Working together for success

Many think of culture as a singular phenomenon that varies only across geographical barriers. However, we acknowledge that culture exists on six distinct levels, and that taking these levels into account can help individuals adjust to different cultural surroundings as they encounter them at work, at home and abroad. The six levels of culture are: national/societal, identity group, organizational, functional, team, and individual. Here we will be discussing the team level of culture.

A few years ago, we were asked by a large client company to consult with its software development team made up of eight individuals who worked in the company’s Milwaukee headquarters. Morale was low, and the team had lost three members and gained one replacement only three weeks earlier. The company’s leadership regarded the team as high potential but relatively ineffective. Our mission was to help this team attain higher levels of performance and rebuild its internal credibility.

The team’s small size and common location made it easy to observe the team members at work, specifically how they interacted with each other and what they expected of each other. Very soon, it became apparent that the hurdles the group was running into were related to gaps on the team level of culture.

The team was organized around a dominant inner circle of three members. One was the formal team leader, the director of software development. The other two in the inner circle had the same formal status as the other team members, but clearly benefitted from the patronage of the leader. They were the team leader’s “go-to people” and together formed a sort of insider group, which we can refer to as the “first tier.”

Out of the remaining five members, three were extremely reluctant to talk about their experiences and revealed their dissatisfaction with the inner circle. This caused each of them a relatively high degree of stress and inner conflict. They made up the “second tier.”

The “third tier” was composed of the final two members. One was the newcomer who, due to not being attached to the team yet, was able to provide interesting observations of his new team’s dynamics. The remaining member was disengaged from the team, feeling very much marginalized and not far from requesting reassignment to another project.

While none of the team members would describe themselves as being part of these groupings, this constellation revealed the structural backdrop of the team’s performance dilemma.

This structural backdrop could be described in terms of relative insider/outsider status. Insider status, in this sense, means the ability to set and determine the cultural norms of a given group. It is based on the idea that whenever individuals come together, they actively create culture, but do so mostly subconsciously and on the basis of their experiences, expectations and beliefs about themselves and others, as well as their shared context. The insiders are the ones who create, embed and transmit culture in a team by making it clear what is expected, reinforced and rewarded within.

When first-tier, or insider, team members react either enthusiastically or indifferently to behaviors or ideas, they subtly communicate their expectations, and reinforce and reward the norm. People in other tiers feel pressure to follow along with the norm, or lack the will to challenge it.

When team cultures are not working for the individuals within the team, and for the organization as a whole, it is time to analyze the dynamics of the group and talk about their cultural preferences and how they can create gaps. This way, team members can negotiate a shared understanding and come up with new norms that work for all team members. They can also escape the tier structure to come up with a system that allows for more common participation.

With this understanding in mind, we deployed the Cultural Orientations Indicator (COI) to identify the cultural preferences prevalent among the software development team members. After the members of the team took their COI assessments, we discovered the first-tier team members had several very strong preferences, which they were using to set the team’s culture. These were deductive and systemic thinking, low-context and instrumental communication, and a future-time orientation. The first-tier team members’ expression of these preferences included holding many theoretical discussions and making abstract analyses of their systems. This translated into an overwhelming amount of documents and materials and very long meetings that often left at least some of the second- and third-tier team members confused. They were unable to visualize ideas or act on plans, and none of them felt engaged by the communication process.

We took the information gleaned from the software development team’s COI reports and conducted a workshop to help them identify specific actions and determine more effective team practices. As a result, the first-tier team members, especially the director of software development, style switched toward more inductive and linear thinking styles, expressive communication, and more present-time-oriented perspectives. This set in motion a process whereby the team learned over the next six months to shape its culture together in a way that ultimately, over the course of 12 months, led to more productivity and higher morale. The company’s leadership took notice and dubbed the software developers a high-performing team.

This example of team transformation illustrates that focusing on the team level of culture is an important way to maximize a group’s potential by mutually creating a group culture that works for everyone involved.

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