How to Build Team Culture One Test at a Time

We all recognize that building team culture is important   We know a strong team culture can have a huge positive impact on team effectiveness, employee engagement, and overall productivity.  The question is, where does it come from?  How do we build it?

To me, the short answer is that culture is shaped most powerfully by what happens when things go wrong.  I happened to see this first-hand some years ago when I watched a team on the verge of collapse do something that amazed me.  More importantly, their actions cemented their team culture even in the face of failure.  It’s something we can all learn from.

Building Team Culture One Step at a Time

A Little Friendly Competition

It was a simple foot race, but what I witnessed in the final minutes taught me a life-lesson about leadership and culture.

I think it was the 1990 edition of the Sound to Narrows race.  This 12 kilometer / 7.6 mile run has been held annually in Tacoma, Washington, since 1972.  Each year race organizers invite local military teams to participate as a way of encouraging esprit de corps and increasing visibility in the community.

The Army unit I was in had a number of pretty good runners, so we put together a “super squad” of our best, and prepared for the big day.

The unit neighboring ours was the Second Ranger Battalion, home to some of the most elite Infantrymen on the planet.  We got word that they were fielding a few teams too.  We were looking forward to a chance to test ourselves against these super-Soldiers.

The Meat-Grinder

The Sound to Narrows race course is a tough one.  In the first mile of the race, you dropped like a stone down a mile-long hill from Vassault Park to the water line of Puget Sound.  From there the course winds over torturous short hills through the woods of Point Defiance Park.  By the time you emerge several hard miles later, your legs feel like they have been run through the meat tenderizer, then the shredder.

But it’s not over.  The finish line is back near the start, up the feared mile-long arrow-straight ascent of Vassault hill.  If you weren’t hurting at the bottom, you definitely are by the top.

In the super-squad competition you can start with up to 10 runners, but must finish with at least eight.  Team members have to run in close formation two-abreast.

And They’re Off

On race day, at the sound of the starting gun, it was a mad frenzy.  We bombed down the hill at an unrealistically fast pace that never let up even as we charged into the rolling punishment of Point Defiance Park.  Already, several of the Ranger squads were up the road ahead of us.

By the third mile, we lost one of the ten runners we started with – the pace was just too fast.  Around mile five we lost the second.   We were down to eight.  We were going to have to suffer through to the end with the people we had.

We flew out of the forest at mile six, flushed and breathing hard as we came to the base of the long, straight climb to the finish.  Finally we could see the other teams stretched out in front of us.  We were in the hunt, but running fourth.  The three teams ahead of us were all from the Ranger Battalion.


Up ahead, we could see that one of those teams was starting to struggle – a Ranger was falling off the pace.  Several teammates were circling back to encourage him, shout at him, even push him to help him up the hill.  He was in agony.

Their team’s pace slowed as they tried to adapt.  We felt for the guy, but were glad to be able to edge past them into third.  We were all hurting.

The finish line still seemed impossibly far away, and never seemed to get any closer – it was like running up the down escalator – a StairMaster that never ended.

A moment later, I heard more shouts behind me.  I looked back, hoping the Ranger was OK, worried that I would see the team to the side of the road, having to abandon the race.

That’s not what I saw at all.  Incredibly, the Rangers were coming on.

Finding a Way

When their teammate could run no more, they had stopped just long enough to pick him up, place him on their shoulders, and start running again.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Seven guys running; one stretched out on their shoulders.  These guys are relentless!

Slowly the finish line came into view.  We managed to stay ahead of them, coming across the line in third, and collapsing in a heap at the finish.

We were pleased with our strong showing, but I was even more amazed by what we had just witnessed, and what it told us about the fortitude of the Rangers as they crossed the line in fourth.

Those guys never quit.  It must be in their DNA.  Or is it?

A Time of Testing

Actually, I think it’s in their culture and in their leadership.  And what we had just seen was a glimpse of all of that in action.  I think there are two quick takeaways from this story, and a third that’s much more important, but maybe less obvious.

