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The Workplace Scoop Interviews: Building a Strong Team Culture

A candid conversation about team culture, team identity, and leadership.
Fostering Team Culture with Giorgia Savic
In this article

Hello and welcome to “The Workplace Scoop”, the interview series where we speak with workplace experts about the latest trends and forces impacting the labor market, the future of work, employee experience, and so much more.

Today’s guest: Giorgia (Đurđija) Savić, team culture facilitator & consultant.

Giorgia also developed the Walrus Project, a framework that reprograms the communication and interaction between a team and their leader to achieve well-being that maximizes everybody’s potential and performance.

The end goal of the framework is a healthy team culture that will bring:

  • Happier customers,
  • New talent,
  • Talent retention,
  • Employee advocacy,
  • Outstanding employee experience,
  • Productivity, 
  • Clarity and innovation.

So, team culture is Giorgia’s mojo.

And this is what we’re going to talk about today.

Let’s roll!

Team Culture as a Competitive Advantage

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  1. Alina from Tidaro: Proper team culture helps build a company’s competitive advantage. Can you explain how this is happening?

Giorgia Savić: A clearly defined and well-communicated team culture has more chances to attract the people who are the right fit for that particular team. The right fit will not only be more motivated to contribute to the team but is likely to remain onboard for longer than a year, gaining expertise in their field and causing customers to have a positive perception of the company through the team they interact with. The company grows through outstanding customer experience, which is directly connected to employee experience.

When you end up in a team that has rules you accept and actively contribute to, you are likely to be engaged in your work, achieve results, and be satisfied.

On the other hand, accidental team cultures burn money and squander human potential. Such companies not only spend more time looking for talent but also risk hiring somebody who has the skills but not the right attitude for that particular team. The result is the dissatisfaction of all parties, bad turnover, and money lost in talent acquisition costs. Shame, because it could have been used for innovation or any other initiative.

Alina from Tidaro: This managed to bring me some flashbacks…

On Leadership and Organization Culture

  1. Alina from Tidaro: Giorgia, I so loved your opinion here: “Being a boss today feels more like juggling precious Fabergé eggs, in a windy theater where people will leave unless you read their faces and respond to their needs – while you’re juggling”.

Proper team leaders are under lots of pressure: juggling with strategies, team management, upskilling, etc. They often feel lonely and maybe fighting some impostor syndrome.

Is this how it should be?

Giorgia Savić: As much as I would like to say “of course not,” there’s always going to be some juggling and pressure—that’s part of the leader’s job. Those who crack under such pressure are managers who are not ready to switch focus from mere problem-solving to empowering people for problem-solving. And it can be exhausting: there’s so much to do, stakeholders have high expectations, and problems are piling up every passing hour, while teammates crave to be recognized for their contribution. This requires the most scarce resources in the company—the leader’s undivided attention—and since there’s little time, the frustration kicks in: “Can’t people just be adults and sort their stuff so that I can do my job?” 

Managers need support in managing talent; they need coaching so that they can be coaches to their team members; upskilling is great, and a mentor will be nice to have, but none of this will help unless there’s a genuine willingness to become and be a good leader. Empower people to solve problems so that you can tap into the power of your team, and a big chunk of pressure will fall off your shoulders.

To stay in the metaphor, managers and team leaders need somebody to hold the stage while they are juggling.

  1. Alina from Tidaro: So, there’s a stage, there’s some juggling…and then, there’s an elephant 😀. 

I know you tackled this issue in one of your posts, and I loved it: the “elephant in the room”: how can we create a safe space for everybody to share their feelings and thoughts and emotions about an unaddressed topic? We’ve all been there, right? Some colleague that is unproductive, or fakes productivity; a process that needs to be challenged and changed, some internal gossip…

Giorgia Savić: The atmosphere in teams where there’s an elephant in the room is so tense that it could be cut with a knife. People would offer their perspective and would love to discuss and clarify obvious issues, but are afraid to rock the boat and face the consequences.

Unfortunately, if the elephant is not addressed and acknowledged in time, it becomes so big that it completely erodes culture and squeezes people out. That’s how you remain without talent.

