How to Build Team Culture From the Ground Up

Every team will develop its own distinctive culture.  A good team culture can be positive, supporting, and contribute to greater productivity, employee engagement, and satisfaction.  A bad one can have the opposite effect.

The thing is, you don’t have to leave it to chance to see which way your team culture will go.  If you want to build team culture that will move you in a positive direction, here are over a dozen ways to help you build yours from the ground up.

Build Team Culture

Articulate Team Culture

Define it.  It all starts with knowing what you want it to look like.  Ask yourself – given what your team does, how do you want your teammates to interact as they go about getting it done?  What does good communication look like?  What kinds of things should someone who is a good teammate be doing?

Get some input.  It may help to bring others in on this exercise.  Think about what the overall behaviors that are most important to the success of your team, and write them down.

You may end up with a long list – that’s a good start.  The thing to do now is to pare it down, consolidate it, and distill it into just a few key tenets, maybe five to seven of them.  They will serve as the cornerstone to your team culture.

Refine it.  It’s best if they are easy to remember, only a few words long, and clearly call for a certain kind of behavior.  As part of your discussion, you may even want to write out what each of the terms means to the team so that everyone is clear.  Examples might look like this:

  • Quality First – “We make sure we do it right before we do it a lot.”
  • Always Learning – “We seek the lessons from today’s actions so tomorrow’s are even better; we approach the world as a student.
  • Find the Fun – “We work hard, but find ways to make it a positive experience for everybody.”

Publicize it.  Once you have your list, commit it to writing so that everyone agrees on it.  This is the framework for behavior for your team going forward.  It might be a good idea to print it out and post it in clear view.  Maybe one of your teammates with some design talent can make it look good.

Inculcate Team Culture

Once you know what you want your culture to look like, it’s time to start putting it into effect.  There are lots of ways to do this.  Here are several ideas.

See it – Praise it.  Start by simply reinforcing the behaviors you are looking for every time you see them.  Preferably, do this publicly.  Use the mantra When you see it, praise it to remind yourself what you need to be doing.

People respond to positive reinforcement; they tend to do more of something if it makes them feel good or has an impact that they like.  Be specific about the behavior you are trying to reinforce –

“Sally, I really appreciate that you were willing to question our thinking on this new product; you helped us save some time and money by forcing us to take a closer look at the process…”

Make it part of periodic feedback.  If your organization uses some kind of performance review, include your cultural values in the process.  Do this at the beginning, so everyone knows that they are important at the outset.  The point is not to use them as a weapon to write someone up, but to encourage the right behaviors so the whole team is more effective.

Train the new person.  There’s no better time to be talking about values and expectations than when someone new joins the team.  This is when they will be the most receptive.

Talk about your team’s cultural values openly, and then pair that person with one of your best people as a sponsor.  The values will rub off on the new person more powerfully in the doing and showing, not just the saying.

Values rub off more in the doing than in the saying. Click To Tweet

Make it a team thing.  You don’t have to be doing this by yourself; find ways to get the rest of the team involved.

At the weekly meeting, ask people to point out when one of their teammates has demonstrated the right kinds of actions – make it a “weekly highlights” topic.

Ask the key influencers on your team to help identify and reinforce the right kinds of actions, just as you are.

When you delegate a task, emphasize the importance of sticking to team values and ask to hear back about people who set a good example.

Use symbols and tokens.  There is power in an image or a name.  Just keep it simple and don’t go overboard.  As you are developing your team identity, why not come up with a name (not your name!)  and start to refer to your team by it.

Maybe everyone gets a coffee mug with the name and logo as a welcome gift for joining the team.  Some people like T-shirts, but it could be anything – a spatula, paperweight, or wrench – something that symbolizes what you are about and how your culture works.

Live Team Culture

Your team’s culture is part of your working environment.  Here are some ways to build it into your team’s daily experience.

Keep bringing it up.  Any time the group is together and an opportunity comes up, refer to the model you are trying to follow and talk about how you are applying it to the current situation.

In a meeting, reinforcing Quality:

“I appreciate that we could cut some costs by using this cheaper fabric, but if we really believe in “Quality to the Customer,” than using the best available material is the option we need to go with.”

Spotlight the support.  One of the things I like when watching football is to see the instant replay, where the commentator shows the key block that opened the hole in the defense so the runner could score.

The runner gets the statistic and camera time, but it was the blocker that made it possible for him to score.  If you want to emphasize the importance of teamwork, focus on who your blockers are.

When someone scores a win, praise them.  But also try to identify people who played key supporting roles that made it possible, and be sure to shine a favorable spotlight on them, too.

Want to build a team? Spotlight the support. Click To Tweet

Develop team rituals.  Identity comes from feeling a part of a team that has its own way of doing things.  Developing team rituals are a great way to help establish this.  But it goes beyond window dressing such as “we wear Hawaiian shirts on Fridays.” Make the rituals an integral part of team productivity.

Maybe it’s a 10 minute stand-up huddle on Tuesday mornings to keep everyone up to date.  It could be the practice of opening meetings by having each teammate praise someone else who contributed meaningfully to the team that week. Maybe you do break out the Hawaiian shirts – but only on days that the team scores a big win.

Here are 35 more ideas for team rituals to strengthen your team’s culture.

Make your team rituals integral to productivity Click To Tweet

Go do something together.  People bond as a team when they do something meaningful together.  It could be a fun event as a reward for reaching a team goal – maybe Putt-putt golf and pizza. Maybe you institute a monthly social hour.   Or it could be an act of service, like supporting Habitat for Humanity.

Be ready for the test.  Expect that there will come a time when you will have to make a decision between doing what’s expedient, and what is right according to your team values.  This is the test.  There is no more pivotal moment that this when you are trying to build your team culture.

Tell people what you decide, and tell them why you are deciding that way so they see it in the context of the culture you are building.

How to Build Team Culture – The Takeaway

Every team will develop its own distinctive culture over time.  What many leaders miss is the opportunity to intentionally build team culture in a positive way that strengthens the team.

It doesn’t happen overnight, but with consistent attention and effort you can make it happen.

Start by defining what that culture should look like.  Then talk openly and often about it whenever you get a chance.  And finally, reinforce it in your daily words and actions.

With some patience and persistence,  you will steadily build a team culture that will begin to resemble the one that you imagined.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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