What All Great Teams Practice

“Ways of working” is a loaded phrase.

There are two very significant (and different) parts to this: ways of doing and ways of being.

Ways of doing are the actions your team and organization operationalize so you can work in new, adaptive ways. Ways of doing include things that change your systems — how you budget, plan, allocate resources, determine compensation, or give feedback, for example. It can also be things like how you meet, communicate, prioritize, craft your vision, or develop and disseminate strategy.

Ways of being are the mindsets and behaviors that are integral to changing your ways of doing across the organization. It’s the individual humans in your company shedding habits and patterns (like retaliation, blaming, and shaming) that don’t serve them. It’s trading those less desirable ways of being for a new lens (like coming from a place of curiosity or having empathy) that helps nurture relationships with the other humans we work with and manage the complexity of our environment.

Successful cultural transformation requires both.

I’ve spent most of my career studying what connects people to the companies they work for and the brands they choose to evangelize and support. When purpose is integrated into an organization’s operating strategy — along with customer and employee insight — it plays an integral role in an organization’s growth.

Purpose can be as big as something that leads the vision of a 25,000 person organization, and also as small as what guides the many 15 person teams inside that same org. As big as purpose can seem, it’s really in the small moves that small teams make that adds up to accomplishing really big things as a company.

What I have also learned is that it doesn’t matter how inspirational, grand, or appealing a company’s purpose is, if their teams are not given the opportunity to take ownership for their ways of working, the org will struggle to achieve its purpose. Not only that, but you’ll have a whole lot of miserable, unproductive humans working on stuff that doesn’t really take the company anywhere.

In my daily work, I guide executives, their teams, and their teams of teams to design — and then scale — new ways of working. Over time, this work becomes a new operating system for the entire organization. What’s powerful for these teams is they are given the decision rights and the voice to contribute to the company’s purpose every day.

But in the process of that transformation, there is a great deal of friction they must wrestle with because of what has been deep-rooted in their existing system and culture.

Learned helplessness

Executives and managers struggle to handle the amount of complexity they’re faced with. Many times — instead of trusting their people — they shift into this place of always needing to have the answer. Of controlling everything around them — including what everyone does.

Rather than being trusted to steer towards the company’s purpose and vision, people and teams get used to waiting around to be told what their strategy and priorities are. Across the org, people become accustomed to being told what they can and cannot do. Over time, they just give up their initiative. They learn to follow directions and obey the check-list and follow the rules and do what they are told. Slowly, all of their agency, creativity, and insight escapes into the ether.

Retaliation

Along with learned helplessness, I’ve also observed a great deal of retaliation. This shows up when — time and time again — policies, bureaucracy, rules, regulations, and the compliance meant to control the complexity suck the culture of experimentation right out of people and teams.

People get tired of getting in trouble, so when things are learned from projects that don’t work out, rather than sharing and opening up conversations and making that learning visible, people keep their mistakes to themselves, avoiding any potential for retaliation.

Shame

A learned helplessness and retaliation culture also breeds other not so awesome things like a whole lot of shame and judgement — people projecting this on themselves and those they work with which produces blame.

Blame

Blame becomes the new flavor of accountability. When a team has a project to lead, designating a leader is not so much about who can kick ass in leading through the work, it’s about who is going to be blamed when the efforts go south. People learn to associate change with something that is done by everything and everyone outside of themselves, failing to remember they always have a choice.

Fear

And all of these patterns really just stack up to a culture that operates with a whole lot of fear. Fear that gets in the way of being honest with ourselves and others. Deep, dark fear that discourages all of the risk taking. All of the ingenuity. All of the possibility and light. All of the good stuff we were hoping to get from the people we hired and trust to do their jobs.

But organizations want to be faster, better, smarter, and more innovative, so they bring in shiny new tools and technology. They introduce methodologies like agile, scrum, six sigma, lean — you name it — thinking, if we just do these things the right way we will have all the stuff to achieve world domination.

And although these methodologies can be useful and serve a purpose, organizations are missing some really important stuff that is getting in the way of how their organization operates at its fullest.

Teaching teams how to be adaptive and manage complexity is just one part of this equation. Organizations also need to teach people how to be with each other. How to be brave and vulnerable and honest. How to have healthy conflict. How to communicate with each other. How to fall down and get back up. This gives teams the power and opportunity to own their ways of working which leads to achieving your organization’s purpose.

