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  • Writer's pictureLee Hancock

Creating and Building a Strong Team Culture

By Dr. Lee Hancock


On the long and winding road toward the pursuit of high-level, consistent performances and team identity, Culture Is King.

This article is a review of:

1. What culture is and why is it important;

2. How to build culture using language and heuristics,

3. How to build culture through storytelling.

If you look at successful organizations such as the Golden State Warriors, the New Zealand All-Blacks, or Google, you understand that their brands all exude a strong culture.

  • Golden State - Unselfishness in the pursuit of winning

  • All Blacks - “Great men make great All Blacks”, “Sweep the Sheds”, and the “Haka”

  • Google - Committed to significantly improving the lives of as many people as possible with great investment in employee support and satisfaction

A strong culture not only leads to gradual, consistent success, but it’s also what keeps individuals and teams on course and joyous through difficult times.

I am proud to be a Performance Psychology coach for Team Canada. At this point in our season, we have started our qualification journey toward the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. This voyage is a journey of a thousand steps, and if those steps aren’t guided by a shining light on our culture, then along the way, we might get lost in the darkness, distracted by success, exhausted by competitions and trainings without a guide to keep us on course. On the flip side, if we properly establish our culture, then our pursuit of excellence will be driven by that culture, and as a result, the road, while still likely filled with both ups and downs, will be a steady, more joyous, methodical climb toward the top.

I am frequently asked what culture is, why it is so important, and how it can be built. These are short questions with lengthy answers that I’ll shed some light on below. While there are a few vital steps I take to ensure culture is built with the groups and teams I work with, there is one that I always start with and spend a great deal of time on: language. Let’s dive deeper into some definitions and language as connected to culture.

1. What is culture and why is it important?

Culture as defined in the dictionary is “the arts and other manifestations of human achievement regarded collectively” or “customs and achievements of a particular people or social group.” If we take a deeper look at culture as defined throughout history, we can actually see it is derived from Middle English, French and Latin, as “growing” or “cultivating”.

If we blend these definitions and apply them to our teams or groups, then culture can be defined as: customs or achievements, that we grow or cultivatecollectively.

The Culture of people

The first place to look for a working definition of culture is in human/people culture. Culture to a geographical group of people is a collection of characteristics or traits that make up that group of people. It is who they are and what they do; as a result of centuries of doing what they did and do to live and survive within their historic geographical environments and beyond. We all have our own cultural identity which inevitably undergoes adaptations as we are exposed to, learn about, become inspired by, and take part in new rituals in our journey.

It is these characteristics that are engrained in us, guide us, and suggest how we handle milestones, situations, and moments in everyday life.

It is the same for a collection of people coming together as a team. The difference is that teams come together to accomplish something in a much shorter amount of time than, for example, the Chinese culture and Confucianism, which have been shaped through thousands of years.

Also, when new teams are formed, they are often with people from varying cultures and mindsets. While diversity of course adds immense creativity and unique perspectives, it is critical to be sensitive to where your team and group are coming from, since their image of your team or group culture will of course be viewed through the lens of their own “culture”.

For this reason, it’s important to be deliberate about building a culture within your team, group, or organization.

Angela Duckworth on Culture

I’m an avid reader and love to draw inspiration from books – especially from popular culture. Angela Duckworth, the author of the amazing book “Grit”, describes culture in her book as being super critical to how people are shaped, saying:

  • “Whether we realize it or not, the culture in which we live, and with which we identify, powerfully shapes just about every aspect of our being. By culture, I don’t mean the geographic or political boundaries that divide one people from another as much as the invisible psychological boundaries separating us from them. At its core, a culture is defined by the shared norms and values of a group of people. In other words, a distinct culture exists anytime a group of people are in consensus about how we do things around here and why. As for how the rest of the world operates, the sharper the contrast, the stronger the bonds among those in what psychologists call the “in-group.”

I love Angela’s definition, as it speaks to a number of simple foundations of culture and provides an easy-to-use definition which I’ve heard from others as well… simply put….Culture is simply how we do things here.

Steve Kerr on Culture

Steve Kerr, the coach of the Golden State Warriors would concur, “how we do things here,” and “setting forth how we do things here,” are important.

Steve Kerr has talked over and over about how important setting the culture is with and for his team. He talks about the importance of team members and leaders in this culture building process, but also in the power of simple phrases and terms to guide their collective pursuits, experiences and culture.

An article in Forbes magazine outlines an experience that Kerr had when speaking with Pete Carrol of the Seattle Seahawks which explains his view on culture. Kerr indicates that Carroll asks him how he was going to coach his team, if he had thought about team chemistry, and what he was going to do to build the culture. “That meeting was a tipping point for Kerr. It helped him formulate his thoughts and become very intentional about the culture and chemistry he wanted to create.”

Intentional indeed.

Based on this meeting, and upon reflection, Kerr began to formulate his culture based on 4 core values – Joy, Mindfulness, Competition, Compassion. If you look deep into the players, the style, the coach, and the team in general, I think we can all agree, like them or hate them, the Golden State Warriors are working deliberately to live their culture based on these core values.

The use of core values is our first glimpse into the power of language in the creation and shaping of culture.

2. The Power Of Language And Heuristics And Story Of The All Blacks – How Culture Is, And Can Be, Built

I referenced the New Zealand All Blacks above as having a powerful culture. The All Blacks are New Zealand’s national rugby union team. They compete against other national rugby teams across the world, won the 1987, 2011, and 2015 World Cups, and boast a winning percentage of 77%, the highest winning percentage of any team in any sport in the world. Yet they have a population of only 4.5 million people. So how do they do it? Well, obviously they have tremendous athletes. If you’ve read the book Legacy by James Kerr, you may understand why else… culture.

