Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Alexander, the retired Australian international professional rugby player. In this interview, we touched on what makes for a great team culture from a sporting perspective.
Ben played for his country 72 times, which is obviously an outstanding achievement.
He also played for the Brumbies in Canberra over 100 times. The Brumbies club is Australia’s most successful domestic rugby team.
The reason I mention this background information is that after playing for these two high-performing teams for many years, Ben knows a thing or two about team culture!
In our interview, Ben mentions two important ingredients of team culture.
While he was referring to these factors in a sporting environment, in this post I want to build on this by adding a corporate point of view, and cover some actions that leaders can take to help build team culture.
Learn More: My interview with Ben Alexander will be out soon in Thoughtful Leader Podcast Episode #141. I’ll update this post with the link when it’s ready.
What Makes For a Great Team Culture?
During our conversation, Ben mentioned two main ingredients of team culture: Trust and Respect.
When you have trust, it means that you can rely on the people around you. You know they’ll have your back when times are tough. After all, when times are tough is when you really need them. It’s easy to be supportive during the good times.
When people have respect for each other, they value each other’s contributions. They have high regard for each other’s feelings, thoughts, skills, experience and opinions.
Next, I’ll take a look at what trust and respect means for your team, and what you can do to build them to create a strong team culture.
Direction: Another Important Part of Team Culture
I’d like to add another important ingredient here, which is Direction.
In a sporting context, direction is fairly obvious and self-explanatory. Normally, a team will simply want to win the competition that they’re competing in.
In a business team environment, this is not necessarily so clear. Our companies are not generally part of a league or tournament. For the teams within them, it can be even harder to measure success.
How do you measure the success of your Accounting team, who makes sure that your business is financially secure and well-managed? What about a call-centre team, who deals with your customers? Or your operations team, who makes sure the front-line work is executed properly?
There is no standard way to measure success here, and it can be especially tricky to link the actions of the team with how the organisation is performing.
Measure Success at a Team Level By Setting the Direction
To be able to measure team success in a business organisation, setting direction is key. Setting direction usually means creating a vision of a desired, positive future that you want to reach.
Often a vision is spoken about at a whole-of-organisation level, but I believe a team vision is also important. It helps you to maintain a more tangible view of what success looks like for your team.
When you can link your team vision to that of the organisation, that’s even better.
Setting the vision for your team helps with team culture, because:
- A vision creates clear expectations for what the team is all about
- The vision helps you select your priority projects or initiatives so they align with the vision; and
- A vision helps to motivate people to be invested in the success of the team.
A vision helps you to set the basis for success in your team. This is where trust and respect come in.
These two important ingredients of team culture will set the tone for a productive environment where people can do their best work.
Learn More: You can read more about setting a direction for your team here: The Power of Setting a Direction For Your Team.
The Importance of Trust In Team Culture
To achieve a great team culture, trust is a vital ingredient. There are several layers to this:
- People need to trust that other team members can perform their role effectively
- Team members need to trust that they can be open and honest, without others taking advantage of them; and
- People need to trust that they’ll be suitably acknowledged and recognised for playing their part in the team’s success.
Without trust, your people may not share their opinions openly. If they feel that someone will use their words against them, or take credit for their ideas or performance, they may hold back or begin to shut down.
Without trust, your people will fear that others will blame them for failure. Instead, what we want is an environment where the team succeeds or fails together.
Without trust, your people may feel as if any issues or performance problems will be held against them. Rather than being encouraged to learn and improve, political point scoring will lead to team members feeling exposed and being hung out to dry.
Learn More: The #1 Way That Leaders Damage Team Trust.
Actions Leaders Can Take to Build Team Trust
Trust takes time to build and cultivate, and it’s important to remember that trust shouldn’t just exist between a team member and the leader. It needs to exist between everyone in the team.
Here are some actions that you can take to build trust in your team:
- Clarify roles and responsibilities. When everyone is clear on the role they play, people can rely on others to get their part done. When people aren’t performing, it’s clear and obvious.
