Owning Your Team’s Culture

Is your team’s culture deliberate or default?

There are three upfront questions in my 360-degree feedback interview protocol for a leader’s direct reports.  They’re wildly open-ended.  (1) What’s it like working on the leader’s team?  (2) What leads to a person being successful?  (3) What might get in the way?  The responses invariably describe the relevant features of the team’s distinct culture.

CultureOrganizational culture has been and continues to be deeply explored as an academic topic.  To be sure, it encompasses history, values and norms.  For senior teams, my definition is a simple variation on Deal & Kennedy’s “how things really get done around here.”  Which behaviors earn a pat on the back, a spank or a passing look?  This is what the 360 questions are designed to elicit.

If the most frequent critique of middle managers is that they micromanage, creating a culture of low autonomy and low trust, the opposite can be said of executive leaders.  That is, they demonstrate a prevalent tendency to under-manage.  In my experience, most of the cultural rubs I observe in a senior team can be measured in the distance between the CEO and her direct reports.  The shorter the distance, the more deliberate the culture; the greater the distance, the more likely that the culture is by default.

How It Might Look:

There are numerous permutations of default cultures for senior leadership teams.  Here are a few underperformers.

The Protection Game.  I suspect that whoever said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions had in mind the Protection Game.  I know a handful of senior leaders who filter what they share with their direct report team members to avoid stressing them.  While the motivation is kind, the impact is negative.  First, the leader sends the unintended message that he’s not interested in his direct reports’ input.  Second, news travels fast through organizations, anyway.  Team members hear about events and get stuck surmising why their own boss excluded them.

Then there is the mirror-image version where the team “protects” the leader from important information.  “Bob has enough on his mind,” they assure me.  You will easily recognize this well-intentioned conspiracy of silence.  At your next team meeting if, when you ask a question, members peer at each other before replying, it’s the Protection Game.  Scary, no?

The Cat in the Hat Syndrome.  Recall Dr. Seuss’ charming bully:

“I know some new tricks,” said the Cat in the Hat. “A lot of good tricks. I will show them to you. Your mother will not mind at all if I do.”

This is where one or two team members throw their weight around in the absence of adult supervision (i.e., you).  Cats in the Hat tend to induce a tiered leadership team where some have greater de facto authority than others.  Also, this may lead to scapegoating second-tier, outsider team members, disproportionately faulting them with the team’s shortfalls.

Driving a Deliberate Team Culture:

If you defaulted into your current team culture, the good news is that you can change it.  Follow these guidelines:

 1.  Get Your Bearings.

Think long and hard about “how things really get done” on your team.  Which behaviors earn members a pat on the back, a spank or a passing look from you?  Look around and ask yourself my opening 360 questions: (1) What’s it like working on my team? What leads to a person being successful?  What might get in the way?  If you don’t know the answers, ask your HR Business Partner.  You might want to buy him a drink first or ply him with M&Ms.

 2.  Bridge the Distance.

Increase your interaction with the intact team as well as with members individually.  That means more face time and phone time.  Let email serve as reinforcement for what you’ve discussed ear-to-ear; not as the primary communication channel.   Yes, drop in on people.

 3.  Set Expectations.

Tell your team about your desired, deliberate culture in broad themes.  You’ve shared your vision for the business with them; now share your vision of team culture.  Take it further.  Engage the team in a facilitated process to generate a catalog of agreed-upon behavioral norms.  Whether it’s speaking in one voice or having each other’s back, commit these aspirational behaviors to writing.

 4.  Hold Yourself and Others Accountable 

Walk the talk.  Your direct reports will be scrutinizing you for any daylight between what you’re exhorting of them and doing yourself.  Measure the team’s progress.  Collectively revisit the behavioral norms document you created together at least quarterly.  Score it by the frequency with which you’re each seeing the behaviors exhibited.  Applaud team members for calling each other to account when they fall short.  Respectfully, that is.

Own your team’s culture the way you own the rest of its performance.  It’s on you.


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