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Self-Sustaining Team Culture

by Matt Mackey

A former captain and then-coach of mine offered only this advice when I described to him the multitude of ideas and plans we rising seniors at Dartmouth had for team leadership and culture in the coming season: It’s always harder than you think. 

This message is worth keeping in mind for anyone seeking to engineer or change something as amorphous yet integral as one’s team culture - it’s all too easy to get caught up in the energy and excitement of the season and neglect the grand ideas and notions you have for making this season the season for you and your teammates, to say nothing of the difficulty of managing people in general. 

Of course, being difficult makes it all the more worth doing. 

Managing Personalities - Appear (and be) Open to Suggestions: 
I like to think of team culture as the sum of (at least) two potentially competing energies: that of the team leaders (they may be captains, they may be team veterans - they are the ones you traditionally look to to set the tone), and that of the vocal minority. I’ve found that these energies are typically generated by only about 20% of a roster; the other 80% are willing to go along with the pervading culture. Don’t underestimate the potency of this minority to subvert team culture, and don’t assume that they don’t exist - oftentimes they are most vocal when you aren’t listening. 

Team leaders would be well advised to actively work to cultivate the appearance (and reality) of being open to outside ideas and input from all members of the team - an insular leadership commands less respect, and therefore less influence, on team culture than an integrated one. 

Cultural Considerations: 
That said, the big questions you have to address when seeking to identify, establish, and nurture one’s team culture are:

  • What’s feasible? Is it realistic to expect a college team to have perfect attendance at practices? To work out thrice a week? To stay on-point and undistracted at practices and in tournaments? No doubt some goals for the way you want team culture to develop fall into this challenging category. Honestly assess your motivation and what you’re willing to do to reach these goals - it may be that you can only devote energy to one goal at a time, but once one aspect is established, this then builds momentum toward further progress.
  • Where do you compromise? If you cannot realistically expect perfect attendance, where’s the point you’re willing to be OK with? If you’re going to insist on a rigorous workout schedule, are you willing to permit a lower effort level at practice itself as the team adapts to a higher workload? Know where you stand on the trade-offs between reaching your goals perfectly and reaching the point of "good enough." You will find this threshold tested at times and you may need to take the process one step at a time if your changes are especially transformative.
  • How do you continually reinforce this culture? Once you’ve achieved your goal - say, gotten team buy-in on regular workouts - how do you ensure that this is sustained over time? This is where the real challenge and art of managing people and team comes into play. Reminding your teammates of the team goals (hopefully your team as a whole has met and established some) that inspire the culture - in this case, a reminder of team on-field aspirations to inspire hard work - is often effective, as it appeals to both individual desires and to obligation to the team; social pressures are a strong force for reinforcing change.

A Note on "Intensity": 
Perhaps the most difficult and contentious component of team culture to establish and sustain is the team’s "persona" - what kind of energy do you bring to the field? Are you more likely to be seen with a smile, a scowl, a no-nonsense look? Unlike some qualities that make a team, there’s a wide range of individual preference here, and while some teams have the luxury of selecting for a certain personality, most teams are a mosaic of individual approaches and feels for how a given game and tournament should play out. 

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to change personalities. It is quite possible, if still difficult, to establish some baseline expectations for team conduct, whether they be implicit or explicit. Oregon Fugue’s remarkable experiment in team spirit - contesting no calls - is an exemplary example of this. I don’t doubt that some members of the team were more given to argue than others, but as the thing built and took on its own life, the personality of the Individual is subjugated by the will of the Team. 

Seek out and nurture those Team impulses, and you’ll create a team culture that self-sustains and refuses to crumble. 


huddle issue032

Thu March 31st, 2011

Us vs. Them
by Tully Beatty

Find Your Spirit Animal
by Tyler Kinley

by John Korber

Nurture What You Like, Overcome What You Don't
by Peri Kurshan

Team Identity
by Ali Lenon

Self-Sustaining Team Culture
by Matt Mackey

Key Team Culture Moments
by John Sandahl

Work Together
by Charlie Reznikoff

It Will Change Every Season
by Miranda Roth




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