Detecting Cultural Viruses in Self-Managed Teams

By Daniel Ospina for Enlivening Edge Magazine

One of the wonderful things about self-management is flexibility. As we remove rigid hierarchies and job titles a world of possibilities for collaboration, personal development, and value creation open up. However, this path is not without its pitfalls, such as the cognitive dissonance we feel when our evolved structure still leaves space for culture issues.

Order and chaos in self-managed teams

In my early professional life, I worked in some of the most hierarchical organisations out there: Michelin-starred kitchens. These organisations are far from perfect, but one thing I appreciated was the certainty they provided. I knew my place. I knew my path. I knew which decisions were made by whom and when in doubt, I could always ask my boss. The hierarchy helped me feel safe and allowed me to focus on my role.

After I left the food industry and entered the world of startups and self-managed organisations, that familiar structure was stripped away. Life became chaotic. Simple tasks—like finding out who was responsible for a decision or who had information on a topic—suddenly required a lot of work and initiative.

As I started to lead teams, I learned the hard way that to be effective with a more flexible organisation, we had to create some foundations. In practice, that meant a combination of

  • Loads of personal development for myself and my colleagues—to improve how we dealt with uncertainty
  • Well-defined processes for decision-making—to bring clarity and focus and enable new team members to contribute sooner and avoid the tyranny of structurelessness
  • Paying a lot of attention to team dynamics—to ensure that our more flexible structure didn’t leave space for counterproductive or even toxic behaviours being left unaddressed.

Personal development and decision-making processes are frequently featured in the self-management literature, so I will leave them for another occasion. As for the third one, team dynamics is often less well understood, and it took us a bit longer to realise just how important it is in a self-managed organisation.

Team dynamics in self-managed teams

To be fair, team dynamics are also crucial in hierarchical organisations, but when the classical elements of structure were removed, it surprised me how quickly certain patterns of behaviour could get in the way of great teamwork. Some of the more common patterns I noticed were

  • ⌛️ Quicksand: Everything is changing all the time; people are stressed and have grown weary of new initiatives
  • 🤹 All Things to All People: Trying to do too many things at once, please too many people, satisfy too many criteria
  • 🏃🏾 Cool. Moving On: Jumping straight to what’s next without taking the time to celebrate successes
  • 💔 Overpromise / Underdeliver: Setting unrealistic expectations. Not saying no, even when there’s too much on our plates
  • ✌ Good Vibes Only: Seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses. Not talking about risks, flaws, and problems.

These patterns—and others like them—erode trust between colleagues and stakeholders, increase the risk of burnout, and can even lead to existential risk for the whole organisation. And to make matters worse, they tend to spread if left unattended. That led us to start calling them Cultural Viruses.

Recognising Cultural Viruses in teams

With my partner, I started compiling a list. And over time, as we worked with different organisations, we could see that different teams are affected by different Cultural Viruses. Even teams within the same organisation tend to exhibit different patterns.

This makes sense when we understand that Cultural Viruses are the result of individual assumptions and interpersonal dynamics. As such, some of the usual approaches for culture, like having a list of company values or defining a shared purpose, are often not targeted enough. Beyond company culture, these patterns of behaviour are an issue of team culture and require we approach them as such.

But of course, expecting to be totally clear of Cultural Viruses is unrealistic. No team is perfect. The important thing is to become better at recognising them early on. As we developed our list of Cultural Viruses and shared it with our clients, we started to see them everywhere—in the movies we watched, the books we read, and in our own team.

The more familiar these patterns became, the easier it was to spot them and talk about them. The subject stopped being taboo, and it became easier to hold each other accountable whenever we fell into the pattern. This helped create a better atmosphere, and our effectiveness as a team also improved.

Discover the Cultural Viruses

Seeing the value of recognising and naming these patterns—especially in the rapidly evolving and occasionally chaotic world of self-managed organisations—we created a free tool to help others discover 35 common Cultural Viruses and find out which are present in their team.

The Cultural Virus Test takes no more than 10 minutes, and we hope it’ll help you and your team create a healthier, thriving team culture.

Our Initial Findings

With almost 200 submissions now, we’re able to confirm that a large number of Cultural Viruses are present in most teams where people report being dissatisfied. But even in satisfied teams, we’re hearing that some Viruses are holding them back. This confirmed our hypothesis that no team is perfect, or rather, every team has the potential to improve.

Take, for example, one of my clients—a social enterprise in the pharmaceutical and wellbeing sector. They have a relatively healthy culture. Teams are committed to the collective success of the organisation, people are happy, and employees willingly support one another. Yet they still exhibit a few Cultural Viruses.

When we noticed the ‘Good Vibes Only’ Virus, we launched an antidote in the form of an initiative to normalise constructive criticism, and this uncovered dozens of ideas to improve systems and processes. Within three months—and with only a bit of asynchronous training and role modelling—they started shifting the culture and enjoyed significant ROI.

The Cultural Virus Test made it possible for this team to form a clear idea about the issue, and confirmed that it was affecting multiple employees across the organisation. It gave them a tool to address the cognitive dissonance of a team that was in many ways progressive, and yet held back from its full potential by these cultural issues.

Daniel Ospina is the cofounder of product lab Regenerative Teams and a visiting lecturer at Oxford University. His work is based on systems thinking and multicentric leadership, and spiced by his background as a Michelin chef.

[email protected]

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