The kinds of teams and cultures that produce GREAT results never happen by accident. They are designed, built, nurtured, maintained and fought for ongoingly.


Human beings do not naturally and normally work together in healthy ways.  Individual people have varying levels of effectiveness as well as both good and bad work habits.  They also have different strategies for working with other people, as well as different levels of maturity and ability. Even if you create a team of great individual performers, being part of a team is an entirely different dynamic. 

Effective teams have good work processes and systems for dealing with the inevitable conflicts of personality, priority and perspective.  MOST teams are only slightly better than mildly effective.  Teams doing more physical work need less process and management.  Teams doing creative work, or the mental and collaborative work of leadership are more prone to problems and need better set ups and more attention ongoingly so they don't develop bad habits or get stuck in unproductive patterns.  

Healthy cultures have common characteristics that help define how people view work and each other.  They set standards of behavior, create a sense of community and belonging, and both make it easier to see violations that should be addressed and know how to deal with them. They think about the formal and informal signals that tell people how to behave, which ones they can and should influence and then work to do so.  You don't have to (and can't) manage every element of your culture.  You definitely want to think about try to influence key qualities like relationship to work and co-workers, what the standards are and are not, and how to initiate and maintain that environment. 

Broad categories of teams and culture work include:

  • Executive Teams
  • Ownership & Accountability Cultures
  • Growth & Development Cultures
  • Appreciation & Celebration


Your leadership team, effective or not, has a significant and disproportionate impact on the productivity of the rest of your organization.  This team is where critical decisions should be made, priorities set and communicated, and resources coordinated and assigned.  If this team is not operating at a high level of coordinated effort, if they are working in different directions or pursuing separate agendas, or if they are in direct conflict they will waste resources, miss opportunities and undermine the morale of good team members.  

Warning signs to look for include long meetings and lots of them, talking about issues repeatedly without real progress or solutions, the lack of a clear set of leadership priorities/plan, frequent confusion or arguments over what was or wasn't agreed to, and team members being overly polite.  (Healthy teams are able to express frustration or disagreement.)

My approach to effective executive teams skips trust falls and team building and focuses on pragmatic structures and tools for running meetings, resolving conflict, tracking agreements, reporting results, setting priorities and making decisions.  This helps teams be more effective together and with the teams that report to them.  At the executive level, the investment in greater effectiveness creates extraordinary returns in efficiency, cost savings, morale and retention.


 Management is tricky.  Human beings are social creatures, hardwired with a need to get along.  The act of confronting negative behavior or problems violates the rules of politeness.  It's risky.  And awkward.  Which helps explain why so many managers don't do enough of it often enough.  They're also rarely trained in how to confront effectively.  (See LEADERSHIP & MANAGEMENT  for more on confrontation and accountability.) 

The other barriers are more structural.  Responsibilities are vague.  Deadlines are non-existent or not enforced.  Multiple people are "responsible" for a work product meaning no one is.  Most cultures operate inside a "Chase, Nag, Remind" mindset where it's normal to make multiple requests in order to get certain tasks done.  There isn't a lot of clarity and confidence in the process or people.  You can't necessarily count on people to proactively ask for help, manage problems, report delays or just get things done.  When problems are handed off, they're sometimes dumped on the next person up the line, causing further delays and disruptions.  A LOT of time and resources go into work NOT getting done.

In contrast, high performing organizations have cultures and processes where responsibilities and deadlines of tasks and projects are clear.  Leaders understand how to confront people in healthy ways.  They are skilled at accountability conversations, able to impact behavior without doing damage to the person or relationship.  Ownership and accountability are the standard instead of the exception.  This DOES NOT mean harsh deadlines or yelling at people or removing all flexibility when real problems occur.  It DOES mean being straight about what is and isn't getting done, by whom and by when. It makes reporting pro-active and changes how problems are handled and handed off.  Somewhat counter-intuitively, this kind of team discipline actually increases the amount of freedom people experience and makes it infinitely easier for work to get done.    


Cultures that are focused on training and development provide themselves opportunities to inject new skills into the system and refresh old ones.  Investing in people helps make team members more valuable and makes the job more valuable to them.  Training impacts productivity but also retention and morale.  People who are learning are not trapped or powerless.  Training makes them people with new skills and options, new ways to impact their world...and so they do.

Less obviously, focusing on growth makes it easier to deal with failures and problems. Mistakes can be acknowledged and dealt with more directly.  Managers have a bigger opening to provide coaching on problems with both performance and personality.  Regular feedback and annual performance reviews can be a mutual conversation about learning goals as well as a plan for how improvement will happen and what kind of support the manager or organization will provide--all of which helps accelerate individual and team progress.

It's important to remember that formal training is only one tool.  The basis of a growth and development culture is the context, a focus on growing in your own abilities and promoting the growth and development of your team members.  There are many ways to provide good opportunities from outside experts to in-house training led by your own team members, vendors and partners, or even a simple lending library.  Most important is to pay attention to the growth and development goals of your people and hold them accountable for progress.  


Because many leaders tend to be task-oriented and focused on the next problem or set of goals, celebration in many organizations centers around birthday cakes and generic cards.  This is a huge missed opportunity.  Human beings are social creatures.  One of the MOST powerful motivators is social recognition--leaders and colleagues expressing appreciation.  People have a basic need to belong and contribute.  In high performing environments, people know that their contribution is both valued and part of a meaningful objective.  (If you doubt the importance of belonging and contribution, consider for a moment the MILLIONS of unpaid hours donated annually to good causes.)  

Think about both the bigger meaning of the work your organization does AND the contributions made by individual people.  Being able to articulate both is a great start for understanding who to appreciate, what to celebrate and how.  

Beyond that, appreciation is most effective when it is genuine, frequent and specific.  (The Languages of Appreciation has incredibly useful, practical tools for appreciating  people.) Celebration can be elaborate and highly ritualized like black-tie awards ceremonies.  They can also be simple things like high fives or sales bells that are incorporated into regular routines.  The important thing is not what you do and definitely NOT how much you spend.  The important thing is to be intentional about appreciation and celebration and make sure your people feel both.

Have some questions?

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You can also learn more about how a project starts here on THE PROCESS page.