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Creating a Culture that Matters

Professional Relationships: Part 2

Unsplash | Hannah Busing

In the last article of my Professional Relationships series, I wrote about the importance of building an authentic network. In this article, I’ll be writing about what has the most impact on your day-to-day work experience — your team and its culture.

Whether you prefer intense collaboration, freedom to explore, or structured roles and responsibilities, it’s pretty easy to point to what environments you like and don’t like working in. However, team culture is more important than personal preference. According to Gibson Biddle, former VP of Product at Netflix, an organization’s culture is important because it defines expectations — and based on those expectations, it defines what behavior can help you get hired, rewarded, and fired. If an organization has a strong culture, it can help employees make confident, strategic decisions.

It’s also helpful to define culture based on what it isn’t. A meaningful culture isn’t a vague PowerPoint slide that’s only dusted off when a new person joins the team. It’s not perks like free lunch, fun happy hours, or matching Patagonia vests— though that can be part of it. The consequences of a weak culture aren’t just a boring team. A weak team culture can create a toxic workplace, where there is an inability to say no, specific individuals who always pick up the slack, or resentment towards employees that are rewarded for poor behavior. If the words that make up a cultural manifesto don’t jump off the page through people’s actions, the culture is meaningless.

Creating a strong culture isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. A team’s culture should represent their goals and who they are. But this doesn’t mean once a team sets the right culture, it will be the right fit for everyone joining the team. The ideal culture is personal, so a team’s culture may not work for every type of person, and that’s ok. While there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to building a culture, there are some cultural values that I believe encourage innovation.

Values of an Innovation Culture

Experimentation and Curiosity — Innovation teams should value experimentation, which is easier said than done. When an organization values experimentation, it means team members need to be comfortable with taking risks and making independent decisions. Some individuals may be up for the challenge, while others may succeed in more structured environments. Curious teams are also open to continuous feedback. At the onset of a project, they make sure they’re solving the right problem. As they deliver work, they seek perspectives that could prove them wrong and redirect their efforts when they need to. Being on a team that embodies this cultural mindset requires both open-mindedness and humility — comfort with being wrong and being ready to move on.

It’s easy to tell employees they should work with this mindset, but the organizational rewards structure needs to actually align with it. If a team member is punished when their hypothesis is incorrect, the team won’t feel comfortable independently making decisions or taking risks. Being wrong shouldn’t be seen as a blight on someone’s performance, it’s an opportunity to change the direction of a project.

Conflict and Candor — The best teams are the ones that know how to disagree. It may sound counterintuitive, but conflict is a skill that allows teams to develop and execute stronger ideas. In Adam Grant’s book Think Again, Grant cites research from organization psychologist Karen Etty Jehn, who has defined two types of conflict:

  • Relationship Conflict: interpersonal incompatibilities among group members
  • Task Conflict: disagreements among group members about the content of the tasks being performed

When I think back to the best working relationships I’ve had, it’s been when team members didn’t let task conflict spill-over into relationship conflict. In fact, we welcomed task conflict and didn’t try to shut down disagreements. Embracing task conflict allowed us to sharpen each other’s approaches, and produce better work. The research supports this. Grant surveyed hundreds of Silicon Valley teams and found that high performing teams have higher task conflict than relationship conflict, while low performing teams have higher relationship conflict than task conflict. Leaning into task conflict requires that team members are comfortable being honest about their opinions, dissenting when needed, and backing up their ideas with strong reasoning or data.

Collaboration and Feedback — None of this can happen without a collaborative environment where psychological safety is prioritized. To successfully prioritize the values above, team members need to feel comfortable asserting their opinion, being wrong, and being vulnerable. To exemplify this value, team members need to ensure they are creating an encouraging, non-competitive environment and taking other teammates’ feelings and perspectives into account.

This, however, is a balance. If feelings are prioritized above all else, you could be creating an environment called a “family culture”. When teams call themselves a family, it can mean feedback is often obscured in niceties, personal boundaries aren’t maintained (e.g. being expected to pitch in and help at all hours), firing someone who isn’t a good fit is overly difficult, and leaving the team can be difficult — out of fear that you’re betraying the family. On the other side of the coin, when delivery and results are prioritized to the detriment of empathy and compassion, you can have an unengaging, even toxic culture where people are torn down for not meeting standards.

Prioritizing feelings needs to be tempered with clear expectations backed by constructive feedback. Feedback doesn’t need to be formal, and to create a continuously improving team, everyone needs to feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback — across all levels of the organization. It’s up to leaders to model what good feedback looks like and what the right way of receiving feedback looks like.

It’s possible to be successful with different cultural values, but the 3 values above are some of what I’ve seen make or break teams, whether it’s a university group project or a professional team. Once your organization’s cultural tenets are developed, there are a few more steps to making it real for your team.

  1. Create a Culture Document — create an artifact that clearly outlines the cultural expectations within your organization — it should be easily accessible to all team members. Netflix has a great example of a culture document that allows employees to know exactly what’s expected of them and allows job applicants to understand if Netflix is right for them.
  2. Reward the Right Behavior — One thing that can undermine a cultural transformation is rewarding bad behavior. If collaboration is a cultural tenet for your team, don’t reward people who succeed through extreme competition, tearing others down, and throwing others under the bus. If your team values transparency, remember to reward those who openly share their perspectives.
  3. Invest in Training — Some mindsets and approaches may not come naturally to your team, whether it’s data fluency, handling tough conversations, or strategic decision making. Make sure you invest in training to empower your team to live out your team’s culture.

Refreshing your culture isn’t always easy. It’s a distinct change that means your team needs to buy into the importance of culture and buy into the cultural values you create. But it’s worth it. Creating a culture that’s made up of actions, and not just words, can improve your working environment and accelerate your team’s progress.

My postings reflect my own views and do not represent the views of my employer.

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human& is about sharing the content that inspires us, makes us think twice, and helps us better understand our budding careers. Our goal is to spark conversation and encourage others to learn about how organizations can keep humans at the center of their decisions.

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Nimi Oyeleye

Nimi Oyeleye

Innovation Consultant who seeks to understand human experiences. I love learning new things, including where to find the best iced vanilla lattes in Houston.

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