How to lead team cultures

Endless pixels have been sacrificed in the name of working out what culture is, how it’s best managed or how you go about setting it up. Much of this seems to focus on how companies can keep a particular culture going as they scale. What doesn’t seem to be addressed as frequently is how to go about operating in a situation where cultures already exist.

Whilst interesting to read about Slack’s meteoric rise and how they’re approaching the challenges that brings, it probably isn’t as relevant for the majority of us. As such, Ioffer to you a few more words on how you might want to approach improving interactions between cultures and how as a leader, you can influence your team’s ways of doing things.

What is culture?

Schein proposed in ‘Organisational Culture & Leadership’ that culture is a set of assumptions that individuals are able to make and have confidence that they will be supported. These range from specific artefacts such as structures and processes to the more abstract strategies and goals and finally the underlying, but no less powerful set of values.

Culture is what it’s ok to assume
The GDS’ first day sheet — a fantastic example of an active approach to a team’s culture.

Psychological Capital — how to tell if your team culture is effective

Whilst many of us ‘know’ when a team is being effective — it can be useful to look at a framework which helps us to objectively measure the validity of that statement — especially when looking at the more nuanced / abstract world of cultures. If you’re team is consistently delivering sub standard work then it’s more likely to get noticed by you and your organisation. If a team’s culture is unhealthy though, it can be harder to pin down.

The characteristics of teams that are performing well using this measure are:

  1. Confidence
  2. Optimism
  3. Perseverance
  4. Resilience

We’ve all been there — when a team is truly working well together, the world feels like a brighter place, you can push through challenging situations and things don’t get you down in the same way they might. We’ve also been in the opposite situations where exactly the same activities or events can drive us into a downward spiral from which it can be hard to recover from.

Our job as leaders is to put in place the conditions to get us to the first situation rather than the second.

You need to change behaviours to improve culture

Ways of working (or behaviours) and culture are widely believed to be different things. A culture is the underlying beliefs and assumptions and the ways of working are what people spend their day to day doing.

What is worth considering in my view is which of culture or ways of working is the cause and which is effect. Some believe that you need to set the organisational culture first and then the ways of working would follow. The alternative view is that the only thing leaders can truly influence is the ways of working but that is ok, because the behaviours are actually the elements which drive a team’s culture.

My view is that that both leaders and those being led, should focus on the “local interactions” which make up the reality of their day to day. This is the only thing that they can truly control so they should take care of that ahead more abstract elements that they are unable to affect.

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Marcus Aurelius

As a leader you are best to focus on the behaviours of the teams that you supervise, and that will in turn bring about the culture that your are attempting to achieve, hopefully improving effectiveness.

Different cultures — what’s the problem and how do you fix it?

Lencioni shows us that the underlying element that must be established for teams to be effective is trust. Whilst this is made harder when working with teams that come with different cultural assumptions, there are numerous ways to achieve success regardless.

Lencioni’s 5 dysfunction of teams

For example, there might be significant differences between a Scientific Research department and a Marketing team. Those within the Scientific side of things approach activities with a high degree of rigour and are evidence based in their decisions. This leads to a bias towards certainty over speed. In contrast, Marketing moves at a higher pace, but with a reduced focus on proof. Both cultures are effective at achieving success, however exactly the same activities in different teams would be perceived significantly differently — depending on what those teams held as ‘quality’.

In my own experience of leading projects that sit between these types of teams the key for success is in defining the outcome or goal that you are trying to achieve. Following that, individuals must have a respect for the needs of those from different cultures and do what they can to accommodate them, especially if they don’t understand them.

The key is to build empathy with the individuals involved, understand their perspectives and then use that as a platform for building trust and respect on both sides.

Finally, communication is the core activity for those cross-cultured teams that perform at the highest level. This is key in both the understanding of project progress, but also calling out and defining the cross-cultural differences, whilst respecting those different approaches. Through these activities, teams can build their Psychological capital, progress up Lencioni’s model and achieve effectiveness.

These steps are easy to avoid at the start of a project and as it progresses. They often involved personal conversations — which are exactly the kind that are difficult before you have established a level of trust with a group. It’s down to the leaders of those teams to push through this with skilful facilitation, in the interests of longer term effectiveness.

Digital Transformation Training

At William Joseph we offer training to Digital Teams charged with driving organisational change covering this kind of topic and many more. If you’re interested then email me on