I always ask candidates in an interview to describe the best team they’ve ever been on.  One answer from a few years ago sticks in my mind: a woman said that her favorite work team happened to be at her least favorite company.  “We hated the company,” she said, “because they pretended to care about people but you could tell they really didn’t.  But my team was great.  We cared about each other, and we had a passion for what we were doing.  Part of what made it fun was the way we teamed up together despite the negativity that surrounded us.  It felt like ‘us against the world'”.

I started thinking about this after Todd Mitchem of Eagle’s Flight started a great discussion on Linkedin this week (if you’re a member of the ASTD group on Linkedin, you can check it out here: culture discussion).  The question he asked was, does company culture matter?  People said a lot of interesting things, such as that culture is:

  • part of branding
  • crucial to success
  • defines a company
  • inescapable
  • must change with the environment
  • sometimes below the level of leadership awareness
  • often different from what leadership wants it to be or thinks it is

Some people got into trying to define culture, and said that it is mostly made up of:

  • values
  • the rules
  • what the company tolerates

Perhaps what made me most curious was that one person said an organization can have a macro-culture with many conflicting micro-cultures.  I’ve often worked with dysfunctional teams that said, we can’t do this and we can’t do that because of our leadership, our company, the infrastructure, the policies, etc.  They’re convinced that they are helpless to change their environment so they’re not even going to try.  I talk to them about the sphere of influence, about defining what is within their control and what is not.  Then we talk about how to change what is within our control.

If you want to influence the culture of your team, start by identifying the values of the team.   Put everyone in a room and ask them to write down the top five most important core beliefs of the group.  Share the results and look for common threads.  Then ask another crucial question: what norms do we have, or should we have, based on those values?  If we say that we value honesty, what standards of behavior would support that value?  Do we encourage each other to give candid feedback?  Do we speak up in meetings when we disagree with each other?  Do we say what we’re really thinking at times when it matters?  Should we create some new rules that better support the value of honesty?  Or perhaps we just need to formalize what we’re already doing?

As simple as this exercise is, it has tremendous power to help a team begin to recognize, understand and influence its own culture.  And I believe the answer is, yes, a team can create its own culture.

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