How do you shape a successful Team Culture?

Four people laughing and smiling around a laptop in an officeThis is the fifth in a series of short articles I am writing to assist leaders create and sustain high performing teams. Whether you are a CEO or a Project Team Leader, creating and maintaining a great team is a constant challenge. These articles are designed to help. Today we focus on shaping a successful team culture.

How do you shape a successful Team Culture?

Every successful team I’ve ever worked with have had clear team “rules” or “norms” that spelt out what behaviours are acceptable and unacceptable within the team.

Academic researchers like Ruth Wageman, Richard Hackman and their colleagues highlight that one of the critical factors in high performance teams is that they have a sound structure, which includes clarity about the work the team is doing, the right number of people to do the work, and clear ground rules for how members are expected to work together.

But simply having ground rules or “Codes of Conduct” for how members are expected to work together is not in itself a recipe for success. Just about every team I know has developed a team charter of some sort or other, which mostly end up as wallpaper or hidden in a drawer until the next team “strategy” day.

In my experience, to shape a successful team culture you need at least the following five things:

  1. Rules that focus on the external environment (which includes key stakeholders)
  2. Rules that focus on the internal interactions
  3. An agreed process for holding people to account
  4. Courageous leadership
  5. A periodic “Walking the Talk” review process


  1. Behaviours focused on the External Environment

When I invite teams to develop guidelines for how they wish to behave, few teams mention behaviours that address the relationship between the team and its performance context. They focus on the internal dynamics and behaviours they see as important to maintaining harmony. Things like being respectful, listening, being punctual and so on. They don’t talk about behaviours that relate to organisational expectations of the team or how they will manage the external environment.

In Leading Teams – Setting the Stage for Great Performances (2002), Richard Hackman suggests that while internal behaviours such as being respectful and  punctual are important, they are “secondary” to norms that focus on the environment and organisational context within which the team operates.

For Hackman, the ground rules that are the “primary enablers of team effectiveness” are outward looking and focus on the relationship of the team and its performance context.

When working with teams I will often challenge them to consider the following questions:

  • What will you do to be proactive about scanning your environment for things that may impact on your work and performance as a team?
  • What are the small number of things that the organisation would say that members of this team must do or must never do?

To illustrate, some of the responses to these questions that have gone into various team charters I have worked on include:

  • We will review and discuss our results monthly at team meetings where we will identify and discuss issues and come up with appropriate action to get things back on track when needed.
  • We will schedule a one-day strategy session every six months to allow time to discuss our Purpose and performance and agree on action to address substantial issues
  • We will seek feedback from our key stakeholders on our performance and their needs every six months and review the feedback at our six-monthly strategy session
  • We will always comply with health and safety requirements
  • We will never consume alcohol during work hours


  1. Behaviours focused on internal interactions

Clarifying desired (and not desired) behaviours within a team enhances collaboration and improves communication. While Hackman suggests such behaviours are “secondary”, he acknowledges that teams function better when there are clear guidelines on how people expect each other to work.

I will often ask teams: What are the behaviours you need from each other to do your best work and deliver desired outcomes?

By way of illustration, some of the behaviours that are often identified by teams include things like:

  • We will do what we say we are going to do.
  • We will arrive at meetings on time.
  • We will respond to calls and emails within a reasonable period.
  • We will actively share relevant information and seek input from others when it makes sense to do so.
  • We will listen respectfully to what we each have to say and not interrupt or close each other down when someone is speaking or expressing a different view
  • When we are not clear about something that has been said or requested, we will respectfully ask questions to gain a better understanding.
  • We will have the hard conversations and will respectfully challenge each other’s views to fully discuss issues and make the best decisions.
  • When we have issues with each other, we will attempt to talk the issue through privately before escalating to more senior management.
  • We will not gossip or talk disrespectfully about each other between ourselves or to others.
  • Once we have had the debate and decide as a team, we will each support that decision as one team.
  • We will recognise good work and celebrate achievements.

I find that by specifying desired and expected behaviours, teams increase the prospect of their desired culture becoming real. But spelling out desired behaviours is never enough.


  1. Agreeing on a process for holding people to account when breaches occur

Bringing a constructive team culture to life relies on more than just specifying desired behaviours. All the teams I work with manage to come up with their desired behaviours, but when I ask them how they will address breaches, I am often greeted with stone cold silence.

What do you think happens when teams fail to come up with a process for holding people to account and people breach the charter? Nothing. That is, the behaviour is tolerated and effectively endorsed. The charter becomes nothing more than a meaningless piece of paper.

The teams I have worked with who have the most success in bringing their charters to life talk about how they will address scenarios where people breach the desired behaviour. They make it clear how they will address inappropriate behaviour and what the consequences will be. They agree that they will periodically review how the team is performing against the desired behaviours and take steps to walk the talk. These discussions reinforce the intent and reiterate that the charter is not just an exercise for the day, but rather a meaningful framework designed to guide and shape the way the team will work together.


  1. Courageous leadership

To be successful teams need to be courageous. Team leaders and team members need to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Team leaders need to lead by holding team members to account when they don’t walk the talk on desired behaviours. This demands courage – it’s way easier to put your head down and focus on the next urgent issue than have the hard conversation. Similarly, if you are a team member, there will be times you will need to hold your team leader to account as they fail to model the desired behaviour.

The best teams accept there is a shared responsibility to hold each other accountable. They give each other permission to do this – for the good of the team and organisation.  The best leaders I work with know they’re not perfect and they expressly invite their team to respectfully pull them into line when they (the leader) lose the plot. It requires maturity and courage, but they do it.


  1. Periodic “Walking the Talk” Review

The final thing leaders and their teams need to do to create a successful team culture is periodically review their performance against their desired behaviours. It’s useful to ask: “Are we walking the talk?” I like to get teams to rate themselves on a scale of 1-5 and consciously reflect on what they need to do more, less or differently behaviourally to do their best work. Doing this every six months helps to keep the desired behaviours in focus and facilitates open discussion when things are not as they should be.

In addition to honestly evaluating their performance and identifying actions to get themselves to where they want to be, these reviews provide the team with the opportunity to amend the ground rules themselves.  External and internal environments change, and it is useful to keep the team’s charter relevant and meaningful so that they reflect these changes. New people have different perspectives. Changes in market conditions may impact on required behaviour. Taking the time to formally modify and reinforce expected behaviours will help the team to stay on track to deliver great outcomes.


The bottom line

Great teams consciously shape their team culture. They develop norms that focus on both internal behaviours and the environmental context in which they work. In addition to spelling out expectations, they focus on how they will hold themselves accountable to walk the talk. Doing this in practice takes courage, from both the team leader and every member of the team. Having periodic reviews of how the team is performing, which consider both key performance indicators and desired behaviours (the how) helps to ensure a team charter stays relevant and continues to drive the desired team culture.

Enjoy your week.


Mark Rosenberg