Buffering the Team from Dysfunction

Published: June 20, 2017

It’s often necessary for small, internal teams to insulate themselves from the toxic elements of the larger organization. Perhaps the broader workplace sanctions disrespect while the members of a single department value civility and trust. Maybe the sins of the company aren’t sufficiently unacceptable to warrant leaving the job especially when strong friendships have been built on the smaller team. How might a workgroup in this situation move forward?

Devote the year ahead to a mini cultural transformation. Introduce a values-based exercise designed to capture the small team’s unique identity. Get everyone onboard with the words and actions most likely to bring the values to life. Respectfully and professionally hold each other accountable for any violations of the agreed-upon behavior checklist. Celebrate examples of alignment whenever they occur.

Here are a few key points to remember:

Participation: Engagement is easier when you’ve had a voice in the process. Invite everyone to contribute ideas and perspectives when defining the team’s identity.

Identity: Be extremely selective with the words used to describe the team’s reputation. When you choose a descriptor (e.g. collaboration, commitment to excellence, stewardship), everyone must be prepared to live up to the demands of the value position.

Values: Select action-oriented language. This becomes a prediction of future behavior. The team’s values can be leveraged as a decision checklist as well as a menu for celebrating integrity.

Accountability: If your team chooses “collaboration,” partnerships must follow. If your team chooses “commitment to excellence,” future actions should support improved outcomes, innovations, and openness to new ideas. If your team chooses “stewardship,” everyone must own responsibility for anything they add or subtract from the team’s resources.

Celebration: Never let a day go by without finding a way to acknowledge words and actions that support the team’s identity and reputation. Even a random exchange by the water cooler matters. More formally, design the staff meeting agenda to include an opportunity for teammates to share stories of value alignment.

One finger does not lift a thousand people. There’s no need to try and fix the broken culture of an entire organization. Instead, do what’s within your reach. Drive the internal culture of the smaller team with those like-minded few who want to stay excited about coming to work.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.