How to Improve Team Culture: The 3 Steps to Take

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive" by Patrick Lencioni. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Want to know how to improve team culture? How can you use company values in team building?

Patrick Lencioni is the author of many books on leadership, including The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Ideal Team Player. In The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, he explains how to improve team culture in a series of actionable steps.

Read on to learn how to improve team culture in three steps, according to Lencioni.

How to Improve Team Culture

In The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, Patrick Lencioni begins his book with a parable about two rival CEOs, Rich O’Connor and Vince Green, to illustrate the importance of organizational health and how to improve team culture.

While both men are the founders of successful companies, Rich’s Company, Telegraph, consistently outperforms Vince’s company, Greenwich. Throughout the parable, Rich struggles to maintain Telegraph’s organizational health after hiring HR executive Jamie Bender, whose inability to adapt to Telegraph’s company culture causes considerable damage to the leadership team.

In this article, we’ll describe the lessons from Lencioni’s book about how to improve team culture, breaking them down into three actionable steps.

Do Business Fables Work?

Since the late 90s, fables have been a popular format for management books—many authors prefer to use fiction to illustrate their lessons and to emotionally connect with readers. Notable examples include Who Moved My Cheese and another of Lencioni’s books, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

While this format works for some readers, critics argue that business parables often fail to properly advance their arguments. In some cases, the stories can feel flat and constructed, as though they only exist to prove the author’s point. Weak storytelling can create a worst-of-both-worlds situation, where authors fail to tell compelling stories due to their focus on teachable lessons. This weak storytelling in turn dilutes the work’s takeaways. 

While many readers respond positively to the parables in Lencioni’s books, some have criticized the roundabout path Lencioni takes before offering his advice. Depending on your perspective, the parable, which comprises the first two thirds of the book, is either a useful teaching tool or a distraction from the book’s most important messages.

#1: Establishing a Leadership Team

In this section, we’ll discuss establishing a healthy leadership team to improve team culture. We’ll then move on to discuss concrete strategies for measuring and increasing the health of your team. 

Lencioni recommends establishing a healthy team because doing so cuts down on office politics, which can lead to burnout and drive away talented employees. As Lencioni argues, healthy leadership teams depend on a high level of trust between all team members. 

(Shortform note: While most authors agree on the importance of establishing a healthy leadership team, each author has a different image of what a healthy team looks like. For instance, while Lencioni’s vision focuses on a lack of office politics and high levels of trust, other experts note that successful teams are focused on a greater purpose that their roles serve. These criteria aren’t mutually exclusive—it may be worth aiming for a lack of politics and a greater purpose when building your team.)

Strategies for Assessing and Increasing Leadership Team Health

Lencioni’s first strategy for assessing leadership team health is to take note of how your team behaves during meetings. Teams that trust each other are unafraid to disagree on important issues and don’t take disagreements personally. This dynamic creates productive meetings characterized by energetic debate. However, your team should still be able to recognize when they’ve stepped on each others’ toes and should go out of their way to apologize. 

If your team isn’t debating in a vigorous and respectful way, you can encourage participation by calling upon each member of the team to speak up individually and stepping in to make sure that apologies are given when necessary. Fostering honest debate will help to improve team culture and build trust by giving your team the confidence that their peers won’t lie to spare their feelings. 

(Shortform note: Experts argue that in addition to calling on individuals to speak up, you should take a variety of approaches to encourage debate. One strategy is to assign one team member at each meeting to act as a devil’s advocate. This team member’s job for the rest of the meeting is to try to come up with reasonable objections to each major point brought up by a colleague. By assigning someone to provide dissenting opinions, you not only give that person permission to freely debate, you make it a job responsibility.)

Have the Right Arguments

In addition to stating the importance of debate in general, experts also stress the importance of debating the right subjects.

Arguments about strategy are often productive and rarely personal. Strategic argument demonstrates that your team is invested in the company’s future. Arguments about values are often similarly productive. It’s a good sign when employees maintain interest in shaping the company’s culture, even if they hold differing viewpoints.

However, arguments about specific individuals can be a sign that something is amiss. Gossip about individuals reflects the level of politics within the workplace. If workplace arguments often center around specific individuals in management, it could be a sign that a cult of personality has formed. At any rate, paying close attention to the subject of arguments at your organization can be an invaluable source of information.

The second strategy Lencioni recommends for measuring and increasing team health is to examine your team’s relationships outside of the meeting room. To improve the team’s culture, your team should get to know each other on a personal level because close relationships cut down on counterproductive gossip and politics. By contrast, team members that don’t know or care about their coworkers are much more likely to fall into toxic behaviors.

More Strategies for Team-Building

Experts agree that team-building helps cut down on office politics. However, unlike Lencioni, some authors caution that personal friendships between team members can lead to favoritism and other forms of politics. You can avoid this by focusing on coaching and mentoring instead of personal bonding. 