How the elephant in the room will be addressed depends largely on the leader’s behavior—what they encourage and what they tolerate in a team. If faking results or gossiping is tolerated, then you have a culture of faking and gossiping. Most likely, it won’t encourage free, honest expression and full potential development because people will be too busy hiding their mistakes. That is one way to create a safe space, by encouraging honesty and kindness without judging others.

On the other hand, asserting publicly that a colleague is not doing their part of the job or that a product is just not good enough yet can be unpleasant, but if you have a culture of candor, then that is a desired behavior that keeps the team values alive. Candor requires courage and emotional maturity because it involves exposure and vulnerability of the ego; such openness can lead to conflict, and conflict is not pleasant, however inevitable and substantially positive it may be. Leaders and teams can benefit immensely from improving conflict competence and from practicing coaching conversations. Then the elephants would just pass them by.

  1. Alina from Tidaro: While I was skimming through your LinkedIn profile, I saw this: “Here’s what I can do for you”. And inside a very long list, I saw this: “Banish workplace drama”. I’d love to hear more about this 😀. I feel we don’t talk about it enough.

Giorgia Savić: What’s easier: whining about how team goals are unrealistic or trying to attain them? Is it easier to gossip about the leader’s latest decision or confront her directly? That’s workplace drama—the negative, action-blocking emotional reaction to change.

Such inactivity during working hours translates into lost productivity and, therefore, a lost opportunity to make an impact. According to drama researcher Cy Wakeman’s findings, an average employee spends two hours and a half per day in drama. Considering that workplace drama is toxic and that it spreads quickly, it can cost businesses millions of dollars per year. In that case, prepare to say goodbye to motivation, engagement, and productivity in teams.

The power and depth of workplace drama depend on the team culture; therefore, change management alone is not enough. By empowering people and holding them accountable for their jobs, not only will you prevent drama, but you will also increase engagement and job satisfaction.

In an intentionally built culture where the rules are clear, expectations are transparent, the environment is safe, and everybody is aware of their impact on the team and company’s success, especially on the success of the customer, workplace drama can be held under control.

Alina from Tidaro: Unless there’s a drama queen in the team :)). Just kiddin’.

Handling Team Culture for Hybrid and Remote Teams

  1. Alina from Tidaro: What are your thoughts on building a proper team culture when dealing with hybrid or remote teams?

Giorgia Savić: To build a healthy remote team culture, be crystal clear about the what and why of the team, create a team identity, and communicate clearly and often to maintain connection.

Here’s what I mean.

The challenge of remote and hybrid team culture is how to establish and maintain the connection to goals, vision, and people on your team. It’s harder to create a sense of belonging.

Therefore, it is paramount to be intentional about the desired team culture that will shape the way people interact and do their jobs to fit into the strategy of the organization while making it easier for people to collaborate effectively.

A strong remote or hybrid team culture will depend on the quality of communication between the parts on all levels. One word: crystal. That’s how clear the communications need to be, including the rules for when to send emails and when to pick up the phone.

The principle is the same for any team culture. As a leader, you need to know the people on your team—who they are, what they know, what they appreciate, what motivates them, and what they need to stay engaged and productive.

Then, be crystal clear about the reason that particular team exists and how it contributes to company goals. Also, clearly state the team goals and delineate each person’s roles and responsibilities.

Clarify as well what remote work means for your team, what the expectations are, what flexibility they have, and how they should communicate with one another.

At that point, create team identity by discovering team values, vision, and mission, and then represent it visually. Use a team culture canvas for the details and make it public.

As for collaboration, establish together how to communicate, which tools to use, and other rules of interaction, as well as a schedule for regular 1-on-1 meetings with the leader.

Don’t forget to document progress and feedback, and establish rituals and reward structures.

Team Canvas

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Alina from Tidaro: Rituals…this is an interesting topic. Rituals are the ones that make us feel part of a tribe, right? And this takes us to our next subject: the sense of belonging.

Team Culture and Belonging

  1. Alina from Tidaro: What makes employees feel like they belong (to the team to the company)?

Giorgia Savić: Here’s what will not create belonging: a ping-pong table.

I have a perfect story on this topic.

