Team Culture on Your Project Team

The Team Culture on your project affects the team’s productivity, work attitudes and overall commitment to the project. It is affected by you as the project manager as well as the larger organizational culture. The key question is how does a leader affect the culture in positive ways and extinguish any negative aspects?   Project Teams Main Pageteam culture

Most of us in the workforce would agree that there is something we call “Team Culture” although we might not agree on what that means or whether a culture can be changed. But most of us would agree that the culture of a team is a major determinant of its potential for success. Managing a team takes dedication and skill, and there are lots of documented techniques and best practices that can be applied to doing it well. But if your Team Culture is working against you, you ignore it at your own peril.

What is Team Culture?

The concept of Team Culture has no accepted definition, it isn’t quantifiable, and it can’t be “found” anywhere in an organization. But it is nevertheless a powerful force in an organization. Briefly, an organization’s culture is the sum of its members’ attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors. It is expressed by members as “how things are.” That shared culture runs deep and it can be a key influence on what an organization can achieve. If your Team Culture is great, then you should expend a fair amount of energy sustaining it. If it is poor or even destructive, you must make turning it around one of your top priorities. If you’re successful in improving a poor culture, it could even have a multiplier effect, reducing or eliminating other issues along the way.
The impact that culture can have on a team is most clear at the ends of the culture spectrum, and perhaps you’ve seen it (I have…more on that in a moment). A company or team with poor morale, a sense of hopelessness, poor leadership, lack of vision, low commitment, or similar collective attitudes has very little chance of achieving success. On the other hand, a company or team with an eager, positive, “we can do it” attitude tend to be creative, nimble, cooperative and highly successful. Companies like Southwest Airlines, Apple, Google, and even small startups seem to always have that special advantage over their competition and they work very, very hard to feed it.

Can You Change  Team Culture?

Yes, culture can change, but the process is slow and is accomplished through influence, never by decree. “The beatings will continue until morale improves!” is not the answer. But, I’ve too often seen well-intentioned leaders believe that just implementing a few cosmetic changes can turn the tide. If it is your intention (or possibly your task) to turn around your organization’s culture so that it doesn’t hold you back, you have a real challenge on your hands. But here are some ideas for you to think about and that may help you develop your strategy.

Factors Influencing Team Culture

First, you must try to understand the factors that are driving the negative Team Culture. Here are some common factors:

  • poor support for people (benefits, work hours, work environment, obstructive policies, etc.)
  • poor leadership (mismanagement, lack of vision, unclear direction, etc.)
  • intra-organizational competition (people/units working against each other to further their own goals)
  • poor communication (infrequent, incomplete, incorrect or confusing).

You can gain insight into the Team Culture through face-to-face meetings, trusted contacts in the organization, surveys, or whatever works for you. These help you get a sense of the Team Culture and what is driving it. The more tangible those drivers are, the easier it will be for you to define solutions. Make sure you are identifying the root causes and not just the symptoms.
Then, define your Team Culture vision and communicate it often. Identify who the key stakeholders are for your new vision, get them on board, and then use them to reinforce your message and intent. Begin to implement meaningful changes—changes that are significant and that target sources of discontent. You may not have the power to change everything contributing to a negative Team Culture. But the fact that you are trying establishes the right perception and should begin to influence employees’ attitudes.

You must be sincere in your efforts and use some of these proven tools of long-term persuasion:

  • enlistment of key personnel to your cause
  • appropriate actions
  • effective communications
  • believing in your vision
  • reinforcing and celebrating “right behaviors.”

You must be patient. Changing an organization’s culture can be like turning the Titanic.

Team Culture Example

Here’s a case in point. In a fine military unit early in my career, the newly installed Commander clearly communicated his only goal: his own promotion. To achieve his vision, he needed a sparkling facility, immaculate uniforms, operational performance, and an appearance of good discipline and order. He set about accomplishing all that by disregarding all major tenets of leadership, dictating self-serving work requirements and policies, refusing to delegate authority, and using his people as tools to accomplish his singular objective. In a word, our culture tanked practically overnight. But surprisingly, from this disastrous situation there emerged a number of outstanding second-tier leaders who sympathized with the rest of us “subjects of the realm.” And THEY were able to motivate the members of this unit to accomplish all the boss’s goals; not for him, but for us. Incredibly, the unit’s culture began to shift toward collaboration, shared vision, camaraderie and mutual support  and it was all forged by these capable junior leaders. Our vision? Be so successful that the boss gets promoted out of the unit in record time. In six months, we’d done it. And, significantly, only the negative layer of our new culture left with him. The great sense of common purpose and optimism created by our junior leaders persisted, making this fighter squadron eventually one of the best I ever served in.

Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on