6 tips for creating an effective team culture

Meaningful team building can help you weather changes and challenges.
By Teri Saylor

If you enjoy watching televised sports, you likely have seen a peloton in action during the Tour de France bicycle race or the cycling event in the Summer Olympics. A peloton is a group of cyclists who ride close to one another, working together and drafting off each other to increase their speed and work efficiently.

Professional leadership coach and cycling enthusiast Michael O'Brien compares a highly functioning workplace team to a peloton in motion. That's why he named his New Jersey-based consulting firm Peloton Business Leadership Coaching and Consulting.

"Because of the complexity of our modern work lives, success lies in teamwork," he said. "We need people around us. Like cycling in a peloton, we must trust each other and advance with more efficiency. With good teamwork, there is less drama, and we can respond to changes around us rather than react to them."

Effective teamwork isn't inherent in a business environment; rather, it is developed over time through training and practice, said Elizabeth Cipolla, founder of The Change Agent-SEE Leadership Company and an adjunct professor at Jamestown Community College in New York.

"Oftentimes, managers convince themselves they are too busy to develop their team," she said. "But if the team is not cohesive, it is not effective, and team members are subject to breakdowns in communication."

O'Brien and Cipolla, along with Susan Heathfield, a human resource professional and consultant who writes for a variety of publications, including website The Balance: Careers, offer these tips for managers on how to build an effective team and develop exercises to keep it running smoothly.

Practice regular communication. Every team needs to keep up with regular communication, whether it is a sit-down meeting or a quick huddle. "Building a team is not a 'one-and-done' event. It's ongoing, and part of a team's communication language," Cipolla said. "Regrouping doesn't have to be a big meeting or drawn-out episode. It can be a commitment of just a few minutes at a time." Heathfield has a favorite ice-breaker game that asks team members for one-word responses to different ideas. She used "conflict" as an example. "Ask the team 'What do you think of when you think of conflict?' And then invite them to make a one-word response," she explained. "This helps teammates start recognizing each other's similarities and differences, and it sparks good discussion."

Develop trust. To deal with today's complex challenges, it is important to build a culture of trust, according to O'Brien. "And it starts with leadership," he said. "We need to learn to listen to connect, as opposed to listening to reply. Listening and connecting builds empathy, and empathy builds trust." To develop trust, O'Brien likes to use an exercise called "But/And." It's a method often used by improvisation performers. "We do a lot of 'but-ing' when we provide feedback to employees. This exercise is very simple. Just replace 'but' with 'and,'" he said, and gave an example: "Hey, you're doing great, and I know you can be even greater.'" This builds positivity and momentum and makes employees feel good about improving, he added.

Build a strong foundation. Building a foundation of trust will help your team walk through challenges. "Don't wait for a crisis to strike or a problem to arise before building a team to deal with it," Cipolla said. "If you have a strong team in place when you face a dilemma, you already know your individual and collective strengths, preferences, and skills to tackle the problems together." To illuminate the importance of building strong foundations, Cipolla recommended an exercise that asks team members to name one or two effective leaders in their lives or careers. "Even on a large team, most people can't name more than one or two," she said. "That's because most leaders don't build their teams effectively. The magic is not to wait until you see signs of problems to start team building. As a matter of course, you practice this every day.

Empower your team. "Provide a checklist of discussion items or tasks to do and allow teammates to work through it themselves," Cipolla said. Creating a team charter is also a step toward empowerment. While it is important for the department head or CEO to provide clear direction so employees will know why the team was built and why they are on it, "creating a mission, vision, goals, and objectives gives the team a sense of purpose. They own their charter, and ownership is essential to accomplishing goals," Cipolla said.

Embrace difficult conversations. Provide leadership through clear communication and consistent messages, even when having difficult conversations. O'Brien recommended trying to create agility with conversation by asking curious, open-ended questions as reporters do. He cited five key questions to ask: Who, what, when, where, and why. "If you need to have a difficult conversation, develop empathy and try to understand how the other person might feel when the conversation is over," he said. "We often avoid difficult conversations, hoping that the need to have them will just float away, but you can have these conversations and develop a good, trusting relationship if people believe you have good intentions."

Reach past resistance. Generally, when employees show up for a team-building exercise, some of them will be eager while others will be resistant to change, according to O'Brien. Dealing with skeptics is a natural part of team building, so don't force it, he advised. "At the core, most people are eager to improve the workplace and create a better culture. With a focus a trust building and active listening, the doubters will begin to feel comfortable gravitating to the positive side," he said. In the face of resistance, the leader's role is to reassure the team and help each member develop a sense of trust and connectedness, Heathfield added. "In team-building exercises, people are scared they're going to be forced to talk about things that make them uncomfortable," she said. "But if an exercise provides them with a chance to be a part of forging the team, the result will be engaged, involved, and empowered employees because they own the process."

In the end, employees have a universal need to be a part of a team, to have a sense of belonging, Cipolla said. "Do an online search on team-building ideas and you'll find hundreds. But the main point is to use those exercises to create a sense of belonging for the employees," she said. "Team building won't cure all of the dysfunctions in an office environment, and that's not what it is for. But what it will do is make your team strong enough to get through the tough times together."

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in North Carolina. To comment on this article or suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director – content development, at

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