Under Pressure: How to Build Healthy, Thriving Team Cultures

By Jennifer Olson

I volunteer for my kid’s junior roller derby team. While the juniors are skating in a highly competitive league, their adult counterparts took a break during COVID and have been slow to recommit to that level of competition. Is it because they don’t want to skate at competitive levels? Absolutely not. Then what is the problem? Unfortunately, what the adult teams have learned over the years is that elevating their competition came with a price – an erosion of their culture. It was such a big problem that the organization committed to only skating competitively IF they could keep their healthy, supportive culture intact.

That may seem extreme. Sports teams all over have varying types of cultures and still compete at high levels. What’s the problem? For many, while still able to perform, toxic cultures have limited recruiting efforts, accelerated player turnover and ruined the mental game for many athletes reducing individual and team performance. Culture can play a major part in eroding performance and standings across the league. Just ask the US Women’s National Soccer Team who crumbled under the pressure of expectations during the last World Cup when they didn’t create a strong team culture, among other things, able to withstand the crushing force of the international stage.

Not surprisingly, as the competition rises, the same old toxic crap does as well. What the adult league experienced is that with increased competition, there has been increases in poor behavior in teams they play as well as by members of their own team. There is pressure to perform at higher levels, play dirtier and “win at any cost” as the stakes rise on the national stage. Coaches of these competitive teams have allowed (and in some cases encouraged) this behavior to flourish so much so that some teams felt forced to make a decision between keeping their healthy cultures or stepping up into bigger competitive arenas. We see this regularly in all sorts of areas: sports, business, games, academic competition, schools, etc. As pressure and competition rise, often poor behavior follows. These factors should not be excuses for bad behavior and crappy team cultures. An organization, team and group can be competitive AND have a vibrant, productive and constructive culture.

Building and maintaining a constructive, healthy and productive environment for any organization is difficult. While many organizations clearly define the environment they wish to create, they struggle with implementing then sustaining the culture long-term. In addition, they rarely develop methods to measure that healthy culture, so they have few metrics to lean on when things go awry. Leaders often get tired of fighting to keep a culture going in the right direction and instead opt out, choosing to drive teams to meet goals through endless revolving strategies, motivating people by dangling carrots (more money, time off, flexibility) or sticks (threats of being written up, demotions or firing) instead of keeping them engaged through a shared mission and standards of thoughts, behaviors and actions.

Yet, whether leaders like it or not, culture is the secret sauce that keeps people motivated and clients happy. In fact, a recent quote said, “People do not just quit companies or leaders … they quit organizational cultures.” With inclusive, constructive cultures, studies show that collaboration, innovation, recruitment, engagement, satisfaction and retention all increase. Huge wins for organizations these days. So how can we make building a healthy culture easier even when things like competition and high-pressure stakes work to erode our efforts?

Define the culture you want to create. This is an area where many organizations shine. They take the time, especially in the beginning with new teams, to outline the type of environment they want to see thrive. They often outline the mission, values, guiding principles and behaviors they want to see. This is a great start! My kids’ roller derby coach did this beautifully which is why, during COVID, the group thrived. It was a safe space for young skaters who were struggling with huge problems and fears. They instead were redirected towards learning really difficult skating and roller derby skills without getting so discouraged they quit. Their coach was there to help them see what they accomplished, pick them up when they were down and teach them how to support each other when things got really hard. She set the stage for how these young humans should move throughout the experience as well as how they should interact as a team. Great foundational pieces for a strong culture.

Create metrics that measure what you want to reinforce. This has been a huge challenge for many! How does an organization measure their values, guiding principles and behaviors? This is where culture and climate analytics come into play. I often work with organizations to really dig into what their current culture looks like, identify what they want their ideal culture to be, then use analytics to set base metrics as well as strategies they need to implement to create their ideal culture. We use data all along the way to quantify and analyze their environments at different stages. These then help them have well-defined metrics that outline their healthy culture. It makes it much easier to track and takes the guessing game out of the cultural development as organizations know exactly what they need to do and what data they need to hit to create the thriving culture they envision. This should be done for each team, department and organization who wants to build a productive culture that is sustainable long-term. This is especially important as people change roles within companies. In the case of the junior roller derby team, the coach won’t be in the role forever. Being able to quantify the culture she wants to sustain through data targets would allow her to keep and pass on the safe, constructive youth derby culture well beyond her tenure with the organization.

Hold people accountable. This too seems like a difficult challenge for many. Fortunately, the junior roller derby coach has been relentless in sharing the exact behaviors she wants to see from her skaters and has been quick to correct anything that is outside of those parameters.  Leaders are responsible for creating and allowing their cultures to flourish. Those cultures can flourish into constructive, healthy and productive environments or destructive, toxic, diseased ones depending upon what is created and/or allowed in the environment. A culture with a lack of accountability can erode good intentions incredibly fast. Leaders must set clear expectations and have accountability in place as guides to support an environment then have consequences ready for when individuals fall off the path. If leaders do not hold others accountable, they will quickly erode the trust and respect that they have built and the culture will follow.

Roller derby has provided some amazing values and skills to my child – confidence, teamwork, resilience, athleticism, social responsibility and relentless self-improvement in the face of incredible challenges. Their junior’s team coach has done this by creating a healthy team culture, reinforcing it every day then holding individuals accountable when they have exhibited behavior that was outside of those parameters allowing them their supportive and inclusive culture while skating at a competitive level. And, it will be just a matter of time before things will inevitably change without the proper metrics in place to inform and sustain the culture long-term.  These three pieces – define the culture, measure it, and hold people accountable for sticking to it – are what keeps a culture on track and healthy amidst daily life pressures and competition. For now, we celebrate the wonderfully supportive and safe environment that junior roller derby has created for my young human and hope the long-term metrics that can support the teams healthy culture develop before the beauty erodes irreparably. Much like work cultures, a sustained healthy, thriving culture is indeed a rare find.