Culture is “the behaviour you accept, or don’t”, so helping teams identify the unproductive behaviours they’ve come to accept is key to boosting performance, a leadership expert says.

Leading Teams founder and facilitator Ray McLean says that for some teams, unproductive behaviour is an accepted norm.

One way to identify behaviours that are compromising performance is to ask the team what they would liketo see, but this can often create a “rolling feast” of desirable behaviours, rather than generate more relevant and specific insight, he tells an HR Daily Premium webcast.

A more effective question, he says, is “is there unproductive behaviour in the team that we accept?”

A team might, for example, describe itself as being “siloed”, with the result that members undermine each other’s work, compromising overall productivity.

Another way to generate insight is to ask employees to brainstorm three or four words that currently best describe their team.

Mediocre or negative terms could explain problems such as high turnover, which might otherwise be dismissed as an “industry norm”.

“I think in a lot of industries, there’s almost these accepted norms… ‘that happens in advertising’ or ‘that happens in sport’, so we almost find ways to let ourselves off the hook,” McLean says.

The aim of the process is to construct an “agreed behavioural frame” – almost like “rules of engagement” – so another key question is, “what is the agreement we want to make together?”

“The most important part is that we have the conversation and are starting to form an agreement that is real,” he says.

The signs there’s a problem

An important prerequisite for high performance is “absolute” clarity of purpose, McLean notes.

Questions such as, “why do we exist?” and, “if the team didn’t exist, would clients be worse off, or just find someone else?” can help teams to identify their purpose, and what makes them unique.

One way to gauge whether a team lacks clear purpose is to listen to the language people use when they talk about their role, McLean says.

Constrictive words such as “only” and “just” – “I only do this role” or “I’m just the…” – are symptomatic of a problem, he says.

In contrast, team members who are properly engaged tend to be more expansive about their roles. They tend to talk more globally about their function, and use phrases such as, “I’m responsible for…”, he says.

McLean, who has worked with teams in business, elite sports and the military, says it’s important for teams to agree on a clear behavioural frame – “one that people own to the best of their ability” – which means it must be worked on together.

Why no anonymity?

Working as a team to discuss and develop a team’s identity might not foster the same level of honesty as an anonymous survey, but the process of breaking into small groups to answer questions and rejoining to share answers is an end in itself, McLean says.

“I’m always really reserved about anonymous-type work because I think it can sometimes lead to people being more extreme in their views; it can sometimes lead to them being able to perhaps drive different agendas,” he says.

In contrast, small groups act as a kind of “natural filter”.

“You might have some people who are particularly anxious about the workplace or particularly disgruntled, right through to some who might not see it that way, so there’s a balancing effect. It will still be confronting, and you’ll still have some work to do, but I like the idea that people are starting the process of talking to each other,” he says.

“It’s creating a method which enables people to be as honest as they can be in the earlier stages as safely as that can happen, and then as you practise that, the environment will shift… typically, growth appears from there.”