When teaching organizations and their teams new ways of doing and being, resistance always plays a part. Even those brave souls who are eager to learn new ways and shed the old, they can’t help but gravitate towards the stuff that appears easy; like team chartering.

“Let’s get everyone on the team in a room together and clarify our mission, purpose, and values. Let’s spend the time to name how we’re going to communicate and the technology we’re going to use to do our work. Let’s open up a dialogue about the meetings that will shape our operating rhythm and identify some guardrails and norms that give us some autonomy. Let’s get crazy and even get into roles, responsibilities, and decision rights.”

Don’t get me wrong, this is all important stuff. There’s just a few things to consider before diving into the components of your team charter.

Addressing the emotional side before you team charter will save you from a shit show. I have yet to experience a team that didn’t have demons lurking beneath the surface. Even if a team is predominately healthy, there is always baggage to be considered.

Regardless of the history of your team, start with the stuff that makes them (and you) uncomfortable. Start with the stuff that will make you feel. Open up the space for emotions and real conversations to be had. Having the courage to take your team here first will pay dividends. You can then work towards the components of your team charter (all you need to do that is below).

Ask questions and make space

Especially if your team is in a really dysfunctional place, you will want to bring in a trained facilitator to open up and hold the space for the hard stuff to surface and determine the best next steps. Keep in mind you could be looking at several sessions with your team before jumping into identifying and clarifying the components of your team charter. Take it slow.

With the first session, allow up to three hours. If your team is willing to drop in and be vulnerable with each other quickly, you’ll have a lot to talk about.

One at a time, ask these questions:

With each question:

  1. Give time to self-reflect
    Allow silent time for introspection. Have each team member jot down their answers down on a piece of paper or a sticky note.
  2. Share out
    Ask the team to share their responses in rounds (only one person speaks at a time). Hold space for each person to be heard.
  3. Listen
    Have the facilitator listen for values, guiding principles, guardrails, and norms. This is a great opportunity for the truly authentic components of what’s important to your team to surface even without your team intentionally working on them for your charter.

Typically the struggles teams face come down to not having — or not knowing how to have — hard conversations. You have to make the space for it.

When your team starts to bring up and work through their ghosts, encourage them to give specific examples. Take all the time required to hold space for what your team needs to surface before working through the components of your team charter.

Once you’ve addressed some of the deeper wounds that may be present in your team, you can begin to introduce some ways of being that will become part of how they work every day. This is not the soft stuff. Ways of being will always be the hardest work they will ever do.

A decdication to cultivating self-awareness is one of the best gifts you can give your team as it is what opens up the space for your team to do great work.

There are many ways and tools that will help your team practice self-awareness. One of the simplest is called a check-in. Check-ins are different than one-on-ones or stand-ups or huddles with your team. Protect the first 5 minutes of every meeting and make the space to hear from all of your humans.

Check-in questions can be simple like: What has your attention? What’s your favorite food? If you were marooned on an island, what album would you want to listen to?

Start there.

When your team is ready to practice vulnerability, try mixing in the Red/Yellow/Green — a check-in practice I learned from Reboot.

This type of a check-in helps your team build their self-awareness muscle. After you’ve checked in like this for a few weeks, ask your team to reflect on what they’re noticing. Are they checking in green every time and really present, or maybe not naming something that’s really there? When they are yellow, where are they feeling it in their body? How many times are they coming to check-in with red?

Check-ins are not just for connecting, they are to practice noticing. Keep asking your team the question: What did you notice?

Over time they will have a much better sense of how they’re truly showing up with their team and what they may want to try doing differently.

Self-awareness is a prerequisite for building psychological safety. Introduced by Amy Edmondson and studied by Google, it has been found that psychological safety is the key component to successful teams; a shared belief that when working on a team, it is safe to be vulnerable with each other and take interpersonal risks.

A small move you can make with your team on fostering psychological safety is with a daily reminder. We have had great success spreading this across a culture with small cards that briefly state a commitment to the practice. We read these at the start of every meeting.

There are two sides to these cards. The front — which communicates the commitment each individual member of the team is personally making to how they will show up for the other members of their team.

And the back — which communicates the environment the entire team as a whole is committing to cultivating.

