Culture and Teamwork

People aren't happy; satisfaction is abysmally low; people are not performing - some are threatening to leave. The organization is developing a reputation as an unhealthy place.

So, how do you change the culture of an organization? Such a simple question; surely there must be a simple answer.

Culture isn't something you fix

Most organizations fail when they try to change their culture directly - through speeches, training programs, or through direct intervention. To be successful, organizations need to change how they are led, and how are managed. The new culture then emerges as a by-product of these changes.

Culture gets changed in concert with a new strategy, a new governance model, new processes, and new performance management systems. Pure culture conversations don't work becasue they don't produce a clear idea of what needs to change, and how it needs to change. Focusing on changing the way organizations solve problems inevitably affects collaboration, ergo, the culture.

An organization’s culture is a complex system with a multitude of interrelated processes and mechanisms which keep it humming along. Performance reviews and training programs define the organization's expectations. Reward systems reinforce them. Memos and communications highlight what's important. And senior leadership actions - promotions for people who toe the line, versus a dead-end career for those who don't - emphasize priorities.

In most organizations these elements develop unconsciously and organically to create a system which, while not always ideal, works. Changing culture is difficult, messy and complex.

Why not avoid it, if possible? Why change the culture? The business seems successful. The culture seems to be working. Why not keep it?

Because the current culture is not sustainable. Eventually the organization will lose its best people. No one will want to belong there, not even you.

Whether it’s a for-profit business, a non-profit NGO, or an organization representing the interests of Amateur Radio, the same is true.

Admittedly, building an effective, cohesive team is difficult. But it’s also simple.

Teamwork doesn’t require intellectual insight or masterful tactics. More than anything else, teamwork comes down to courage and persistence. So, if you’re committed to making your team a healthy one, and if you can get the rest of the team to share your commitment, you’re probably going to succeed.

Teamwork is hard to measure. Yet, as difficult as teamwork can be to achieve, it's not complicated. The true measure of a team is it accomplishes the results it sets out to achieve. To do that on a consistent, ongoing basis, a team must overcome five common dysfunctions:

Dysfunction 1: Absence of Trust

Members of great teams trust one another on a fundamental, emotional level, and they are comfortable being vulnerable with each other about their weaknesses, mistakes, fears, and behaviour. They get to the point where they can be completely open with one another, without filters.

This is essential because…

Dysfunction 2: Fear of Conflict

team members who trust one another are not afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issues and decisions that are key to the organization’s success. They do not hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question one another, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions.

This is important because…

Dysfunction 3: No Commitment

teams that engage in unfiltered conflict are able to achieve genuine buy-in around important decisions, even when various members of the team initially disagree. That’s because they ensure all opinions and ideas are put on the table and considered, giving confidence to team members that no stone has been left unturned.

This is critical because…

Dysfunction 4: No Accountability

team members that commit to decisions and standards of performance do not hesitate to hold each other accountable for adhering to those principles and standards. Also, they don’t rely on the team leader as the primary source of accountability. Instead, they go directly to their peers.

This matters because…

Dysfunction 5: No Achievement

team members who trust each other, engage in conflict, commit to decisions, and hold one another accountable, are very likely to set aside their individual needs and agendas and focus almost exclusively on what is best for the team. They do not give in to the temptation to place their own interests or ego-driven status ahead of the collective results that define team success.

Two important questions

1) Are you really a team?

Sometimes a team improvement process is doomed from the start because the group going through it isn’t really a team at all - they are a team in name only.

A real team is a small group of people who share common goals as well as the rewards and responsibilities for achieving them. Real team members readily set aside their individual or personal needs for the greater good of the group.

It’s okay to decide your group isn’t a real team. In a world where real teamwork is rare, plenty of non-teams succeed. In fact, if your group is not meant to be a team, it’s best to be clear about that, than to waste time and energy pretending you’re something you’re not - because that only creates false expectations, leading to frustration and resentment.

2) Are you ready for the heavy lifting?

The advantages of being a real team are enormous. But these advantages cannot be achieved without a willingness to invest considerable time and emotional energy in the process. Unfortunately, many teams aren’t prepared, and they take shortcuts and half measures. Not only does this prevent them from making progress, but it can actually lead to a decrease in team performance.

So, it’s important to enter into this process with eyes wide open, and with no illusions about what is required. That doesn’t mean becoming a team will take years, or that it will be unpleasant. Most teams do make significant progress in weeks or months, and find the process itself most rewarding - if they do it right.

Communicate or else

So often when things go wrong, we blame a failure in communications. Communication missteps result in poor service, low morale, and unhappy colleagues and stakeholders. Most often, the underlying fault of poor communications is attributed to the organization as a whole.

This may be true, but the individuals within the system also share some of the blame.

So what can be done about this problem?

- acknowledge that problems occur. Take responsibility for things you can change, focus on becoming a better listener, and reduce the volume of unnecessary e-mail you generate.

- change the communication mindset. Be available to exchange ideas, make it clear that everyone owns communication issues, and that everyone has a stake in keeping lines of communication open and flowing.

- punch holes in silos. Initiate dialogue with individuals with different interests about issues that affect you and your interests, and share information with them, asking for information in return. Keep talking.

Communication issues will always be with us. However, if individuals begin to exert more ownership of the problems, solutions will be found, one person, and one interest group at a time.

The Mark of a Team Player

An organization's success depends on a large variety of talent and skill - more than any one member of the organization can possibly possess. There are always many issues to address: technological, legal, financial, personal, leadership, and more. Any member of an organization who is self-aware enough to know he is not adept at everything, is one who has already taken the first step toward being a great team member.

This personal mastery involves a heightened understanding of one's own behavior, motivators and competencies, in addition to having the "emotional intelligence" to monitor and manage one’s own emotional responses in a variety of situations. This can be very difficult, especially for those who are not comfortable, knowledgeable, or willing to acknowledge their individual strengths and weaknesses.

We all know people who insist on controlling everything that happens within the organization. This kind of behaviour can block or limit the talents of others, and does not contribute positively to the forward momentum of the organization. Such individuals need to understand they must either lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Obviously, no single person can do it all, and, if they are the least bit self-aware, they will realize they are neither capable nor knowledgeable enough to do it all.

To help achieve self-awareness and personal mastery of being a great team player, members of a great team need to:

1) monitor their own personal performance, taking note of areas where they excel, and also where they need improvement, and then communicate that information to their peers

2) recognize they need to be aware of the effect their behaviour has on others

3) remember, while criticism is sometimes difficult to accept, there is probably some truth in it