Change is a hot topic right now. As the saying goes, it’s a constant.

To keep up with fast-moving times, some of the most valuable skills a team can currently cultivate are resilience, adaptability and responsiveness. 

This can be done through both the experience and the result of developing their own team culture.

Continuous improvement is vital to stay relevant. Teams need to view how they work together as an ongoing experiment, constantly improving alignment, cohesion and communication and iterating and evolving their ways of working by shifting their habits and behaviours. 

When this is done well it not only positively impacts their performance, it also helps to build the team’s capacity and stamina for change, developing the muscle and mindset to deal with it effectively.

This doesn’t, however, mean the journey to building a better team culture will be a smooth process. Anyone who wants to help their team move forward, continue to learn and make an impact will need to be prepared for some of the challenging dynamics that naturally occur during a process of change.

Here are a few thoughts on what might happen when you start on the journey of team culture development.

Pushback is feedback

It would be great if team culture change were a smooth process, but it’s more likely that we’ll experience some friction on the path to progress. That’s the nature of doing something new.

Often this friction takes the form of pushback from your team. Your first reaction towards this might be frustration or disappointment but note that the occurrence of pushback is not always fully negative. While it can sometimes indicate a poorly managed change process, even if you’ve done all you can to communicate and include everyone, this tension will provide you with information. It could even be evidence that you’re moving in the right direction.

Change brings uncertainty and the present situation, however unproductive, is certain and familiar. Your team may consciously or unconsciously try to protect the status quo because this is where they feel more control. Even if you all agree the future direction will be better, those first initial steps away from the predictable day-to-day can be challenging, especially when your team is busy and the required effort feels like yet another thing to do. This may be particularly true for a team that hasn’t previously spent any focused time on team culture. It is a completely new and unfamiliar experience.

Alternatively, your team could be asking a lot of questions. This might feel messy, but it demonstrates that your team is engaging. It could be an indication to slow down and have more conversations. More questions are an opportunity to involve your team in shaping the next steps.

It can feel like it gets worse before it gets better

Similarly to pushback, starting a proactive change process to improve your team culture can feel like kicking up dust. It can be a catalyst for surfacing conflicts, thoughts and opinions that were simmering away – the suppressed frustrations, the muffled grumbles or the challenging dynamics that your team may have been working through with gritted teeth.

Bringing all of these out into the open may make it seem like things are getting worse before they get better. Suddenly, these problems are much more visible when everything “seemed ok” before. But they were always there, just well hidden. Leaving them unaddressed is not healthy nor sustainable as they could be impacting engagement, productivity and morale. Furthermore, they could emerge later in the form of blow-ups or breakdowns. While a change process may fast-track this, it will be held within a container enabling you to work through, discuss and deal with it proactively, and lessen the impact.

Another reason it can feel like it gets worse before it gets better is that your team has previously been unaware of how they could work together more effectively. Your team could be accepting unproductive or ineffective ways of working as “just the way it is”, simply because they haven’t allocated time to explore what “good” looks like. They are working by default, rather than by design. When you shine a light on these challenges and discuss better collaboration, there may be a period where your team may feel more frustrated with their existing ways of working before they can start improving them. 

Are you dealing with features or bugs?

Team culture transformation also involves identifying which elements are within and outside your control as a team. Sometimes you’ll need to distinguish between a temporary issue that could be fixed and challenges that you’ll need to find a new way to navigate – in other words, differentiating between features or bugs.

Bugs are problems that shouldn’t be there and you need to work to remove them. This could be an inefficient process slowing down the team, a communication breakdown or a conflict between team members. This requires problem-solving and the goal is to eliminate it.

Features are characteristics of your work. If a common complaint keeps coming up in your team, assess whether it is truly within your control to change. If it isn’t, at least within the short term, it’s part of the context and environment within which you work. A productive discussion will focus on how to adjust towards this as a team, and this may include reframing the problem and designing new methods for your work.

