Celebrating the people behind British small businesses

Why it’s critical to understand your team’s underlying culture

By Mario Moussa and Derek Newberry

We all know that team culture matters.  The highest performing groups tend to be distinguished not just by what they accomplish, but who they are.  But the information on what type of culture to have is contradictory. Some emphasise the benefits of flat teams like those at the design company IDEO, where the best idea wins the day.  Others tout the teams organised around strong leaders, like Steve Jobs-era Apple.  Our work on team dynamics at the Wharton School has told us that there is in fact 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, determined by two sets of characteristics:

Team culture image

  1. Are they more hierarchical or flat?  This axis is all about the distribution of authority within the team. Hierarchical teams give more authority to a strong leader, whereas authority is more widely distributed among the members in a flatter team.
  1. Are they more individualistic or more cohesive? This axis characterises the team’s working relationships. Individualistic teams tend to have more transactional exchanges, while cohesive ones interact in more personal ways.

Where does your team fall on each spectrum? To get the most out of your people, consider your culture type and think about how you can maximise your strengths while attacking your blind spots:

Troops (low on cohesion, high on hierarchy) The traditional military structure is a good example of this type of team, hence the title.  Troops are defined by strong leadership, but little horizontal collaboration.  You follow your superior’s orders, and you generally operate in a silo. The strength of this team type is in the common direction provided by a strong leader. The downside is the lack of feedback, since team members work independently and aim mainly to serve the leader.

Believers (high on cohesion, high on hierarchy) Volkswagen has a strong, unified culture that is also heavily driven by family-based leadership at the top.  Believer cultures like the predominant one at VW are energised and rally around a compelling vision.  However, as we have seen in the emissions scandals now plaguing the company, they can be overly insular and easily succumb to group-think.

Virtuosos (low on cohesion, low on hierarchy) The 2004 U.S. Olympic basketball squad comprised some of the world’s best talent, bringing together future hall-of-famers like Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, and a young LeBron James.  The team was loaded with big egos, as individuals jockeyed for possession of the ball to show off their elite skills.  Like that Olympic 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.  As it turned out, this ended up being the downfall of that 2004 squad, as they struggled against teams with more cohesive and unified playing style.

Friends (high on cohesion, low on hierarchy) Zappos is known for its radical experimentation is organisational structure, but none has been so extreme as their adoption of “holacracy.” In this system of management, there is little established hierarchy, and employees rotate fluidly in teams called “circles” that organise around designated areas of activity.  Zappos people are given a great deal of autonomy to problem-solve and collaborate as they see fit.  Research on leadership styles shows that this empowering approach can pay dividends in the long run, since team members become highly engaged and collaborative. In the short run, though, these teams get a slower start as individuals take time to achieve a high comfort level with each other and their roles.

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, using our two-axis framework, will help you start defining and organising roles in a way that promotes team success down the road.


Dr. Mario Moussa and Dr. Derek Newberry are the authors of Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance. Dr. Moussa teaches in the Executive Programs at Wharton School of Executive Education. Dr. Newberry is a lecturer at the Wharton School. Connect with Dr. Moussa at www.moussaconsulting.com, and with Dr. Newberry on Twitter, @derekonewberry.