Psychological safety begs the questions: Can I speak up in a meeting? Can I share my ideas? Can I contribute at work and not be penalized or have something I say used against me?

It means the individuals on your team can feel safe to be honest, share ideas, and show up as who they really are and they will be supported. Even when there are things that need to improve.

Psychological safety does not mean you don’t have conflict or difficult conversations with the people you work with. The longer your team is together, the more opportunities will present themselves for your team to both build and destroy trust and psychological safety. That’s part of being human and the process of better understanding yourself and the effects actions have on your team.

What’s important is to continually make the space to not only practice but also look underneath the surface and get curious about what’s really going on with your team when you sense things are off.

Especially when a team is dysfunctional or has toxic behavior going on, it can take a really long time to build this type of safety. Continue to make space for it.

As your team explores new ways of being, self-awareness and psychological safety are two really important things to practice. Another big one is teaching the art of curiosity.

I often get questions about how to teach curiosity to a team.

Model it.

Try — for just one week — not to answer any questions. Every time someone on your team asks you a question in search of an answer from you, ask them one in return. Explore removing yourself from the role of ‘I have all the answers’ and watch what happens.

And in this process, also pay attention to what’s happening in your system that would squash the behavior of curiosity. If you’re modeling curiosity as a leader but there’s retaliation anywhere in the path along this process, you’ll kill any hope of building this muscle in your people.

Model curiosity and be curious about what needs to change in your system.

Additionally, a really powerful curiosity and self-awareness tool you can practice with your team is locating yourself. I’ve shared this video before, but even if you’re familiar with it, it’s worth watching again.

What comes up for you when you watch that video? Where do you typically find yourself during your week at work? How about at home? The above and below the line language will help your team name their ways of being, especially when they aren’t showing up as their best selves. That’s OK. The point is to be curious about it.

Teaching curiosity to your teams is teaching them to be vulnerable and courageous. To examine how they are showing up and learning to make the shift from blaming others to first getting curious about what’s really there for them. Learning to be curious is an opportunity to be brave enough to face fear, discomfort, and uncertainty.

As you’re working through surfacing things your team needs to say and hear, and practicing new ways of being, your team will be ready for a charter. Going through this exercise to establish a team charter and an operating rhythm is an important step to owning their ways of working.

When working with teams to define their mission and purpose, one of the questions we often ask is, ‘what will be different about the world after we’re gone?’

That may be a great question for an executive to answer, but at the team level — especially when the team is not used to being given the freedom to identify what purpose looks like for them — it can be pretty intimidating.

Identifying mission and purpose at the team level can start by understanding what the team’s work actually is. What have we come together to accomplish and why? What if our team wasn’t here? What would be lacking from the organization? Who is our customer and what is the value we provide them?

What does it look like for your team to live its mission and purpose? You may:

  1. Name all of the roles required to do your work and deliver value to your customer
  2. Clarify the specific responsibilities of each role and decouple these roles from a specific individual (each person may hold more than one role)
  3. Choose to work towards outcomes, identifying the work required to achieve them each week
  4. Actively use decision processes — like an advice process or integrative decision making — so we are constantly making small moves, learning, and moving forward
  5. Invest the time — even outside of work — to be a team

Clarifying what you value as a team and what commitments you’re making to each other is really important to steering towards your purpose.

One of the ways you can help your team define its values looks like this:

  1. Identify your top 5 personal values
    Have each person on your team choose their top 5 values as an individual. Each person takes the time to write it first on a sticky note — ranked from most important to least important. Then go around the room and allow each person to share as you scribe them for everyone to see.
  2. Identify your top 5 team values
    Now that everyone is clear on individual values, have each person identify their top 5 values as a team. What is important to you about working with each other? Each person takes the time to write it first on a sticky note and then can share with the team.
  3. Vote for values
    Using dot voting, have the team each place a dot next to each value they would like to make the list. Then, collectively, choose your top 5.
  4. Turn values into guiding principles
    Break into pairs of 2 or groups of 3 and give each group the task of creating a statement about each value. If you were to turn that value into a line of guidance for your team, what would it say? Come back together as a group to share and finalize guiding principles.

And as you may have learned with purpose and values, it’s not just about what it sounds like or getting it stenciled on the walls or captured in your employee handbook. Don’t just speak these things. Live them.

