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What’s Rumbling Below the Surface of Your Team?


Fri Apr 07 2023

What’s Rumbling Below the Surface of Your Team?

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Team culture is often taken for granted—not on purpose, and not negligently. Culture largely remains invisible, simmering in the background until a big pressure event—good or bad—shakes things up and demands attention.

Team culture has much in common with earth science, specifically, earthquakes.


The Earthquake: Culture Analogy

Earthquakes may seem sudden, but they don’t happen randomly. Under the earth’s surface, geologic plates shift and bump against each other, building pressure over time. A major earthquake is inevitable if there’s no way to diffuse that pressure.

Similarly, there are all kinds of pressures—both productive and harmful—rumbling under the surface of a team that affect how people feel, think, and act throughout the workday, such as:

  • Identity and Belonging: Is everyone fully engaged and confident that their contributions make a difference?

  • Growth and Development: Do people see a path to expand their roles and move up in the organization, or do they feel stuck and limited?

  • Capacity and Tools: Does everyone have the tools they need to succeed in their work and do the processes aid workflow or get in the way?

Productive, positive pressures can feel like one-off events that cause an important but fleeting boost in morale and culture.

On the other hand, harmful, negative pressures often start as mild frustrations, maybe a few bad days here and there. If left unaddressed, they can accumulate until something bad happens. This could be a key team member (or members) quitting, a serious mistake causing expensive rework, or a missed deadline resulting in a furious client.

When a cultural catastrophe happens, there’s usually some investigation into what went wrong that uncovers all kinds of missed warning signs. These small tensions can snowball into something massive.


Conducting Pressure Checks

One of the most important responsibilities of team leaders and HR managers is to stay attuned to these mild, everyday pressures and find ways to intervene before they build up. Even small changes can remove the initial pain and forestall other pressures from accumulating.

These micro-adjustments happen in earth science, too. Fun fact: California has dozens of minor daily earthquakes. While small, they are critical for relieving some of the pressure between geologic plates.

Techniques for Relieving Team Pressure

What interventions can decrease team pressure? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Identity and Belonging: If team members feel more like isolated parts than a cohesive whole, an activity like relationship mapping can highlight how each role is indispensable, fostering a stronger sense of team pride.

  • Growth and Development: If people feel stuck in their roles, an activity such as an escape room or simulation activity can bring out previously hidden talents and skills, so managers can better understand how to leverage individual strengths.

  • Capacity and Tools: Tools and processes may be the sources of massive frustration. If so, a group brainstorming session to break down and redesign (on a whiteboard or using sticky notes) and identify the root causes of the pain encourages creative problem solving and crowd sources ideas for practical solutions.

Of course, more than just three potential pressure points affect team culture. Still, there are several activities to proactively mitigate the bad when early warning signs emerge. These include a simple one-on-one conversation about how to make someone’s job easier, a fun game-based building experience, or adopting a more effective new tool.

One final recommendation is to continuously bring attention to good news on a team: completion of a successful project, someone mastering a new skill, a glowing review from a customer, and so on. These small celebrations can go a long way in keeping teams engaged and connected.


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