Troops, believers, virtuousos or friends? The four common team cultures and how to get the most out of them

Mario Moussa and Derek Newberry
Pacers v Lakers
Bryant and O'Neal: Virtuosos can take on challenges with gusto, but may lack team rapport (Source: Getty)

It seems that every other week there is another management fad around the type of culture needed to get the most out of your team. Some say teams should be like friends who just happen to work together – flat groups which are motivated by how well they get along. Others argue that the best teams butt heads and harness competitive energy to get the best results. Our answer? Like good researchers and consultants, it depends.

Our work on team dynamics has shown us that there is no one right team culture. The key is knowing what your team “type” is, and managing its strengths and weaknesses effectively. Through our research, we have identified four common team cultures:

Troops

Low on cohesion, high on hierarchy – the team Steve Jobs assembled to produce the iPhone falls into this quadrant.

He assembled the company’s superstars, pitting them against each other under the threat of being blamed for product failures. The team was heavily individualistic but committed to Jobs’s vision, which eventually produced a breakthrough product. The strength of this team type is in the common direction provided by a strong leader. The downside is a lack of feedback, since team members work in silos and aim mainly to serve the leader.

Believers

High on cohesion, high on hierarchy, Facebook is characterised by an iconic leader in Mark Zuckerberg (and increasingly Sheryl Sandberg). But there is also a cohesive bond between employees around a strong culture of experimentation, embodied in the phrase “the hacker way.”

Believer cultures, like the one which predominates at Facebook, are energised by and rally around a compelling vision, but they can easily succumb to groupthink.

Virtuosos

This group is low on cohesion, and low on hierarchy. In 2003, Phil Jackson added basketball legends Gary Payton and Karl Malone to an LA Lakers team that already featured Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, two future Hall-of-Famers.

Read more: Ten tips to make sure your team works in sync

The team of big egos stormed through the regular season and play-offs but sputtered out in the NBA finals that year, winning only one game against the Detroit Pistons, a team with much less star power at that point but a great deal of team chemistry. Like that Lakers team, virtuosos benefit from having the talent to take on big challenges with gusto, but the lack of team rapport or a strong leader can cause them to pull apart under duress.

Friends

High on cohesion, low on hierarchy, WL Gore falls into this group as one of a few large companies with relatively little top-down structure.

The 10,000 employees make decisions on everything from projects to hiring through self-managing teams of eight to 12 people. As chief executive Terri Kelly says: “It’s far better to rely upon a broad base of individuals and leaders who share a common set of values and feel personal ownership for the overall success of the organisation. These responsible and empowered individuals will serve as much better watchdogs than any single, dominant leader or bureaucratic structure.”

Read more: Why it’s time firms gave job titles the sack

Research on leadership styles shows that this empowering approach can pay dividends in the long run, because team members become highly engaged and collaborative. In the short run, however, such teams get a slower start as individuals take time to achieve a high comfort level with each other and their roles.

No right answer

There is no one right culture. The important thing is to be aware of the trade-offs with each one and manage your team structure accordingly. In considering your own team type, you should assess whether a strong vision and delegation from the top or a more informal structure will contribute to peak performance. You should also consider whether you are better off working in interconnected silos, or tackling each task collaboratively.

Having this conversation early on will help you start defining and organising roles in a way that promotes team success.

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