by Sue Weston

Culture counts: Why building strong teams requires a little TLC

May 29, 2020
IT Leadership

The 'magic' behind successful teams involves encouraging diversity of thought and defining clear rules of engagement

Hands clasped in a heart shape against a background of abstract data / collaboration / empathy
Credit: Ilyast / Violka08 / Getty Images

The move to virtual teams left some managers scrambling to create a culture of inclusion. Many managers believe that in an office environment, culture just happens. But, building successful teams takes work.

Teams that deliver exceptional results, called high-performing teams, share three qualities: They are results-oriented, collaborative, and exciting. They are location-neutral; working as well in a virtual global environment as they do in person. What distinguishes them from other teams is their culture of mutual trust and understanding. Everyone is different, raised in different families, with different values and frames of reference. While it may be comfortable to be surrounded by people like you, diverse teams are better at problem-solving than homogeneous teams.

The secret for building successful teams may amaze you in its simplicity. Effective teams have a culture of inclusion with full transparency. The secret sauce is culture. With managers who set the tone and provide clearly spelled-out rules of engagement, they deliver results.

Trust: Create a judgment-free zone

Successful teams have a shared vision, with goals to measure progress and keep the group moving in the same direction, but this dry clerical view does not inspire greatness. High functioning teams develop a bond, which connects them on a human level that lasts years after the team has dissolved.

Teams need to overcome their natural suspicion of outsiders. This paranoia feeds on unconscious biases, and left unchecked it prevents coworkers to be fully invested. Especially in a virtual environment, trust lets everyone working hardest.

Building trust begins with open, honest dialogues to expose and explore differences – sharing our past, how we grew up, the holidays we celebrate, discussing how we like to work and receive feedback. Building trust is a slow process because people fear being ridiculed or made to feel like an outsider. Think about the Wizard of Oz: Removing the curtain provided transparency and connection.

Successful teams figure out how to work together, to resolve differences of opinion and deliver results. They build trust and integrate cultural differences, which improves collaboration by:

  • Using video. 93% of communication is nonverbal, and cultural differences are reflected in gestures and mannerisms. Video conferencing exposes confusion, or excitement that would be lost in an interaction over the phone or in writing.

  • Avoiding generalizations. For example, people say Western cultures tend to be outspoken but remember that each person is different. Create an open exchange of ideas allowing each person to become an individual.

Leadership: Managers set the tone, creating team culture

Teams follow the example set by their leaders. Managers who are visible and connected, encouraging honesty and transparency, build team trust. It’s better to hear about an emerging problem than be surprised. But, in some cultures, there is a reluctance to say “no,” or admit that something can’t be done. Managers should schedule one-on-one meetings, encouraging the free exchange of ideas, both professional and personal. I introduced a program for colleagues to recognize each other and an informal buddy system to share knowledge. People want to feel connected and appreciated – a simple thank you goes a long way.  Here are some ways to build a trusting team.

  1. Solutions: Maintain constant contact and keep task-oriented, which maintains professional objectivity. Use surveys to collect feedback allowing people to remain anonymous. Acknowledge any concerns, discuss each issue, and encourage the group to find solutions.

  2. Results: Measure what matters, such as on-time delivery and accuracy. Respond to emails promptly and address potential issues immediately. This galvanizes the team, and demonstrates commitment.

  3. Ownership: Managers should hold themselves responsible for team performance. Shoulder the blame, and share the credit. Always assume mistakes are honest errors due to lack of information, a concept referred to as Hanlon’s razor. Encourage your team to own their mistakes and help them by providing context.

  4. Celebrate: Recognize accomplishments, to foster collaboration. Actively listen to what your team says, as well as what they omit.

Communication: Be mindful of language and confirm cultural relevance

The most important component of creating a culture of acceptance is the ability to communicate. Errors in translation and culture are legendary. For example, poor translation by Coors’ “Turn It Loose” campaign failed in the Spanish market because it translated to “Suffer from diarrhea.” And a Procter & Gamble diaper package showing a stork delivering a baby failed in Japan because their folklore shows babies coming from a floating peach.  So, when dealing with global teams, avoid jargon, slang, and idioms. Just think about the expression “You killed it” … and how that can be interpreted. Keep your messaging simple, clear, and direct. Also:

  • Be careful with jokes. They are easy to misread and may offend colleagues. Humor depends on social context and social taboos, which often do not translate across cultures. Laughter can provide a bond, as long as no one is offended or excluded.

  • A good rule of thumb is to recap every meeting, listing deliverables and responsibilities. Writing it down leaves nothing to the listener’s interpretation. Share status reports with timebound deliverables. This reduces hierarchical decision making, which can be a cultural stumbling block, and lets the team support one another.

Effective teams produce results. Teams who trust feel comfortable with each other and work better together. Better decision making come from teams who embrace individuality and cultivate the diversity of thought.  Leaders create cultural inclusion, and it takes time and effort.  The best teams create rituals and traditions just like families, and they are bound together no matter what happens. Creating strong teams takes a little TLC.