December 8, 2021


Culture is super important for building high performing teams. It’s also widely misunderstood.

Most organizations try to shape culture through policy. On paper, a company might claim to value feedback and have an “open-door” policy. But if a new hire sees his teammates avoiding giving bosses bad news, what is he going to think? Probably that he better be careful what he says to his manager.

What defines a good workplace culture? Some people think of a hip Silicon Valley firm with ball pits, ping pong tables, and other “fun” perks. Others might think of a mission-driven organizations with a lofty purpose — save the rainforest or spread human rights, or whatever other cause — inspiring the whole team. These approaches help attract talent, but they’re not culture.

Team culture is like water, from a fish’s perspective. We’re often so immersed in it, we might not even notice it’s there — it’s just our environment. Culture subtly tells people what’s normal. How should we react to problems? How do we treat each other? What behaviors are unacceptable, and what gets rewarded?

The real leverage behind culture comes from how colleagues treat each other. Every action and communication at work helps reinforce our approach. When things are good, this creates a positive feedback cycle of professionalism and high standards. And when there is unresolved conflict, resentment, or poor communication in a company, then you get a different and destructive feedback loop.

To build and sustain a great team, it takes more than workplace perks and high-minded missions. If workers feel disengaged, disrespected, or burned out, then massage chairs in the break room and statistics about positive impact in the world will help about as much as inspirational wall posters.

High performing cultures start with a healthy daily work environment. Take care of the basics, every single day. Treat people with respect, always. Give workers growth opportunities, so they know they have a path toward greater skills, responsibilities, meaning, and rewards. And always show integrity — the boss is as accountable to the team as the team is to the boss.

Years of running my own business have taught me some simple truths. Success comes from great teams with positive cultures, and there are no shortcuts. Leaders have to set a good example in every interaction, and encourage their managers to do the same. The whole organization is watching.

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