So how can you encourage your team to get to know each other? Lencioni offers more specific advice on this in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Among other suggestions, he recommends creating safe, structured environments for offering feedback. Once your employees are confident they won’t face repercussions for being honest, they can begin to open up. Furthermore, Lencioni recommends setting group goals for the entire team. Team rewards for productivity encourage cooperation. By contrast, focusing on individual performance can encourage pettiness and politics.

#2: Defining Organizational Values

Moving forward, to improve team culture, your next objective is to clearly define the core values of your organization. Lencioni argues that by defining these values, you create a powerful toolkit that can be used to make decisions across your organization

For example, in Lencioni’s parable, Telegraph faced a key decision about whether to move their headquarters into an upscale complex or a modest but conveniently located building. To make this decision, Rich and his team reflected on Telegraph’s identity as a down-to-earth company that puts clients first. With their values in mind, the decision was a no-brainer.

Don’t Choose Values for Marketing Reasons

Values can help you make important decisions, but only if you choose them for the right reasons. For instance, some observers argue that values fail when they’re too focused on image, noting that many companies choose values they think will attract customers. Suppose that in the parable, in an effort to entice clients, Rich had chosen progressiveness as one of Telegraph’s core values. The team likely would have moved into the fancier, more modern building, despite the fact that it was less convenient for Telegraph and their clients.

To avoid this pitfall, keep values discussions internal, at least at this stage of the process. To improve team culture and morale, values should come from within the company and should be tailored to internal needs. By contrast, if you notice that your values are primarily being used to attract customers, you may need to reassess your process.

#3: Circulating the Values at Your Organization

Once your team is ready to circulate its values, there are a few key concepts to keep in mind. 

First, before circulating values, your team needs to get on the same page about what, when, and to whom you will communicate. In his discussion of how to improve team culture, Lencioni stresses that taking time to nail down these specifics leads to clear and consistent communication, which cuts down on costly miscommunication and builds trust. By contrast, allowing information to travel by word of mouth causes tension and confusion, much like a game of telephone.

(Shortform note: The consistent internal communication Lencioni recommends can help prevent toxic environments from forming in your organization because it ensures employees know what to expect from you. The opposite is also true—when managers communicate confusingly or with a negative attitude, it creates a tense, fearful environment.)

As an example, imagine that a coworker from another department tells you about a mass email from management about a rumored wave of layoffs. Naturally, you panic and immediately go to your manager to ask if your job is safe. Your manager shows you the email, which explains that the layoffs are only a rumor, and apologizes that you didn’t receive it in the first place. While you’d likely feel some relief, you’d also probably feel exhausted, and less inclined to trust your manager.

Communication Goes Both Ways

While Lencioni offers many suggestions for effectively communicating with your staff, he neglects the second part of the process, which is effectively receiving communication from employees. Effectively receiving communication from employees builds trust and allows you to access important feedback that could improve your value circulation process.

To make sure you’re hearing everything your employees have to say, create a variety of channels for employees to communicate with you. You should set up designated times to meet with your employees and hear their feedback. Make sure managers at all levels also go out of their way to get feedback from employees.

Additionally, consider creating anonymous channels for employees to offer feedback to ensure that employees aren’t afraid to offer criticism. Be sure to offer electronic options to protect anonymity—dropping a note into a suggestion box isn’t really anonymous if everyone can see you doing it.

Finally, practice active listening and reward employees who offer frequent, useful suggestions. Creating an environment that rewards thoughtful feedback will ensure that useful ideas always reach your ears.

Once your team is in sync, Lencioni recommends that you introduce your new hires to your core values. This ensures that new hires transition into their roles successfully and helps prevent the time-consuming process of correcting unwanted behaviors later on. 

(Shortform note: Ensuring that new hires adopt core values may have even more benefits than Lencioni suggests. Studies state that new hires who feel aligned with their employer’s values are more likely to stay with the company. To help find new hires whose values align with yours, list desired values and interests in your job descriptions, not just technical qualifications.)

For example, suppose you’re hired at a new company. Wanting to put your best foot forward, you put extra time into your first few presentations, and as a result, they go a little long. At your first performance review, your manager explains that because the company really values conciseness, your presentations have actually been working against you. You’d probably wish management had mentioned that a lot earlier.

Compared to the other steps, assessing the circulation of core values is simple. If your messaging is working, any member of your organization should be able to name the organization’s values and explain how those values impact their individual role. If not, you have more work to do.

(Shortform note: As a more specific strategy for asking your employees about core values, some authors recommend company-wide surveys. Using surveys can give you access to more hard data than simply asking employees about values. These data can be used to identify specific areas for improvement. For instance, if your values are failing to reach a particular department within your organization, this will likely be reflected in that department’s survey responses.)

How to Improve Team Culture: The 3 Steps to Take

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive summary:

  • Why it takes more than just financials to build a successful business
  • A fable demonstrating the importance of “organizational health”
  • The four disciplines required for you to increase organizational health

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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