A person close to me landed a job in an organization that has values written on the walls and a ping pong table in the lobby. After only a month of work (and occasional games with colleagues), he was job hunting again. When he detected the absolute surprise in my eyes, he said, “I don’t belong there. My manager supports flatterers; my opinion is constantly ignored, and my colleagues don’t share their thoughts. We don’t share the same values. I feel drained and wasted over there.”

As I’m applauding his self-awareness and leadership qualities, I’m thinking of how many other people felt the same but instead chose to become quiet quitters and self-doubting shadows day after day.

We are social beings, and one of our innate desires is to feel accepted, valued, and supported for who we are and for what we can do. When we know that our influence and contribution have value and that our influence can change the decisions of the group, that is when we feel that we belong. When we operate in the context of norms and values that we share and respect, then we feel connected, and the connection is fundamental to belonging.

Yet, belonging is dynamic; you can feel you belong to the team now, but this can change after a while, triggered by a change in your values, culture, and priorities. It’s important to know that you probably won’t belong anywhere forever, and that’s perfectly fine.

Belonging and team culture

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  1. Alina from Tidaro: I love your conclusion  “It’s important to know that you probably won’t belong anywhere forever, and that’s perfectly fine”. And this makes me remember a conversation I had a while back. The idea was that we become part of someone else’s dream when we get hired. So that person/company has to sell us that dream, to make the dream ours as well (in an ideal world). What’s your take here? And also, what happens if someone does not feel a connection with the dream? I mean, is it a must?

Giorgia Savić: I think that more than selling us a dream, it’s more important to show us what our contribution would be—how our work translates into a concrete impact in the life of the customer or society in general.

This is how I see it. Believing in a company dream will not necessarily keep us motivated and engaged in our jobs. There is one thing more important than the dream: it’s the meaning we find in work. For example, I know a hospital electrician. Sounds pretty ordinary, right? Well, he doesn’t see himself just as a cable maintenance guy. He goes to work smiling every day because he knows he is responsible for the power running to the operation rooms, to machines, lights, and all the other devices that keep hospital operations running and substantially keep people alive. If the power went off, some hearts would stop beating.

When any job is fairly paid, has a clear meaning, and people are reminded of their impact, they can dream their dreams while doing their job responsibly.

  1. Alina from Tidaro: And a personal question to you, Giorgia. What skills do you feel parenthood helped you with?

Giorgia Savić: All that I previously said about leaders refers to parents as well. I see parenthood as the most important leadership arena. When leadership is exercised at home, it can be a unique opportunity to become a better leader at work, equipped to improve overall life satisfaction for oneself and employees.

The mere realization that I’m not raising a mini-me but a person vastly different than myself has helped me achieve high levels of self-awareness and emotional intelligence in general.

This difference also helped me learn to manage change, communicate effectively, and become better at negotiation, problem-solving, and prioritization, while drastically improving my coaching skills.

If you are a parent too, it will take you less than 5 seconds to pair each of the skills with your experiences.

As for project and time management, I think that a vast majority of working parents are masters of these disciplines.

In short, parenthood is a non-stop leadership position in which we teach by example, so we better get used to giving good examples.

Conclusion

We really love how candid Giorgia was in our interview! She really gave us a lot of food for thought.

The conversation investigated:

  • How a well-defined team culture can give a company a competitive edge by attracting suitable talent and nurturing employee engagement.
  • The need for deliberate communication, team identity, and clear expectations in order to build a robust team culture in the context of remote and hybrid teams.
  • Workplace drama and open discussions, while fostering a safe workplace environment.
  • The factors contributing to employees’ sense of belonging, emphasizing shared values and meaningful contributions. Giorgia challenges the idea of merely selling a dream, stressing the importance of showcasing the impact of individual contributions on job satisfaction.
  • The parallels between parenthood and leadership, accentuating the cultivation of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and effective communication skills. 

To sum it up, Giorgia Savić’s interview offers valuable perspectives on team culture, leadership, and the creation of a positive work environment. If you want to reach out to her, you can find her on LinkedIn.

If you want to dive more into the topic of the future of work, we’ve released a comprehensive report titled: “2024 and Beyond: Navigating the New Work Era“. Check it out!

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Alina Belascu
Alina is a digital marketer with a passion for web design. When she’s not strategizing she’s doing photography, listening to podcasts on history and psychology, and playing with her 2 dogs and cat.