• Christian Cunningham

On Leadership: How do you know if you have a good team culture?



The word ‘culture’ in relation to leadership, businesses and teams gets thrown around a lot and as far as I can see, is very hard to define. If you Google it, you will find pages and pages and pages of advice on business culture, references to global companies and their philosophies, as well as millions of lines of empty buzzwords.


If you try to distill all that useful (and indeed, useless) information into something you can apply to your business and teams, you may find it a little hard to process. And fair enough; getting large, diverse groups of people to row in the same direction with smiles on their faces is extremely complex.


When we look at team and broader business culture, there are a few observational markers we use to get started. So in the interests of getting a bit more useful (or useless?) information to you, here are a few ideas.


Where do we start?


We start with a simple truth, and that is you have two choices – to try to create a culture or let one form on its own.


Whether you take the time to create this culture through communicating your values, behavioural standards and expectations or just sit back and let it unfold – a team culture will form, and you may not like what you get…


Given the complexity of dealing with this many humans, if you get everything right in your communication of expectations – and I mean everything – then you are some chance of creating a successful culture. One thing you can be sure of though, a team culture without intervention creates a void, and voids are always filled, you just do not know what is going to fill it!


So, let’s say you’ve put in the time, you’ve communicated your values and behavioural expectations, how do you actually know if you have a functional team culture?


Well, here are a few observable behaviours that, if present, are a pretty good start:


Reciprocal behaviour


This is generally undervalued as a workplace culture indicator. If your team is happy to fill in for each other, share responsibilities outside their remit, celebrate each other’s success, train, and mentor each other through learning experiences – you may have a top-shelf team culture.


The alternative of course is blame, deflection and shifting of responsibility, wonderfully captured in the frequent uttering of the expression ‘that’s not my job.’ If you hear this regularly, you have a problem.


Client / Customer first thinking


While it may sound trite, if you are in a business where there are clients and / or customers (spoiler alert, that is all businesses), and your team puts them at the centre of their thinking, you may have yourself a great team culture. Going the extra mile, and frequently referring to the customer outcome as the driver for tactical decisions is music to the cultural god’s ears.


You might be surprised (or not) to know that many, many teams have a general view that their customers are merely a hindrance, and this is obviously catastrophic for the growth of any business.


No one hides anything – Ever


A fabulous marker of great business culture is a commitment to no surprises. This requires a fine balance, where very high standards of behaviour are expected, but offset against an understanding that everyone makes mistakes, and the knowledge that they are almost never fatal. The demonstrated behaviour of bringing forward mistakes, client issues or raising problems quickly, is a brilliant indicator of team culture.


If you note these behaviours – fearless truth, an acceptance of responsibility for error, and solution-based team support under pressure – you are on a winner.


If you are the last to know when a problem arises, only to be met with blame of others, excuses and vague commitments to improve, serious intervention is required.


People challenge leadership on cultural settings – but with evidence


In great business cultures, team members suggest ideas to challenge cultural settings, but the key point is they come with evidence to back up their views. If you have a team awash with rogue troublemakers constantly agitating for ‘change,’ without evidence of any thought of consequence, you have a very large problem.


The measure of a top culture is a team who bring forward well thought out, evidence-based ideas for improvement with consideration of the potential impacts and risks.


This evidence-based standard requires work, reflection, and often humility, so if you observe these practices in your teams, you are most certainly in good shape.

The bottom line


These are merely the tip of the iceberg, and there are many more markers of good and bad business culture.


It is a fascinating area of team development, and the good news is we can make enormous cultural progress in a very short time, provided we have the courage to confront it.


Happy culturing.