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Defining the Culture of Your Team

This article was originally published by Brien Dunphy on LinkedIn.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This often-quoted phrase has been extensively discussed by leadership experts since Peter Drucker uttered these words almost 20 years ago. Drucker was not discounting the importance of strategy. In fact, he was emphasizing the importance of culture - the personality of an organization, and demonstrating that while strategy is important, the culture is what will fuel or derail success.

A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, and values they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next. The underlined phrases are mission critical for leaders to keep front of mind. Culture starts at the top, and defining the culture of your team is both your opportunity and responsibility as the leader of the team.

In a recent post, we discussed “The Great Reshuffle” and the opportunity to help your new team members assimilate and accelerate success. Every time there is a new person on your team or a person removed from the team, it becomes a new team. This is a natural opportunity to define the team’s culture, values, ways of working, and rules of engagement.

Your current team has a culture (one you likely may not have paid much attention to). Your new team WILL have a culture; and it will either be the same culture which has existed for years, both unexamined and unchallenged, or it will be the culture you intentionally decide that it should be. Use this opportunity to clear the land so you can build the building you want: a strong organizational culture.

Note: When creating and defining team cultures, leaders are best served in framing their ideals as “this is what we aspire to be” as opposed to “this is what we are.” This kind of articulation advances the optimistic ideal while acknowledging the reality of human imperfection. Such positioning allows for the inevitable (yet aspirational) missing of the mark, while maintaining the ultimate goal and destination for your team and organization.

Consider the following principles when you are defining the culture of your team:

Set Clear Expectations

Define & communicate what success looks like from a financial, relational, and communication aspect. The most frequent point of tension in the workplace is misalignment. Often, that misalignment is between a leader and their team. Set clear expectations and a clear method of feedback and coaching. Articulate expectations not only around tangible goals but also on norms and attitude. Be clear about roles and what success in those roles looks like.

Define Best Practices & Ways of Working

Create ground rules around respect (of time, thoughts, ideas), appreciation, and communication. Determine ways of working that fuel company objectives, align with goals and foster the culture you intend to create and then model those behaviors. These are the ways of working you believe will best help the overall team succeed. Codify what you believe optimal professional interactions look like. Model quality tone and depth of follow up and accountability. Establish what you believe is a healthy cadence for celebrating team success and acknowledging individual accomplishments.

Model Communication

Show your team transparency in communication by being intentionally transparent yourself. Knowing “why” matters. No one wants to be left in the dark, wondering what is being said behind closed doors. Enculturate a daily debriefing conversation where team members share observations, identify and problem-solve challenges. This will foster alignment and ensure you create an environment where transparency is a value and integral part of company culture. One leader I worked with was brave and courageous enough to hold a weekly meeting they called, “News and Rumors.” Nothing was off limits in this meeting. Supervisors addressed the unspoken fears and questions of the team members. As a result, the culture matured to where team members began to exercise the courage to hold one another accountable in that meeting as well (done civilly and authentically, this becomes an incredibly unifying practice).

Prioritize Relationships

Instill the value and importance of relationships in your team, emphasizing that relationships should be collaborative, not adversarial. Lead with integrity and care for the people in your trust. Celebrate success, however small. People like to feel validated and appreciated. Relationships in the workplace matter. Leaders serve both themselves and their teams by prioritizing, the building, and tending to relationships with those they lead. This can be as simple as following up on the personal interests or events they have shared; a hobby, activity, child’s sporting event, favorite author, etc. Not to be forgotten or excluded is demonstrating some personal investment in their professional growth (suggesting, or even paying for, additional learning/certification) or simply taking the time to learn what their professional “end game” is. These simple investments pay great dividends in relationships and culture.

The importance of company culture cannot be understated. It is always developing and evolving and defines the environment in which people work - a better culture leads to more engaged team members and is key to successful outcomes. The wrong organizational culture can lead to organizational demise. Culture provides the energy and creativity needed to build quality and dynamic infrastructure. Quality and dynamic infrastructure prepares you to adeptly field new and mounting complexities.

What culture are you creating in order to build the infrastructure needed to sustain new complexities?


  • LinkedIn
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