One of the most powerful things I’ve seen with living values is an executive team who chose to work their values into one of their operating meetings. They dedicated the first 10 minutes to one of their values turned guiding principle. They had been committed to listening more than they talk, so every time they checked in at that meeting, they would ask: What is the ratio for how much you’ve talked vs. listened since we last saw each other?

This executive team would work through this guiding principle for several weeks until it became a common practice in their ways of being. Once they felt it was a habit, they were ready to move on to the next one.

With any of this work, I am not advocating for adding anything to your existing operating rhythm. Rather, I’m challenging you to assess what is currently not serving you and even take something away. Especially when it comes to meetings.

Most of us spend the majority of our hours at work in meetings. Then, once we’ve finished our day, we spend time doing our work at home. What if it didn’t have to be this way?

Get curious about your meetings. Take a minute to write down all of the meetings you have with your team each week. What’s the purpose of each meeting? How often and how long do you need to meet? Are there meetings that are missing that would help us do our work (like a design or collaboration session every other week)? Which meetings can be repurposed or even eliminated all together? Maybe get crazy and stop having meetings for a week and notice what falls apart (or doesn’t)?

What might your meetings look like if your team is practicing your ways of being and living your purpose? You may:

  1. Start meetings on time
  2. Begin with check-ins (and end with a “what did you notice?” or “how did you show up?”)
  3. Commit to practicing psychological safety
  4. Stay open and curious and when we’re not, naming when we are below the line
  5. Honor and work through the values you’ve committed to

Next, apply some curiosity to the way your team communicates. Do you collaborate with each other? How does that work? If there are silos, why is that? What technology do you need to do your work? How will you communicate when you need something? When we have feedback for each other, how do we deliver that? When we need to conflict about something, what’s the best way to do that?

This is also where some of your boundaries may come in. In Dare to Lead, Brene Brown offers some guidance about conflict and reminds us that our job is not to take responsibility for other people’s emotions. When you’re having conflict with someone, you can be angry, frustrated, or even surprised and sad, but make sure that behaviors stay above the line. You can communicate boundaries during conflict by simply naming guidelines like:

  • I know this is a tough conversation. Being angry is okay. Yelling is not okay.
  • I know we’re tired and stressed. This has been a long meeting. Being frustrated is okay. Interrupting people and rolling your eyes is not okay.
  • I appreciate the passion around these different opinions and ideas. The emotion is okay. Passive-aggressive comments and put-downs are not okay.

Communication is such an integral component to how your team functions. If your team is communicating like champs, you may be:

  1. Giving feedback that is clear and direct when it is warranted
  2. Respecting the boundaries you have named for how you will work together
  3. Preserving time to hold retrospectives so that you are learning from how you’re working together, building trust and psychological safety
  4. Making space to process conflict with each other and have hard conversations in front of each other
  5. Risking vulnerability and having the courage to be honest with ourselves and each other

Guardrails and norms play a really important role in your team’s chartering because naming them are a big step towards allowing your team to be autonomous in achieving its purpose.

Some questions that may guide your conversation with guardrails and norms: What are our decision rights? How much money can be spent before anyone needs to be asked for permission? Do we trust each other to work from home? When do we want to have a conversation about these commitments we’re making to each other?

Living your guardrails and norms may require getting curious and asking questions at random intervals (maybe in your retrospectives) like these:

  1. How have I been showing up with my team and co-workers?
  2. Is there something that needs to be said that I’m not saying?
  3. Has something changed in our team that has caused tension?
  4. What does support look like right now?
  5. How can I help someone else on my team?

Once all of this good work on your team charter is done, make sure it’s available in a space that is accessible by your entire team and can be updated as you choose.

Building purposeful teams requires daily investment and practice from every individual involved. As with any methodology or practice, team chartering is not a silver bullet and is certainly not a short process. Depending on the level of dysfunction, it could take 3 to 4 months for your team to be ready and willing to make the space and work through their fears and concerns.

Although you may feel pressure to check the components of your charter off the list, practice patience, letting it be, and allow it to unfold over time. Your team — and organization — will be better for it.

In the end, it’s not just about achieving purpose and crafting a better workplace, it’s about being better humans. Choosing to change your ways of working across an organization — both doing and being — is no small feat. But, big things can happen by starting with just one small purposeful team.


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