You are only as fast as your slowest runner.  We all recognize this “weakest link” idea, but sometimes forget to act on its implications.  If you want to move faster, get the best possible people on your team, and focus your efforts on helping your teammates get better.  Train, prepare, practice.  Challenge each other to improve.

Get the best people you can on your team, then challenge each other to improve. Click To Tweet

It’s over when you decide it’s over.  Not before.  It doesn’t matter what race you are running.  Maybe the approach you are using isn’t working.  Maybe you need to switch to plan B, C, or D.  But it’s only over when you decide to stop trying.

What’s that saying about getting back up one more time than you fall down?

It’s only over when you decide that it’s over. Click To Tweet

True “team culture” grows in adversity.  The heart of the Ranger “never quit” attitude comes down to team culture, and culture is influenced by the actions of the leader when times get tough.

You can talk about building team culture by working together as teams, developing team rituals, going out socially, maybe attending a team-building event.  Those sorts of things are good to help bond you together.   It’s a start.  When things are going according to plan.

But it’s all a big waste of effort if, when the true tests come, it’s back to “every man for himself.”

If the response to adversity is to sacrifice team “values” for a short term expedient, you will do more in that moment to undo your culture than all the “team building events” and motivational posters could ever fabricate.

A team's culture and identity are defined by what they do under pressure. Click To Tweet

The leader of the Rangers knew that.  They likely all did.  To quit the race would be to invalidate what they said they stood for, who they claimed to be.  They saw that at that specific moment, it was more important than ever to carry on in any way possible and complete what they had started.

The result: they affirmed their identity through their actions, and believe even more strongly that they are who they say they are.

Protecting the Family

In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek gives another great example of this.  Bob Chapman was president of a South Carolina-based manufacturing company.  He liked to think of his employees as part of his family, and wanted them to take care of each other as if they were.  That was his idea of their culture, though on the job people often didn’t seem to act that way.

Following the stock market crash of 2008, finances were shaky, and Chapman was under heavy pressure to start laying people off.  When jobs are at stake, people go into the into self-preservation “survival-of-the-fittest mode.”  Everyone is looking over their shoulder.  Trust erodes.  Culture suffers.

As Chapman thought about what to do, he kept coming back to his family ideal.  Even if times get tough, you don’t fire family; you can’t.  That’s not what families do.  You work together and find another way.

So that’s what Chapman did.

He decided to implement a mandatory furlough program instead.  Everyone had to take four weeks without pay in the coming year.  Along with some other measures, it would be enough to save the company, and no one would lose their job.

As he told his employees when announcing the plan, “It’s better that we all suffer a little so that none of us has to suffer a lot.”

The impact was immediate and powerful.  With the threat of layoffs gone, people came together to help each other through.  Some volunteered to work even less so that others in need would get enough hours to make ends meet.

Now, loyalty to the company is extremely high, turn-over rates are incredibly low.  People like working there.  It feels like family.

Building Team Culture – The Takeaway

It’s not the times when everything goes right that have the most impact.  What people remember are what happens when things are not going right.

Did you quit?  Did your leaders bail or start pointing fingers?  Did you turn a blind eye to quality in order to get the shipment out on time?

Or did you face facts, stick to your values, support each other and find a way through?

When a team finds a way to overcome adversity together, it makes them stronger, and the experience adds to their collective sense of culture and identity.

By hoisting their comrade on their shoulders and running forward, the Rangers forged another iron link in their self-identity.  It was on display for all to see.  When Chapman told his company they would all weather the storm together, he was building his family.

We all know things will go wrong, plans will fall apart, the unexpected will happen.  As leaders, we’ll be upset, frustrated, angry.  That’s natural.

But if we’re smart, we’ll also remember that in that difficulty, whether large or small, lies a crucial opportunity to build our team culture.  Our next actions will make the difference.

What do you want your culture to be?  How do you want your teammates to act?  What values do you say your team lives by?  Let that be what guides your next decisions.

Because even if your team fails in the short term, you are building a culture that can’t help but succeed in the long run.

That Ranger squad did not win the race that day back in 1990.  Not even close.  Nonetheless, I think it’s quite possible that it was the best-led team out there.

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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