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Strategy or Culture – which drives a high performance team?


Mapien Associate Director and Team Leader of our Organisational Development Team, Blake Redding, recently sat down with Queensland Leaders to discuss strategy, culture and what drives a high performing team.

I feel everyone has a slightly different perspective on what a high-performing team is. How do you describe it?

(1) Connection: Each member has a strong sense of belonging that is based on having the psychological safety to be the true version of themselves without being judged; and having the respect for each other that there is not an expectation that everyone is good at everything but rather, focusing on strengths and having clear processes to cover weaknesses.

(2) Clarity: Purpose that is meaningful, goes beyond profit and is upheld by a clear set of behaviours that enable high performance. Not things like trust and respect, but actions clearly linked to performance – like, responsive when our customers need us.

(3) Collective: Team membership plays a big part in a team member’s identity. We stand together, fight together, and make sacrifices for each other.

(4) Collaboration: Vulnerability that we can’t be everything to everyone and the ability to unite with other teams to have a stronger and more sustainable impact.

How much of a role do you feel strategy has in driving this?

A term I really like, coined by Graham Hubbard of Mt Eliza Business school, was Clear and Fuzzy strategy; one of the characteristics his research revealed to appear in successful Australian businesses.

This fits very well with effective teams in that a clear and fuzzy direction unites people with a meaningful purpose, giving them clarity about the part they can play, and giving enough flexibility that the team may shift and adapt to overcome obstacles that get in the way.

It’s always interesting to hear how people describe their team. Sometimes people will say, “we are at our best in a crisis”, this is usually a sign that the team is lacking clarity and when a crisis hits, purpose and roles become clear and performance follows.

What about culture?

I am a bit bias when it comes to culture, but for me culture is the most important part! A team with a brilliant culture but poor strategy will outperform a team with a brilliant strategy but poor culture, largely because culture is the piece that enables execution.

Culture is a word that can confuse people as to what it really is. I like the definition that sees culture as the behaviours people are expected to display to fit in with the team. These are the behaviours that show-up in moments of truth that have a disproportionate impact on performance. Whether it’s on a sporting field or in business, culture shows up when errors are made, conflict emerges, complaints arise, or changes are imposed.

Again, how a team responds to a crisis is a good indicator. We can often find when teams mention they can really struggle when a crisis arises, like suddenly needing to work virtually, culture is the area of challenge for them.

Obviously, these things shouldn’t be left to chance. What can businesses do to be more deliberate in the planning around both culture and strategy?

Create the space.
So many teams will say, “I hate meetings!” Often because once a fortnight or once a month, in 60 minutes they try to step through issues from the last meeting, cover what everyone is doing, what’s approaching and messages from the business. There is never enough time and it’s painful.

My advice is inspired by David Lencioni’s Death by Meetings book. Not exactly, but along the lines of, hit a weekly meeting that is only focused on the priorities we’re working on, then every fortnight or month, have a 90-minute tactical meeting that targets how we’re performing, issues to resolve, and important information to share. Then, quarterly or half-yearly, hold a half or full day strategy session, to focus on strategy that involves reviewing, as well as re-focusing strategy.

Define strategy and required culture.
Use the strategy time to co-design the language and story that drives your team – our why, our values and behaviours that will make or break our culture, connecting these with our performance

Monitor it.
Measure what you can, 360 for leaders, 2-yearly engagement survey, quarterly business results, so that people are getting feedback and meaningful information to guide what we must continue, stop, start, or adjust.

Recognise behaviour.
Rewarding, recruiting and promoting behaviours that are aligned, AND have the tough conversations sooner rather than later.

Before we finish, do you have any final observations or thoughts you would like to share?

There is no quick fix, and we can’t set and forget, as with any point of difference in the marketplace, it must be prioritised with a focus on progress over perfection. Getting culture and strategy on track is a constant balancing act so it is important to be kind to ourselves through the ups and downs we may encounter.

Strong teams are important to performance and mental health. It is a no brainer that effective teams achieve consistent results, but we continue to see mental health in the spotlight and would note that Gallup’s, who run organisational surveys worldwide, recently released a whitepaper that found this is the first time in their history that burnout was positively related to engagement. We’re seeing a trend that people are pushing harder than ever before, and while it’s not necessarily costing engagement, people are tired and more vulnerable. This raises just how important it is for us to create safe and strong team cultures because the mental health benefits of being part of a team strengthens our mental health, helping to offset the fatigue and burnout which more and more people are experiencing.

Finally, the areas we’ve discussed are heavily focused on teams and can easily apply to any organisation because organisations are often a team of teams.

Health Check

Questions to check how your team is going?

Q1: In meetings, is your team competing with each other, or connecting?

Q2: Does your team need a crisis or instruction for clarity, or is there consistency on what’s most important for the team?

Q3: When challenges emerge personally or in the team, will team members knuckle down on their tasks or put the collective interests first and sacrifice individual performance for the team?

Q4: When the customer challenges exceed the team’s capacity, are members looking to the leader to resolve or collaborating with other teams and networks for help?

Connect with us

This stuff is easy to talk about but can get hard to implement! If it’s getting a bit too hard, or you would like to know more, please contact us here and one of our Workplace Strategists will be in touch within 24 hours.

Written by
Blake Redding
Blake’s consulting career as a psychologist has been inspired by his passion for people development and a fascination with how people impact an organisation’s performance and success. His broad business and industry experience, combined with the application of psychometric assessment measures and a focus on improving employee performance and retention, has allowed Blake to work in every arena of human resources.