7 mins

Looking to influence your team culture? Try this framework.

As managers, we think and talk a lot about culture. The ability to build a positive team culture is part of our own growth and development. But what exactly is “culture”?

The simplest way I’ve heard culture described is, “People like us do things like this.”

All groups of people – large and small, permanent and temporary – have specific cultures. Culture can have objective traits (like language, food, sport, and art) as well as subjective traits that are less obvious (like behaviors, values, and beliefs). Every group has norms that are taught and perpetuated through the words and actions of its members – and that’s culture.

What is a good culture?

Cultures are not generically good or bad: they’re simply different.

For example, I’m from a small town in Missouri where a key cultural value is politeness. I now live in New York where a key cultural value is directness. Objectively, neither politeness nor directness is a bad thing! But within these two distinct regional cultures, one quality of being has a higher social value than the other and this guides how I behave in each group.

At lunch with a friend in New York, I may confidently say, “You have a massive piece of spinach in your teeth.” At lunch with a friend in Missouri, I might instead suggest we visit the restroom before leaving the restaurant to give the person the opportunity to see and remove the spinach on their own.

While there are some rituals and behaviors that have been researched to foster more productive, inclusive, innovative, and collaborative team cultures, our companies and our individual teams don’t have a “good” culture any more than Missouri has a “good” culture.

If I don’t have a “good” culture, what do I have?

Your culture consists of the objective and subjective traits that are observable and that are generally agreed upon by members of the group.

You may have a curated and nameable culture already. While leading teams at Etsy, my main focus was on architecting a symbiotic environment where the individuals on the team supported one another and encouraged one another’s growth. I did this through strategic hiring and the design of hyper-intentional systems for collaboration and learning.

My focus on the group (how I spoke about it, the frequency at which I spoke about it, the processes I put in place) influenced the members of the teams to develop a heightened attention to and care for the collective as well. Some of the nameable traits for our group at that time were:

  • A bias towards preserving team dynamics, which manifested as being extremely nice to one another; and
  • What I can best describe as fear of missing out (FOMO). Whether we were talking about doing something difficult and challenging, like a complex project, or something silly and absurd, like a themed team event, everyone wanted to be included. Not being able to participate as part of the group was something that was mourned.
    Ultimately, our culture was one of working hard, being nice, and having fun.

Without intentional creation, an assumed culture exists by default. Each member of your team, including you, brings assumptions about what the team culture is or should be, based on previous experiences and observed behaviors of other members of the group. Then, everyone unconsciously assumes those cultural norms, silently influencing one another along the way and creating the culture you have now.

I worked on a team where gossip (talking about people not present) was a strong part of the culture. If you “got it” you participated in gossip about the people who didn’t “get it.” This wasn’t intentional – leadership hadn’t planned for gossip to be one of the hallmarks of the team. It was instead an unintentional side effect of a change initiative: leadership wanted to encourage people to report the local problems and resistance they were experiencing so that global change could happen more effectively. Over time, the act of gossiping became habitualized and solidified as a cultural norm – one that wasn’t about driving change as originally intended, but instead was a ritual of inclusion and a way to express commitment to the team mission.

A framework for cultural change and development

A framework I’ll offer that has been helpful for me while building culture on teams in both engineering and non-engineering contexts has three steps:

1.  Identify what your team culture is. You can do this from the space of observation or co-create it with your team. You cannot name what you wish your team culture to be in broad strokes i.e., “We try to start meetings on time” or “We like to learn”. Instead, it should be accurate, such as “We consistently start meetings 3-5 minutes late” or “We don’t have any team rituals devoted to learning.” Throughout this process you may find that, in some arenas, your team culture isn't sunshine and rainbows. That’s okay!

2. Identify your cultural vision. It can take time and attention to shift, but culture is flexible – this is your chance to design something new. Your cultural vision is deeply personal and it is very tied to you as the team leader. It should be co-created with other members of the team, as culture is a manifestation of all the individuals who make it up, but it can’t be in disagreement with who you are as an individual or your priorities, otherwise, it will never stick.

Also, it’s your responsibility to ensure the team culture is one that feels safe and healthy for everyone. For instance, jokes at one another’s expense aren’t acceptable and your job is to make those standards visible.

Identify the direction you want to push your team. Maybe it’s being a team that can confidently say they put each other first. Maybe it’s being the team that has the most fun while working the hardest. Perhaps, it’s a team that believes failure is not only necessary, but required, expected, and worth celebrating. Or, you can build a team spirit that prizes directness, telling each other when they have spinach in their teeth.

Your team can’t be everything. Be willing to let some areas remain just as they are. Maybe your team is content to consistently start meetings a little late! Prioritize only one or a few key cultural values that you want to hold on to.

Finally, name the delta between what your team culture is (step 1) and what you want it to be (step 2).

3. Hold the vision. From this minute forward, you are the creator and caretaker of your team’s cultural vision. To create change in a culture, you must shrink the delta between what your team culture is and what you want it to become through your words and, far more importantly, with your actions. And the two must be in sync.

If you say that you are committed to upholding a blameless culture but find yourself asking pointed questions or suggesting someone should have known better when something goes wrong – it’s those small forces that tell the team what the “real” culture is, no matter what it is that you’ve said.

Changing your culture is about who you are and how you communicate in the next minute. And in the next meeting. And in the next email or Slack message. Each of those moments is an opportunity to communicate and reiterate the cultural value(s) of your team, both internally and externally.

To impact team culture you can also initiate strategic changes to your team rituals and process. For instance, I loved the kind and group-oriented culture we built together on my teams at Etsy; however, I noticed that we could sometimes be nice to a fault, not always challenging one another’s ideas quite enough. To shift the culture to one of even greater innovation, I might have designed a system of intentional debate, having individuals take turns trying to actively disprove one another’s theories. Designing a process where robust critique was an expected and ever-present part of the ideation process and assigning people the specific job of opposition could have safely nudged our culture to one of ever-more inspired and collaborative problem-solving.

Final thoughts

Creating a great team culture is simple, but it’s not easy. It takes a willingness to look objectively at what your culture is now – even when it’s not pretty – and to design a healthy, meaningful, and authentic cultural vision. Once that’s achieved, take the next step and be the person who lives that culture every single day.