Team Culture – Europe is getting back into motion – Now is the time to realign and create the Culture the team can thrive in.

Europe is slowly opening up after the COVID-19 lockdown. After weeks of isolation people are finally allowed to go out for a walk, factories are re-starting their production machines and office employees will soon be starting back.  

Each team member has had their own difficult situations to overcome; some have had to share home office with kids who have been doing home-schooling, others who usually love being active are feeling claustrophobic at not being able to exert themselves in the gym or on a long outdoor bike ride. Maybe over the last few weeks work has not always been foremost on their minds.  Now is the ideal time to “re-align” and create or revise your team culture. Many of us have been obliged recently to contemplate what matters to us most. What are our values, whether at home or at work.

Culture is often overlooked by leaders because it can seem too abstract. Actually, it’s quite concrete once we sit down and discuss it with our team. A strong team culture creates cohesion, pride, team spirit, accountability, open communication, inclusion, productivity and therefore a high-performing team. Creating a team culture is the way to bring that cohesion and team spirit back to the forefront if it is has slipped a bit during lockdown.

What are we referring to when we say culture? Culture is a set of norms accepted and encouraged by the group; acceptable ways of behaving, communicating and getting things done, for example:

  1. What is the acceptable way that our group gives feedback to one another or?
  2. How do we move forward with a risky decision?  Do we plan and wait until we are more “certain” or jump and “fail fast”.
  3. How do we disagree? Is it acceptable to disagree openly with another teammate in a group meeting and encourage constructive conflict or is that rather frowned upon?
  4. What is a productive way for us as a team to make decisions?
  5. How do we problem-solve when we have little time on our hands, etc.

There are different methods of creating your team culture. What is essential is that it be created by the team, not a few individuals or leaders. Below is a 4-step activity you can start with, there are obviously other methods. This exercise can be done face-to-face or virtually. If you plan to do it virtually then consider planning 4 short sessions rather than one long session. If you do the below 4-step activity you need to invest time in the discussion part of the activity (step 2). Give every team member the opportunity to express themselves and allow for possible introverts to have their say about how they also envision the team functioning well. The important message here is that it is the team that creates the culture it believes in. You’ll need to discuss common values and therefore have every member speak up. This could be difficult on a virtual culturally diverse team, so prepare well for that moderation hurdle.

Step 1: Plot a Culture Map

Each team member plots themselves on a Culture Map along 4 scales related to behaviour or communication. Each scale shows  each team member’s preference (see sample culture map below). The four scales can be varied, but those that create strong discussions often are:

  1. How you build trust and manage conflict
  2. Problem Solving techniques
  3. Decision making – do you feel the need to be involved or not
  4. How you deal with uncertainty / risk taking,

Once everyone is plotted it is more obvious to see similarities and differences between team members. Remember, differences can be complementary and can enhance creativity and problem solving solutions, therefore don’t play them down.

Team Culture Map

Step two: This is the most essential part of the exercise. Do not skip it. This is the time for discussion. Let’s zoom in on scale 1 above and use it as an example:

Team Communication Preferences

Ask each person to discuss their preferences according to what they plotted. In the above example, which looks at communication and how we give feedback or disagree, Elena might come across to Emmanuel as being domineering or aggressive. She may not realise it. You could probably discuss here what the benefits are of having somebody always play devil’s advocate and on the other hand discuss how important it might be with clients to have colleagues who steer away from conflict, such as Emmanuel. Consider how team behaviour might differ according to what Elena’s role is. If she is the leader of the team it might come across differently compared to if she is not. You might discuss what conflict actually means to the individuals. For some it could mean saying, “I think your plan is really inefficient and our client will hate it.” This could come across as quite aggressive for some Asian cultures. For others, conflict could be as simple as a gentle disagreement. Another topic to discuss here is when (if ever) do the individuals feel comfortable disagreeing; do they need a relationship of trust before being able to disagree?

This discussion is the heart of the workshop. Each person openly speaks about what their preference is.   Each scale needs to be discussed and once you complete the discussion of each scale move to step 3. If you do this as a virtual workshop you may prefer to do one complete scale from step 1 to step 4 during each virtual session.

Step three: Discuss a strategy to be more efficient (if necessary) thereby creating your ideal team culture.  For the above scale, your discussion could start with:

  1. How can we come up with good ideas and exchanges in the future and get everyone involved, including those who don’t like conflict?
  2. How do we create more open/transparent discussions within the team?
  3. How can we make sure everyone on the team is listened to, both the risk-takers and the risk-averse even though some of them have stated they don’t like to enter conflict?
  4. How can this knowledge help us run more productive meetings?