James Kerr wrote a book called Legacy, What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life. Kerr, for the book, gained unparalleled access to the team. What he writes about is simply remarkable; from a culture-uncovering and culture-building perspective. Kerr organizes his book into 15 lessons in leadership, ranging from character and responsibility to expectations to language. The lesson I’ll dive deeper on here is language; the use of language, and how we can use it to build culture.

Importance of Language in a Team and Culture

J. Kerr writes about the importance of language in a team and in a culture. He recounts that somewhere along the way the All Blacks ceased to be the All Blacks. The standards, expectations, and wins that the team had grown accustomed to over the years weren’t there anymore. This did not go unnoticed by two veteran players, namely John Kirwan and Sean Fitzpatrick, so these two decided to write a book. This book would come to be known as the “All Black Book” and was not for public consumption but rather for the All Blacks eyes only.

Fitzpatrick explained (in another book that he wrote about the “All Black Book”) that the language of the All Blacks was of critical importance saying that it was “a system of meanings that everyone understood – a language and vocabulary and a set of beliefs that bound the group together.” With phrases such as “no one is bigger than the team,” “it’s an honor, not a job,” “it’s not enough to be good, it’s about being great,” and “sweep the sheds.”


J. Kerr describes these phrases as heuristics and that these heuristics are a critical piece of the progressive cultural puzzle. He describes heuristics as easily understood and memorize-able code-phrases that “go straight to the heart of the belief system, becoming shorthand for the standards and behaviour that is expected.” These phrases “capture character in a sentence, change minds with a turn of phrase, and distil essence into a few words.”

  • “The best teams: All Blacks, Apple, Marines, Nike, Honda, Adidas – harness the power of such heuristics, mottos, and mantras to reflect, remind, reinforce and reinvigorate their ethos, every day.” He reminds us of phrases like “Just do it”, “Impossible is nothing” and “Once a Marine Always a Marine.

The use of deliberate vocabulary, language, and heuristics to make our words memorable are critical in establishing culture.

3. How To Build Culture Through Storytelling

J. Kerr writes about the importance of storytelling to harness language in order foster culture. He first writes about Daniel Kahneman, the Noble Prize-winning psychologist, and his comments on the power of storytelling and its impact on people’s lives, saying:

  • “Leaders are storytellers. All great organizations are born from a compelling story. This central organizing thought helps people understand what they stand for and why. True or not, stories are the way we understand life and our place in it. We are ‘meaning making machines’, interpreting and reinterpreting a sequence of events into a narrative form and reassembling at will.”

Then J. Kerr writes about Kevin Roberts, a key cog in the All-Blacks leadership wheel, quoting him as saying:

  • “Key to effective leadership in the All Blacks’ model is how we tell that story, using language to help our people ‘connect to the core, using values, vocabulary, mottos, mantras and metaphors.

J. Kerr then gives us an example of how the All-Blacks used storytelling to help them prepare for their World Cup. Kerr recounts the story of “The Black Plague. The Black Plague describes the attitude and approach of the All Black defense.

  • The Black Plague started in Asia last year then it devastated Europe destroying everything in its path . . the small, the sick, the slow and the fast.. . . It was 366 minutes of tryless tests . . the disease that has devastated Europe is re-emerging worldwide. . . what will it look like?. . . fast, pressure through set pieces, clarity of roles . . .

J. Kerr indicates that the players understood that and could see that story and all that in encapsulated, including values, vocabulary and mottos. They understood it, they felt it and they used it to be that defense and win a World Cup.

J. Kerr sums it up by saying

  • based in strong, resonant values, using a common language that employs mantras, mottos and metaphors, storytelling helps leaders connect their people’s personal meaning to their vision of the future.”

In essence what Fitzpatrick, J. Kerr, and ultimately the All Blacks are getting at is that these words and this language is defining who we are and how we act. This language turns into stories and these stories tell the reality of what we want and who we are – they craft our meaning. They create culture.

Interestingly, Adam Grant, Wharton Business professor and author of numerous New York Times bestsellers, would agree about the power of storytelling as it pertains to one’s culture. Grant has spoken numerous times on how when he goes into businesses, they all say – our culture is unique. So, he’s asks, well, how is it unique? He says that the answers are all the same – the people believe in our cause, in our values and are passionate about our mission. Grant advises that if you want to know about a company’s culture, don’t ask them about their values or mission, rather “ask them to tell you a story about something that happens in the organization that would not happen anywhere else.”

Voila – creating culture….so easy!!

Let’s summarize some ideas you can use with your teams or groups to set or reinforce culture using language, heuristics and storytelling:

1. Settle on some vocabulary that defines how the group wants to pursue their culture.

  • Use words that resonate with your group.

  • When you can, try to form some heuristics with your language.

  • Reference, use, and post your language and heuristics where you can see and be reminded of it/them often.

2. Create your team’s stories.

  • As the team pursues their endeavors – take note of their progress – the good, the bad, and the ugly, and recount the progress as stories. Recall these stories and resurface them as needed to remind the group/team what they had to go through, how far they have come, and who they are in times of difficulty.

  • As you create your stories, keep the following in mind:

  • ...Make the stories relevant not only to who your group/team currently is, but also who they want to be.

  • ...Be sure to include details in your stories – visual and visceral.

  • ...Make sure your stories not only make you think, but make you feel something.

  • ...Make your stories easy to tell and easy to remember.

If you have any comments, please leave them below. If you are a budding sport psychology coach, team coach, or sports or athletic organization and have questions about building your culture or otherwise, let’s connect!

#culture #teamculture #groupculture #sportsculture #sportsperformance #sportspsychology #teamsports #drleehancock #DLHPerformance

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