- Focus on improvement. Failure needs to be seen as an opportunity to improve, not to score points against somebody. Improvement is critical, because the only way people can trust each other is when they feel that everyone is capable of playing their role.
- Give credit and acknowledge contribution. Encourage others to do the same. People will feel like their effort is noted and rewarded, and they won’t feel the need to hold back.
- Hold people accountable. Don’t let poor performance slide. Acknowledge it and help people improve. When people feel accountable, they’ll take ownership and feel invested enough to put in the effort so they don’t let the team down. I have an Online Accountability Builder Course that can help you with this.
Trust is a key ingredient to improve your team culture. If you’re noticing people holding back, being tentative or taking shots at others, you may have a trust problem.
Learn More: Why Building Trust Is Better Than Authority.
Learn More: Roles and Responsibilities Unclear? Do This.
The Importance of Respect In Team Culture
After trust comes respect, and the two go hand in hand. If you don’t respect what others bring to the table, then it’s hard to trust them to deliver.
If you don’t trust that your colleague can perform, then you’ll struggle to respect the role they play in the team.
When people in your team have respect for each other, you’ll see:
- People pitching in to help when it’s needed.
- Team members providing support for others to improve
- Reduced conflict and more constructive behaviour, even when times are tough; and
- Acknowledgement of the strengths of each of the people in the team.
Respect is hugely important for team culture, and once again, it doesn’t happen over night. It comes from team members and leaders demonstrating that they can perform their roles effectively.
Learn More: Important Ways That Leaders Can Earn Respect at Work.
Actions Leaders Can Take to Build Team Respect
It might seem like respect is simply treating people well, and shutting down negative behaviour. While this is part of it, there’s more to respect than just this aspect.
Here are some actions you can take to start building respect within your team.
1. Recognise the strengths within the team.
Not everyone in your team will be the best in your particular postal district. However, everyone has their strengths. Be sure to acknowledge them and help your people understand more about what they are.
A good way to help with this is with the Clifton’s Strengths Assessment (no, I’m not affiliated with this, I just think it’s a valuable resource!).
When each team member understands what others bring, you’ll have a better chance at building respect within the team.
2. Ensure your people have the right skills and experience.
People respect others who perform their roles in the team well. If your people are going to respect each other, you need them to be capable of performing.
Hiring the right people, coaching and mentoring can help you get them to where they need to be. You’ll start to experience problems with respect if team members sense that others can’t fulfil their obligations.
3. Cut out disrespectful behaviour.
If you see dismissive, belittling or disrespectful behaviour, you need to shut it down, quickly. Work to understand the cause of the problem, and then take steps to solve it.
Often disrespectful behaviour comes about because some team members don’t think much of another’s capabilities.
Or, it could be a personality or style clash. Whatever it is, you can’t let it fester, it needs to be addressed fast.
4. Take notice of team dynamics.
Open your eyes and ears to get a sense of how your people engage with each other. This may alert you to situations where your people aren’t showing or receiving the respect they deserve.
Being perceptive is one of your greatest tools for leading your team effectively and building a strong team culture.
5. Celebrate diversity.
Inclusion matters. Gender, sexuality, ethnicity, personality, it’s all on the table.
When people feel comfortable bringing their real self to the team, they’ll more likely show off their strengths, making it easier for them to gain respect.
6. Don’t tolerate dickheads.
I’ve always liked the “no dickheads” policy that some sporting organisations speak about. If you have people in your team that get a kick out of making life miserable for other people, it might be time to do something about it.
Teams don’t function at full capacity without respect. You can’t force respect, but you can create conditions for it to flourish, by ensuring you enable people to bring their best selves to the table.
Learn More: How to Build Psychological Safety at Work.
Your Team Culture Might Make the Difference
Trust, respect and direction are three vital ingredients for a positive culture that gets results.
Sure, most teams aren’t competing in international sporting competitions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take pride in what they do. Your team culture will reinforce itself, too.
The more that your people take pride in their performance, the more they’ll strive to work hard for themselves and each other.
Your team culture might make just the difference between mediocre performance and really hitting a home run.
What other ingredients do you think make for a strong team culture? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!