How healthy is your office culture? Check these vital signs


What is it about your job that sucks the life out of you? Chances are, it has a lot to do with the people around you. Oddly enough, when you think about what energizes you at work, people are probably high on that list, too.

Teammates (and co-workers in general) matter. They influence the culture we’re immersed in at work as much, or more, than the executives four levels up the org chart. Thus, a healthy team culture requires fully-formed adults with healthy attitudes about their work and its challenges.

If you know me at all, you know I’m massively passionate about team health. So when I attended the big agile conference last month and saw half a dozen talks about it on the schedule, I got really excited. Each presenter had their own take on what makes a team culture healthy, but five common themes emerged.

1. Resilience

Remember when your parents made you get back on your bike (sans training wheels) and try again? Or the coach that put the fire back in your bellies after a crushing defeat? They were trying to teach you grit. Because they knew you’d need it.

We don’t necessarily perform at our best when we’re happy. We perform at our best when we’re determined to succeed, no matter how many set-backs we endure. To quote Andy Cleff, “We need to introduce stressors into the system. Happiness is not the key metric. Resilience is.”

2. Balance

We live in a society that glorifies extremes. At this very moment, you know someone who is training for an ultra-marathon and another person in the midst of a 10-day detox cleanse – all while their Instagram followers shower them with praise. The danger in running your life this way is that you’ll over-optimize one facet at the expense of all others.

When Larry Maccherone was a researcher at Carnegie Mellon, he distilled team performance down to four areas: productivity, predictability, responsiveness, and quality of work. (I’d argue the same is true for individuals’ performance in the game of life, as well.) The key is to look at your team, and yourself, holistically and understand the trade-offs involved in focusing more energy in a particular area.

3. Safety

Studies at Google and elsewhere have pegged psychological safety as an essential ingredient for performance. Do the people around you use your mistakes as weapons? Or are they regarded as learning opportunities? Let’s hope it’s the latter.

Both in team settings and in our personal lives, we’re obsessed with gathering data. We track our hours worked, bugs fixed, hours slept, calories burned… there are even apps for tracking the contents of your baby’s diaper. But we have to look at that data through a lens of self-acceptance. As Troy Magennis told me, the fastest way to destroy the usefulness of data is to allow ourselves to feel threatened by it.

4. Self-awareness

Growing up, we’re constantly being reminded to be aware of our surroundings and notice our own behavior so we can detect when it’s having a negative impact on others (or on ourselves). So you’d think grown-ups would have this whole self-awareness thing totally laced down.

Yeah… not necessarily.

The good news is there are loads of self-assessment tools we can use as individuals and as teams to increase our self-awareness. Brandi Olson, an agile strategist and coach in Minneapolis, says to use a framework with questions that are quick and simple, sensitive to change, and indicate when further investigation is needed.

And of course, it’s important to assess regularly so you can see progress and detect any downward trends before they become emergencies.

5. Purpose

No matter how far back in history you look, you can see humans’ search for meaning. We crave the feeling that whatever we’re doing or experiencing at this moment is part of a larger whole. The difference between fully-formed adults and tall children is having identified not just what that bigger picture is, but the role they play within it.
The same is true at the group level. J. Richard Hackman, a Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University, identified meaningful tasks as one of the primary contributors to team performance. Taking steps to align your team’s work with the larger purpose you have as individuals helps bring meaning to your days.

So… how are your team’s vital signs looking? Tweet to @Atlassian and/or @DomPrice and let me know!

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