually make them happy, but you cannot find true happiness by looking toward the future.”Eckhart Tolle

Success rarely just falls into our laps. Expecting things to happen without planning or working for them is about as asinine as expecting to win the lottery.

As we’ve discussed, success comes from setting goals, making plans, and executing. Those plans usually come from some sort of expectations. Until our reality meets our expectations, we’re not going to be too happy with where we are in life.

So, to escape disappointment all together, many people suggest that you shouldn’t have expectations. While there is some truth to that (you shouldn’t expect to be an NFL player, for example) you should have expectations in life. They just need to be realistic. If you don’t have expectations in life, you won’t really get anywhere in life. An example might be graduating from high school or college. If you don’t expect to graduate, you’re not going to put the work towards it. Likewise, if we want our followers to act a certain way, we need to have expectations for them.

So how do you make expectations that are sound, but not so high that you’re always disappointed?

Types of Expectations

The first thing that we need to familiarize ourselves with are three types of expectations that we can have in our work and lives.

  • Expectations with ourselves.
  • Expectations of others.
  • Expectations of our own success.

Expectations of ourselves. When we’re talking about expectations of ourselves, we’re talking about what we believe about ourselves to be the standard. What are things you know about yourself? Do you know your values? Do you know your strengths? How about your weaknesses? When it comes to being clutch, what do you know for certain that you can do? Once we can answer these questions, those are our expectations for ourselves.

Expectations of others. When we think about other people, we have to ask ourselves if we think they’re capable of doing great things. Do you give them the benefit of the doubt? Or do you believe that they’re incompetent? Personally, I believe that all people have a particular skill set. While it might not be the same as mine, I know that the strengths that others possess can compliment mine. This is why I love finding out what people’s strengths are. It allows me to connect them with appropriate opportunities that I would have no chance of being able to take advantage of myself.

Even with all the negativity in the world, it’s important that we stay positive about others. However, it’s also important to realize that you might find yourself surrounded with those who have low expectations for themselves and others. If you’re finding that your expectations of others are low due to these other people, then it’s time to surround yourself with those that have higher expectations. The more positive people you have in your life, the more opportunities that will come to you.

Expectations of our own success. This one is the one that many people struggle with a lot – including myself at times. However, even if you’re going through a lot of crap at a certain time, it’s important that we know that being persistent with our action will yield positive results. Many times results we won’t expect. Some call this Faith, others call it simply statistics. If you flip the coin enough times, you’ll eventually land a head.

Communicating Expectations Effectively

Once we’re aware of the expectations that we want for ourselves and those that we want to influence, we must express those expectations. Otherwise we might confuse the people we lead with double standards. If you have a goal to be a leader or an influential creator then it’s highly important that we can properly communicate our expectations and create the culture we want for our followers.

Here are six rules of thumb to follow as you set these expectations.

Make yourself the realistic example. The first and foremost thing to being a leader, is be the type of person you want to attract. When you’re able to lead by example, you’re not expecting your followers to do more than you. You’re setting the standard. This shows that you’re committed to the vision and that it’s ok to follow you as you won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Also, make sure that you’re realistic in telling them what exactly to do. Again, don’t expect them to do more than you. If you were following someone that said “if you do what I do, then you’re going to be as successful as I am”. One, you’re more likely going to follow them and two you’re going to try and do as much as you can that they do, right? Same holds true for others.

Set them early on. The sooner you can set your standards, the sooner your followers or fans can start to expect what they’re going to get from you. You wouldn’t knowingly drive a car with no breaks. You might be considered nuts if you did. Same thing here. Set your standards early so people know what they’re getting on the ride.

Be clear with what you expect.  Define your vision early. If you want people to take action, let them know. If you want a certain type of follower, make it known what they should be doing as a follower of yours.

Be optimistic. As I stated before, it’s important to be optimistic about those that you influence. Give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re capable. How would you feel if someone was trying to lead you to the “promised land” but said you couldn’t do it because of various reasons? Would you still follow them? Perhaps, but you might feel you’re being let off the hook to living to their standard. Maybe this might challenge you to do something about it. Maybe it might have the opposite effect. If you want to be certain, be optimistic.

Under promise and over deliver. The more you say your services are going to do for someone, the more you have to deliver. Do yourself a favor and make sure you do something that you know you can provide and have room to spare when it comes to your services.

Be sensible about your commitments, and diligently follow through on them. You don’t get credit for intentions, only for accomplishment. Set your followers up for success by setting aggressive but attainable goals for them.

Exceed them consistently. Again, expectations are your standards. When you exceed your expectations, it means you’re shooting for excellence. People expect you to be fair, but be generous as well. People expect you to respect them, but show you care for them, too. People expect you to be judicious when you exercise authority, but be willing to serve also. Over time, as you exceed expectations, talented people will flock to your tribe. Everyone wants to work with a leader who has their best interests in mind and leads with excellence on a consistent basis.

Homework:

As you’re starting your next project, think about what kind of standards and expectations you have for your followers. Let them know what actions they can take to help your efforts and be a part of the larger vision.

If you’ve already developed a culture, what are some things that are characteristic of that culture?