For example, I worked with an innovation team within a larger institution that struggled with the slow pace of another department they interacted with. This regularly came up in conversations and brought the team down. We discussed how a part of their work was to find new ways to communicate with this other department so that they could engage and inspire them, and bring them up to speed with the new work they produced.

Change doesn’t have to be too far outside your comfort zone

There’s a phrase that says “Growth happens outside of your comfort zone” and I agree with that for the most part. But the idea that a change has to be big and scary can often trip teams up.

Whilst there will always be an element of discomfort in doing something new, the new behaviour itself doesn’t need to be super-challenging to make a difference. Just the act of doing something easy that you weren’t doing before is a change. 

For example, taking five minutes to ask a check-in question at the start of a meeting, or sending a one-line message in Slack of something you learned that week isn’t difficult in practice but the shift to remember to do it and fit it into your routine can be.

When teams feel that the action itself has to be significant, they either are reluctant to start something because it feels too easy to make a difference, or they start with something too big that will be unsustainable and cause burnout too quickly (e.g. immediately overhauling all of their meetings, or switching to a new platform for all of their communication).

This is the foundation of Tiny Habits from BJ Fogg, who advocates that the way to build up a new habit is to lower the barrier by making the first step as easy as possible, and then gradually building momentum.

Change doesn’t have to feel like a big, sudden transformation for it to matter. By coaching your team to take consistent, small steps you’re helping them practice a mindset of continuous improvement and build their stamina for change. 

Small change sticks, but it requires patience

When operating in a work environment where everything feels urgent, engaging in proactive change requires patience, discipline and focus. The actions and behaviours involved require us to slow down and pause. This includes:

  • Regular reflection 
  • Asking more questions 
  • Thinking strategically
  • Creativity
  • Planning more collaborative meetings 

In the moment, it can be hard to justify these activities, but when they are carried out intentionally and consistently they will have an impact over time. The challenge is often that building long-term sustainable change doesn’t always feel exciting, and you may not see immediate results. So it’s important to track and celebrate progress, make a strong case and create quick wins where possible so your team can stay committed. When they do see the results it builds motivation to keep going in this direction.

Making shift happen

Your team’s collective vision for change needs to be more compelling than its current state. When paired with small steps towards this vision, you have the recipe for continuous improvement. 

Some other things to consider when you start your team culture journey:

1. Meet your team where they are

You may have a clear and ambitious idea of how you’d like your team to develop and can see the potential. There may even be a sprinkling of urgency on your part. Yet, there will still be a gap between where they are now and where you’d like them to be. The first thing is to be pragmatic about your team’s capacity for change, and set realistic expectations, especially if this is a new exercise for them.

Pushing too far too quickly will result in resistance, and could be setting your team up to fail. Remember that even doing something small that you weren’t doing before is still a change.

2. Don’t “bring” your team on the journey. Co-create it together.

We often hear how important it is to bring your team on a change journey, ensuring to engage and communicate with them regularly. While this is better than a fully directive approach, it still implies that you’re getting your team to do something. Instead, co-create the journey and involve your whole team in building culture. As we’ve explored, this might take some patience and the need to slow down, but the earlier you can involve your team and include their voices, the less friction you are likely to experience. 

3. Make coach-like conversations part of the change process

Change is not just the actions you take, but also the conversations you have as part of that change and how you deal with what comes up during the process. 

When you start translating your ideas into action, you will discover how feasible they are within your work. Keep communication open, invite feedback from your team and respond to questions so that you can all engage in the learning moments that arise. Ask how people are getting on, what new insights are emerging and what could be getting in the way of progress. This provides an opportunity to review actions and explore how to remove barriers.

Use your team meetings to discuss your collective experience of the change process, and support this with check-ins and reminders to normalise how continuous improvement feels. The goal is to make proactive change part of your work.

Starting a team culture journey can feel daunting. We’ve found that most teams need an entry point to make it less overwhelming and guide the conversation. Our Team Culture Diagnostic is a great way to get a snapshot of your team’s current situation, strengths and opportunity areas, and have a way to track your progress. Check it out here.

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