How to Build a Strong Team Culture
Building a strong team is imperative for leaders and often a daunting undertaking. Doing it during a prolonged and life-altering event like COVID-19 might seem even more daunting. However, leaders can build strong teams in any environment when they focus on purpose, clarity and psychological safety.
Purpose is just that: Why does the team exist? What is its purpose? Further, what is the organization’s mission and how does the team contribute to the accomplishment of that mission? What are the organization’s values and are they being enacted?
Clarity is about alignment. It reflects each team member’s understanding about his/her individual role and how what he/she does in that role helps accomplish team and organizational goals. A mentor taught me to think of it in terms of ‘Five Rs’ or ‘rules, roles, relationships, responsibilities and results.’
Psychological Safety means that team members feel comfortable speaking their minds without fear of personal or professional repercussions. Dr. Amy Edmondson, Harvard professor and one of the world’s foremost experts on psychological safety, defines it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
I once served on an Army staff that exemplified the ways not to build a strong team. As members of America’s military, we all understood purpose. We knew the Army’s purpose in supporting our nation and our fellow citizens, and we implicitly understood what our team’s contributions were in accomplishing the Army’s mission.
As a staff team, we possessed great clarity about our individual roles, as well as the roles of our fellow staff members. We also knew how we needed to work together to get things done. Our Achilles’ heel was psychological safety — something generally absent when interacting with the senior leader on our staff. This person was known for ‘shooting the messenger,’ regularly and publicly ridiculing members of the staff and for dismissing many team recommendations with a wave of the hand and an exclamation of, “…OK, let me tell you how we’re gonna do it.” We clearly weren’t nearly as strong a team as we could have been.
So, what can leaders do to build strong teams by providing purpose, clarity and psychological safety? While there is no ‘cookie cutter’ answer, one can look to Bernard Bass’ four factors of transformational leadership as a guide.
Bass espoused idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration as factors that could motivate followers to do more than expected by better informing them of the organization’s goals and then compelling them to act more for the team than for themselves.
The following are brief definitions and demonstrations of how exemplifying each factor might best provide the purpose, clarity and psychological safety needed to build strong teams:
- Idealized Influence: Leaders who act as strong role models and cause others to want to emulate them. Leaders can provide purpose by acting in accordance with their personal values, as well as those of the organization. Team members can witness ‘purpose in action’ and feel more compelled to serve in the same way.
- Inspirational Motivation: Leaders who communicate high expectations and inspire others to be part of a shared vision. Leaders can provide clarity by establishing clear expectations in terms of duties and responsibilities, including how the team members will be evaluated on their achievement of those expectations as they relate to the organization’s vision.
- Intellectual Stimulation: Leaders who challenge the status quo and encourage others to do the same, even if it means challenging the leader’s own beliefs. Leaders can foster psychological safety by encouraging candid interpersonal communication and fostering an environment where team members can challenge each other and the boss in a collective effort to achieve better solutions.
- Individualized Consideration: Leaders who treat each team member in a caring and unique way, listening to and assisting them in achieving their goals. By leading with individualized consideration, leaders can help provide all three components. They can provide purpose by working with individual team members to help align their values with the organization’s and help them better understand the organization’s mission. They can provide clarity by ensuring each person understands his or her role on the team, and how that person’s individual strengths can contribute to the team’s success. Finally, they can provide psychological safety by genuinely listening to and providing consideration of each person’s contributions.
One might argue that building a strong team is the single greatest responsibility a leader has. Ensuring purpose, clarity and psychological safety is a critical step in team building, especially in these trying times.
Northouse, P. (2019). Leadership: Theory and Practice (8th Edition). SAGE Publications, Inc.