Step four: Once the points in step 3 are agreed to by all members, write your team charter. These are the “behaviour and norms” you will follow as a team according to what was discussed in step 3. It is important to write them somewhere where the whole team has access to them so you can occasionally go back to them. They can be used for example before starting a meeting or after a few months when some points seem to have been forgotten.

The Team Charter should be “Our Culture”: Not yours, not mine, but ours. It is a culture in which each team member thinks: “I feel comfortable working here because my values are appreciated. I feel I can be myself and therefore it brings out the best of me.”

Inclusion: It can be as simple as Listening

A few years ago, the company I was working for sent me off to Brazil to lead a small team of 4 Brazilian women, all with different work and life experiences. The most experienced was the manager who was about 35 and the least experienced was an assistant who was about 24 years old.

After a few months with the team, I thought it was time to analyse how things were moving forward. Had I built trust with my team? Had they built trust with one another? Was our communication clear? I asked myself all these questions, and more,  and I was fairly content with my answers and gave myself a pat on the back. Boy was I wrong! About a week later, one of my team members, (let’s call her Lia), basically told me how incompetent I was at dealing with Brazilians.  Let me tell you what happened.

 Lia and I headed to Sao Paolo for an important meeting. I had 90 minutes to convince a university professor to allow about 100 of his students to do a paid internship with our company.   Seems simple right? Well, I thought it was going to be simple. I’d had several similar meetings before, in different countries, and until then I had been successful with my request. I knew the subject matter of the meeting very well, and I thought I knew what the outcome was going to be.  Consequently, I entered the meeting on “Autopilot”. Mistake #1. I didn’t pick up on little signals and body language that the professor was sharing throughout the discussion to show his disinterest. Therefore, I wasn’t flexible enough to change my mode of communication or my persuasion techniques.

At the end of the 90 minutes, Lia and I walked out of the meeting, our heads down, unsuccessful. The professor was not going to allow his students to join our project. Lia and I stepped into the taxi that was taking us back to the airport. I was speechless and in shock at how badly the meeting had just gone. After a few minutes, I turned to Lia and asked, “What just happened in there?” She looked at me and suddenly burst into tears. She was crying and yelling through her sobs, “Tania, you haven’t been listening to me!!!” I’ve been telling you for months that you cannot do things here your way, you have to do it the Brazilian way!” “What? What do you mean you’ve been telling me for months?” “Well, to start with, about one month ago in our team meeting, I said A, B and C. Three weeks ago, I said, X,Y and Z and last week I repeated A, B and C, but you just ignore what I say!”

Ooooooh…What a disaster. Lia had been giving me feedback about how to be more efficient with my Brazilian counterparts, but I hadn’t “heard” her feedback.  I hadn’t heard it because I didn’t know how to adapt my listening techniques to her communication methods. For Lia, hierarchy was important and I was her Manager. Therefore, she found it difficult to speak to me directly, she didn’t want to seem disrespectful,  which means her feedback was very indirect, so indirect that I didn’t understand it. It just went straight over my head.

 In Lia’s eyes, the fact that I didn’t modify my communication according to her suggestions, meant that I was not interested in her opinion or in her ideas, therefore she believed I didn’t trust her. This was all mistaken of course, but that was her perspective.  What’s more, I realised that I was probably about to lose the respect and trust from the rest of my team unless I made some changes quickly.

 I hadn’t understood Lia because I had only been listening with my ears and because I was convinced that my method of getting things done was the right one.  Lia was putting far more than just words into the message she was delivering. In fact, the words she used were of little significance. Most of the significance came from her body language and the subtle hints she was giving me while smiling.  Did I think that because she smiled while giving me the hints that they were not so important or not serious? For me a smile typically means agreement. Did I not go out to lunch with her often enough and share in personal chatter enough? Maybe that would have created a level of trust with her that could have helped her open up to me differently, or in a way that I would have understood. If I had done more personal sharing, maybe I would have learnt more about her communication techniques and learnt what was feedback and what wasn’t.

 When we work in culturally diverse teams, each one of us has a very different mindset and a different way of  seeing the world and therefore of behaving and communicating. What is respectful behaviour in one culture can seem very disrespectful in another. If we want to be inclusive and bring out the best of each one of our colleagues, irrespective of their background, we need to learn what the perspective of each one of our teammates is.  We cannot assume that just because Corporate Culture says, “This is the way we do things around here,” that each individual is going to be comfortable following that path. Inclusion means taking the time, making time, to get to know who you’re working with even though you think that lunch time chit chat or coffee machine chit chat takes you away from reaching your deadlines.

Take a look at the Chinese character below, Ting, (which means to listen). We can learn a lot about listening from our Chinese colleagues. “Ting”, is made up of 4 smaller characters, each one a component of what we should use to listen; our ears, our eyes, undivided attention and an open heart.