Team Culture: If You Don't Build It, Someone Else Will

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When I got my first management job as the manager of the network team at the University of Arkansas, I had never thought much about culture in the context of teams. Like many new IT managers in higher ed, I was asked to take the position in my organization because I had displayed high technical prowess and an ability to execute on projects, but I had very little understanding of what it takes to build and lead a team of excellence. With more experience now, having spent five years as a frontline manager and three years on the leadership team, I realize we often thrust our young managers into these positions with very limited training and preparation. What I will try to do here is share some insight into what a powerful tool culture can be for new managers to better equip them than I was when I started out.

Understanding Culture and Its Significance

A healthy team culture is one of the most important attributes of a high-performing team, and yet it is often neglected by new IT managers if for no other reason than it seems intangible and immeasurable. However, if a manager can set a tone through words and actions that leads to a cultural shift, this will result in a team that performs with excellence again and again.

Before we dig in, let's take a brief moment to define team culture. For my purposes here, team culture is defined as the set of behaviors driven by team values — those values that are shared by the team and to which team members will hold each other accountable.

The first thing to note is that every team has a culture. The question is, is the current culture one that you as a manager desire? It is imperative that you intentionally create the team culture. If you fail to do so as a manager, the culture that forms will be determined by the team members and may not reflect the values necessary for excellence.

There are many perspectives on how to craft a culture of excellence. Such discussions take place on the corners of the Internet with a more entrepreneurial bend. One focus in these discussions is on hiring people with the right mindset, or culture fit. Yet new managers in higher education IT are often put in charge of existing teams or asked to create teams from experienced staff members. I have found the technique I discuss below — identifying and instilling values — to be successful in creating vibrant and high-functioning teams without requiring the manager to bring in all new staff with an eye on culture fit. In fact, hiring for culture fit is often problematic in higher education, especially in a state-run institution. This makes it even more imperative that managers have the toolset to create the desired culture with existing team members.1

Identify Values

The first step in creating a culture of excellence is to identify the values that should be instilled in the team. These may vary depending on the institution, organization, and function of the team. Values considered necessary for a high-performing team might include transparency, professionalism, the ability to offer and accept criticism, and loyalty — and even assertiveness and aggressiveness. Not all teams will have or require the same values. New managers should be able to work with organizational leadership and peers, both inside and outside their organization, to help identify the values that are important to the organization. Getting their buy-in is critical for success. You may also want to work with your team to determine precisely which values are appropriate.2

Instill Values

Once these values are identified, new managers must actively work toward instilling these values in the team. There are several ways to do this, but three key strategies are:

  • Talk about it — Simply share the values with the team. People respect transparency and honesty and will respond positively to an open conversation about team values. You may even be able to get the team to voice some of the values you've identified without your having to itemize them just by asking them to identify the values they think are needed to be a team of excellence. If that happens, you've got a head start.
  • Reinforce through repetition — The team will not simply adopt the desired cultural values the first time you discuss them. In fact, you will need to repeat these values over and over again, sometimes monthly, and almost certainly indefinitely. If you do not repeat the desired values in perpetuity, you risk the culture backsliding. In my experience, teams tend to have a certain cultural stability centered around the set of values of the individual personalities on the team. If you fail to consistently and repetitively message about team values, that stability will kick in and culture will begin to re-form around the team members and not the designated values.
  • Lead by example — The manager must embody the team values and demonstrate this by example. If you have identified excellent communication as a core value, you must communicate with excellence. If you have identified honesty as a core value, you must not do anything to compromise your integrity with your team. Nothing undermines a fragile culture like hypocrisy in leadership. Take, for example, a local school principal who extoled the value of students first, but often interrupted teachers during class time to tend to trivial administrative tasks. Because of this and other hypocritical actions, the teachers lost faith in their leader and the entire school suffered. In fact, a large portion of the experienced faculty left that school in the first few years of that principal's tenure. If you talk about your team values but don't live them, you'll soon find yourself without much of a team to lead.

Example: Professional Attire

I'd like to provide an example of how you can use these tools to set cultural norms in your teams. I've always believed in encouraging a high level of professionalism within my teams. I also believe one of the keystones of professionalism is professional attire, and I realize that this may be an unpopular opinion in higher education IT. I don't bring this up in attempt to convince anyone else of the relationship between professional attire and a professional attitude. Rather, I simply use it as an example of how to tell if your cultural values are taking hold.

Instead of imposing a dress code on my staff, I've simply spoken on the importance of professional attire in team meetings, repeatedly. I don't just say that professional attire is important — I also explain why I believe it's important. I tell the staff that I believe that professional attire will make them feel more confident, which in turn manifests in an air of competence customers can sense, granting credibility not only to them personally but also to our department collectively. Additionally, I lead by example. Since the beginning of my management career, I have always dressed to highest level acceptable for my position.

The result is a cultural norm that is accepted by the team. I have watched as the teams I lead have adopted more-professional attire without having to enforce a dress code because they're "buying what I'm selling." They have adopted this cultural value.

The power of appropriately establishing this cultural value is that I get the behavior I want — more-professional attire — and the staff feel empowered by making a choice to conform to that value without the dread of a draconian policy being forced on them. Establishing and reinforcing values produces incredibly motivated employees and results in a high-performing team.

I hope I have been able to provide some insight into how you can positively influence your team through intentionally building the right culture. With this new tool in your toolset, you will become a more effective manager — and your teams will begin to perform at even higher levels of excellence.


  1. For different perspectives on creating culture, see Jerome Tyernynck, "Crafting a High-Performance Culture," SmartRecruiters (blog), April 16, 2014; Susan Reilly Salgado, "Crafting Your Company Culture in 5 Steps," Inc., September 30, 3014; or google "crafting culture."
  2. For further reading on what makes a high-performing culture, see Sanjeev Agrawal, "Want a Great Team? Build a Great Culture," Forbes, October 5, 2015; and Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, "How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation," Harvard Business Review, November 25, 2015.

David Bruce is deputy CIO at the University of Arkansas.

© 2016 David Bruce. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.