Behaviors Build Culture

2021-12-08

What is a 'team culture'? And why do some teams have a 'good' one while others have a 'bad' , even when they're in the same company!? What is it that make it so you can take most of the same people, stick them on a new team, and not get the same team culture at the end!? How do we define that 'je ne se qua' that is the secret sauce for a good team culture?

A Team's culture gets defined by somewhat abstract things, like whether the members trust each other. Maybe we mentioned that their retrospectives are psychologically safe. Very often these are not really behaviors of the team, so much as their atmosphere, or some hard to describe ether that exists among the team members. But what are these things based in? You cannot get them by just stating that they are there. Too many team have failed for that to be the case. So if you cannot get them just by wanting them, there must be something more tangible that these facets are based on.

If it is tangible, it must be something that the team members are or are doing. Consider the kinds of things a team with 'psychologically safe' retrospectives is doing? No, not just the succeeding part, but what they are doing in the retrospectives. Naturally we expect to see the members talking with one another. We would hope to see them listening also. But what kind of choices are they making? Are they all making the same choices? Or is it possible that they differ person to person?

For a team to function, there must be give and take. That platitude is well known. But taking it seriously, it means that each member must take actions different than the norm to help the team flourish. One must speak when they'd rather not. Another must hold their tongue. All must learn to listen deeply. Each must bear concern for themselves, as well as for their comrades. To put it shortly, they must change their behavior. And they need a shared goal to coordinate each of their changes.

But changing one's behavior for a single retrospective, will not make the team effective in perpetuity. Eating less for a single meal is not enough to achieve one's weight loss goals. Instead a consistent effort is needed. The team members must consistently reign in their behaviors towards the shared goal. Sort of like walking, a single step will excite the parents. And even those first few waddles will be met with excitement. But running will need enough practice for the new behaviors to become second nature.

Now a curious thing happens after a circumstance is repeated enough times. Find an open cookie box on enough trips through the kitchen and you might find yourself craving a cookie when you come in to do the dishes. We call this habits. A repeated behavior we take on certain cues. The scary thing is that these habits can be born unintentionally. Some matters become routine, and we no longer question them. Even such simple things are how we think of the weather today.

Something else happens when we repeat a behavior often enough for it to become a habit. Others begin to expect it from us. This can be both good and bad. A repeated greeting might be a pleasant start to someone's day. But a knee-jerk reaction to new ideas might make a retrospective an unpleasant prospect. Our habits, and repeated behaviors are translated into the future by others. And we do it too, to be sure. We expect probable outcomes. And what we expect, we prepare for.

The things like Trust for instance are the result of repeated behaviors over time. If someone has a history of delivering what they say they will, I am more likely to trust them with the next project. If someone only asks for help when they really need it, I am more likely to jump with they call. Where as someone who is spotting on their commitments, is less likely to have my confidence. I'm less willing to risk my time or my projects when my projected outcomes for that person are not certain. And something similar happens for psychological safety. I am more willing to share my concerns with someone who has shown a gentleness when I share my failures. But I will clam-up when I know I am talking to someone who's knee-jerk reaction is to panic when I have to share bad news. If I can predict a calm conversation , it is easier for me to choose to share something that makes me uncomfortable.

And that word is key there: 'choose'. Not all behaviors are automatic, habitual or reactionary. Humans are gifted to be able to choose. I can choose to test whether someone is worthy of my trust. I can choose whether or not to share my concerns. I might be sweating bullets the whole time, but I can still choose. And in this ability lies our ability to change a culture.

Culture depends on the anticipated future which influences the actions of a team. Things like Psychological safety are the result of tangible , consistent behaviors in the face of uncertainty. Behaviors that can be changed. Our behaviors are a mix of habitual and intentional ones. If we want a different culture, one that is safer, more trusting, more willing to experiment, then we can choose. We cannot choose to be that new culture in an instant. But we can choose to alter our behaviors to align with the values we profess. We can choose to alter our behaviors to help create a safe, and trustworthy environment around us. We can use our influence to , for our part, create the culture we are seeking.

But it cannot be just us. One man alone cannot create a culture. His interactions with many may set a tone. But if no one joins him, then his influence does not make the culture. We need concerted efforts, and a common goal to coordinate them. Once you know the culture you are trying to build, you can change your behavior. And you can do more than that! Once you know where you are going, you can make a map. You can sign-post the trail. And you can start marching. You don't need to be in charge to help build a better culture. You already have all the tools you need. Your choice, and your voice. If you have a destination in mind, share it with others. And then truly listen. They might want to get to the same place. Or they might have an even better destination.

With a destination in hand, figure out the steps. What kind of anticipations will make for that kind of culture? What behaviors, applied over time, make for that anticipation? What circumstances should those behaviors be applied in? What would that look like? Sign-post the trail for others. Every time you learn a tweak you needed to make, leave a trail marker.

If you want a different, better, brighter culture, you can get there. You have all you need to get started. But you need to decide where you want to go. You need to think about what actions make up that cultural destination. And then you begin to adjust you. Then as you learn, share what you have learned. Share the behaviors which are the building blocks of the culture you are trying to build.