Creating a productive Team Culture

I have worked and managed at both ends of the behavioural spectrum.

As a trader in London’s financial markets and as a consultant at a UK university.

Despite the wildly differing cultures, from aggressive to academic, there was a constant ‘accommodation’.

An acceptance that everyone had something to contribute to the whole.

That extra effort expended by a manager to foster an environment where disparate characters and cultures could express themselves and contribute can only add value to the whole.

How does a Team function?

Business is relationship driven, and a team is simply a smaller version of this premise, and for Customer Success leaders and their teams, this is particularly relevant.

Networking with peers, colleagues, clients and professional organisations builds the relationships needed to succeed in a customer success context.

But merely viewing your team as a collection of individuals who need to be moulded into a cohesive unit is a fundamentally flawed approach.

One that is unlikely to succeed but also ignores the team members’ skills and talents.

But what is a Team?

Your first thought may be “a group of individuals recruited from different organisations, departments or other teams’ to meet various performance targets developed by the leadership group’.

Well, yes, factually, you are correct, but to create your ‘productive team culture’, a more nuanced approach may be needed.

Each team member brings their own cultural hinterland, which must be acknowledged (and celebrated).

For example, one team member may have been raised in a community where too much eye contact was seen as confrontational or disrespectful to people in authority.

Conversely, the same facial cue in the modern business environment generally precipitates adverse inferences about the person whose eyes are averted.

Team members who may feel constrained by their cultural traditions to speak too highly of themselves may not be rewarded with bonuses or advancement, losing opportunities to colleagues who, unconstrained by custom, feel comfortable enumerating their achievements.

For the successful CS leader, it is possible, and necessary, to understand and empathise with your team’s diverse cultural values while encouraging and demonstrating the behaviours needed to succeed professionally. 

And in doing so, promote your unique world view, and leverage it to embed it in your team’s DNA, becoming an advantage to you and your team and an asset to your client.

Salad Bowl or Melting Pot?

 A salad bowl is a metaphor for the way a multicultural group of individuals can integrate different ideas, approaches and cultures while maintaining their separate identities.

Contrast this with the melting pot, which promotes an artificial construct of diversity as a monoculture.

The various individuals are assimilated into one culture, often with the minority groups rejecting or hiding their differences and unique attributes to adopt the characteristics of the dominant (organisational) culture. 

This is not a zero-sum question where you can definitively state that the salad bowl approach will always be superior or that the melting pot is the way to go.

But by looking a little deeper into the two methodologies, you can decide whether being a ‘bowler’ rather than a ‘potter’ is the correct style for your team.

But before we look at the options, let’s spend a little time considering the negative side.

 How can a dysfunctional team culture be so effective at destroying value?

The Oxford English dictionary defines dysfunction as an abnormality or impairment in the function of a system.

In the context of organisations, this means a situation where an organisation does not operate at its expected or predicted level and therefore produces a lower quality or quantity of products or services.

The well-known proverb states that ‘a fish rots from the head’, and it is often the case that the root cause of a poorly performing team is ineffective leadership.

A leader who violates the legitimate interest of the organisation by undermining the organisation’s goals, tasks, resources, effectiveness, and motivation, through self-centred, vindictive, or ill-judged actions.

Often, this culture leads to a top-down decision-making culture where the HIPPO culture plays out. This presents as the ‘Highest Paid Person in the Office’ routinely speaking first and loudest, effectively suppressing other team members and thwarting healthy debate and challenging ideas.

Oddly enough, a sign that all is not well is when every team member, when asked “How are things?” responds with “Doing Great!”.

A properly functioning, cohesive team is trusting and confident, unafraid to speak honestly about its concerns and vulnerabilities, and confident enough to admit when things aren’t going smoothly without fear or retribution. 

Does a HIPPO led team sound like a customer success operation that will engage with customers, support and implement their onboarding and adoption strategies and meet their customer renewal targets?

No, I don’t think so either!

How do you begin to fix a dysfunctional team? Well, dealing with the root causes rather than the symptoms is always a sound strategy, but it is not within the remit of this article but is covered in the Practical CSM Academy program.

So, having identified some dysfunctional ‘red flags’, how can CS team leaders instil a more positive culture?

We’ll start with the Melting Pot.

E Pluribus Unum – the Ethos of a Melting Pot

This approach has often been criticised because it sacrifices individual characteristics in the pursuit of assimilation. However, this flexibility allows teams to convert their innate intelligence into empathy, helping to transcend the prevailing business culture and traditional hierarchies.

By surrendering ego and developing a team ethos, the progressive organisation encourages its staff to combine their respective strengths, gelling in favour of a collective wisdom which, once embedded in an organisation’s DNA, drives a company’s vision, mission, and values.

But, as a CS thought leader, possibly running several teams and projects, you may feel that It’s not enough to hire a diverse group of talented individuals. Developing and maintaining a collaborative environment that’s a rich fusion of different cultures requires ongoing attention and renewal.

This could take the form of acknowledging different holidays and festivals and organising in-house events with traditional foods or decorations.

Your aim should be to create a team culture based on shared values, which may help you connect with a broader range of customers.

In essence, as leaders, you must never underestimate the power of cultural diversity in the teams you are building, 

In his book, 21 lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari looks at how diversity impacts team culture, company success and overall performance. 

In a nutshell, Harari puts forward the argument that many of the misunderstandings and conflicts that emerge in teams between people of different cultures and ethnicities are the result of “culturalism”.

That actions and behaviours, when examined through the prism of how particular cultures behave in their “normal setting” vs what happens when those individuals or groups are copied and pasted into a new, very different setting, offers a very different story.

Now, is the Salad Bowl strategy a better style?

In the salad bowl approach, each ingredient (team member) retains its own characteristics but works well with everyone else. With the ‘whole greater than the sum of the parts’.

I have already discussed how acknowledging and accepting different cultures can build productive teams, but the salad bowl approach can also generate other benefits.

Some cultures place a premium on success, leading to what psychologists call “performance orientation”.

By creating an environment where different cultures are accepted (and celebrated), the successful CS leader can identify the traits (perhaps the need to ace whatever you’re doing) which will benefit the team and use those team members to mentor others who may have the concomitant fear of failing (or be seen to fail).

This acknowledgement of different team ‘ingredients’ with their ability to enhance the performance of colleagues who originate from different cultural backgrounds, with perhaps a strong performance orientation, can not only help some team members to no longer avoid situations that they feel they would not immediately excel in, but also accept assignments or roles with which they are unfamiliar. 

Providing experiences and lessons that could be valuable to the team and prepare them to advance to the next stage of their careers.

Over to You!

Which approach will be the best for you?

For me, I prefer the idea of the salad bowl. 

It is essential to know and appreciate the unique strengths of each team member and what they bring to the team (and your clients).

In doing so, a leader challenges themself to distinguish between different cultural mores and some of the habits and responses to which they may have given rise. 

They make us who we are.