How can great teams build a great culture

Organizations need to view their teams’ activities as a source of great emotional energy for the company as a whole


Each company needs to invest time to find specific practices that are already in place among its most effective teams. Photo: iStockphoto
Each company needs to invest time to find specific practices that are already in place among its most effective teams. Photo: iStockphoto

Teams are an efficient way to enhance organizational performance. But most business leaders tend to overlook opportunities to exploit the potential of a team, often confusing teams with teamwork or sharing. So what is a real team? According to Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, authors of The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization, “A real team is composed of people who are committed to common purposes, goals, and working approaches accepting of the diversity in others’ skills and perspectives. In real teams, members hold themselves and their teammates mutually accountable, because of their emotional commitment to the work and to one another. That’s how they get things done rapidly and effectively.”

But sometimes, people within these teams feel no connection to each other or towards the common purpose. They lack clarity about their goals and accountability that eventually leads to frustration and despair despite being part of a great team. Katzenberg and Smith use the analogy of two classic modern-day novels to further explain this bittersweet feeling. According to them, the protagonists of both Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, create their own silos or groups of disenfranchised people, within a larger culture that tries to shut them down. In effect, they function like real teams that are emotionally energized and committed to a goal, except that their goal here is surviving against the larger organization. These types of books often end semi-tragically with the dissolution of the team, its members scattered without any effect whatsoever on the culture of the larger organization.

But could this change in real life? Can companies cultivate the right kind of atmosphere for teams to thrive in? The authors argue that this is possible as long as teams do not adopt a passive attitude to oppose the company, as the flyers of Catch-22 did, or fighting against it, as the hospitalized residents of Cuckoo’s Nest did. Organizations need to view their teams’ activities as a source of great emotional energy for the company as a whole. This can be done by following a few behavioural team norms or unwritten rules that are set for the team. For example, while conducting meetings do team members take turns speaking, or can they jump in to voice an important idea? Research showed that setting a few strong ground rules allowed people to feel confident with each other and in a “safe space” where any team member could express an idea freely, without any bias or prejudice. In short, when the emotional energy of a team is reinforced through a few clear practices, the team continues to grow, becoming efficient and clear-minded about its goals. Teams of this sort have a ripple effect that enables other teams to draw from their emotional energy, thus energizing the culture of the organization overall.

The authors conclude by saying that each company needs to invest time to find specific practices that are already in place among its most effective teams. Finding those specifics, talking about them and finally practicing them explicitly leads to positive reinforcement. This is the key to fostering an organizational culture that nurtures and energizes its top performing teams to work towards a common goal and deliver results.

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