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The Inconvenient Truth about Your Team’s Culture

Most of us have encountered a person, team, or organizational culture that is not achieving to its fullest potential. I’m not only talking about people or teams commonly referred to as “toxic.” I’m also thinking about teams that could improve incrementally and even those teams awaiting their next big breakthrough together.

Interestingly enough, whether we’re serving on a dream team or enduring a toxic situation, we’re all probably facing some of the same inconvenient truths (or half-truths) about our team’s culture. These inconvenient truths are often manifested by an incomplete understanding of culture. And how we think about culture influences our ability to change it. This doesn’t mean it will be easy, but it does mean it’s possible.

See if any of the following narratives about culture might be holding you and your team back...

Half-truth #1: We assume culture is mostly determined by others. For example, we might assume our school’s culture is being tanked, sabotaged, or suffocated by a toxic person or inept leadership. A more complete version of the truth is that each of us is an active contributor and co-creator of our team’s culture. And when we understand its key levers, we’re more likely to help realize meaningful change together.

Half-truth #2: We view culture in largely ambiguous terms. For example, we recognize there are many components of an organization’s culture, but many of us don’t know where to start or what to expect once we've started. Culture doesn’t need to be the one-way mystery we sometimes make it out to be. Culture is far from ambiguous; there are practical handles we can grab on to that provide an opportunity to move it in a different direction.

Half-truth #3: We think we are doing almost everything we can to improve culture right now. This doesn’t mean you need to try harder because you’re probably already doing a lot. But there’s also a good chance you’re undervaluing and/or suppressing some of the voices you need most to achieve meaningful change. For example, some leaders hang their hats on having an "open-door policy" when only a few voices are truly invited into the decision-making arena. As it turns out, actually listening to and caring about others makes a monumental difference when it comes to creating culture. Perhaps this is why Google holds weekly Q&A sessions with staff.

On a related aside...

Google is more than just one of the world’s most popular search engines. Google is also widely revered for its company culture. Whether we’re talking about an environment where risk-taking, collaboration, and transparency thrive or the nap pods and ping-pong tables in many of its offices…it should come as no surprise Google has been extremely intentional in their work with culture and teams.

In 2012, they set out to learn what characteristics contributed to the perfect team. The experiment became known as Project Aristotle because of the philosopher’s belief, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Google’s research yielded several important findings, but only one was deemed most important.

After studying more than 180 teams across the entire company, Google found creating psychological safety was the most important aspect of any team; it wasn’t an individual’s personality, aptitude, or past leadership experiences. And it wasn’t the size of the team.

After learning this, I spent 45 minutes or so poking around Wikipedia and reading research articles related to psychological safety. Suffice it to say, I was blown away at the empirical evidence showing why psychological safety is so important and the results you and I can achieve when everyone on our team feels safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to question the status quo.

Some additional thoughts…

The process of changing culture definitely has some handles and key levers. So we don’t need to settle for half-truths about changing it.

Culture is shaped by the questions we ask as well as the questions that go unasked. It’s rooted in who feels safe asking the questions, who feels safe responding to them, and who determines what questions are valued. And each of these things can be discussed as a team in very tangible terms.

Perhaps a more complete version of the truth about changing culture will be revealed by the teams who make it safest to leverage the strengths and varying perspectives of one another. In doing so, we will ensure a single (or select few) voices do not dominate meetings or discussions while also creating the conditions for everyone's strengths to shine.


If this blog post resonated, you might like my newest book, Reclaiming Our Calling: Hold on to the Heart, Mind, and Hope of Education. The book tackles a tension many educators are feeling using a combination of stories and practical strategies. If you’re interested in technology integration, Renegade Leadership: Creating Innovative Schools for Digital-Age Students is a best-seller with Corwin Press. Both books are built on the belief that everything we do in education starts with relationships and connectedness.



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