How to build a high-performing team: A collaborative climate

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower” – Alexander Den Heijer


So we’re all on the same page, here are the definitions I give to my Masters students:


Culture = “The way we do things round here” (The actual situation)

This is in the background of working life and is fed by individual values and beliefs

Climate = “Perceptions of how things are managed or led” (The perceived situation)

This is more in the foreground of working life, the every day that employees experience.


As the saying goes, ‘perception is reality’ and it can be a very powerful thing. As a leader, you underestimate how you feed perception at your peril. Your perceived likes and dislikes can very quickly take root across your team and turn in to how things get done on a day-to-day basis.

There are three ingredients that can feed in to climate. These are:

Content or task – What people imagine the team’s purpose is based on what you say and do as the leader. You can read this previous post for clarifying your common purpose.

Procedures – What people perceive are the ways to work based on what you say and do as the leader

Emotions – How people feel about working here, how they feel about you and your leadership, all fed by personal history, relationships etc.

A failure to effectively facilitate emotions can lead to an unhappy climate, one where there is little collaboration. This post from Harvard Business Review talks about why manages shouldn’t be afraid of expressing their emotions. Likewise, they shouldn’t be afraid of their team members’ emotions.

The aim is to create an environment where emotions are expressed, not hidden, and shared in helpful ways. By surfacing hidden emotions and tensions, you are more likely to get to the heart of how people perceive you, your relationships with other parts of the business, your relationship with the team and the day-to-day effectiveness.

When I ran that same exercise with some senior leaders recently, I asked them what they thought their staff perceptions were in relation to their leadership and hence, the ‘unwritten rules’ which ended up governing day-to-day behaviours and interactions .

Several of them had some major breakthroughs around what their staff perceived the leader to want and need, which was far removed from reality. This was, ultimately, getting in the way of collaboration.

Here are a few of the ‘unwritten rules’ and assumptions:

“Don’t share information with the finance team as they’re not to be trusted”

This was the ping moment for a leader who realised that they had spent so many occasions moaning about efficiency savings and blaming the finance department that their team’s perception became that the finance team were not to be trusted and hence, should not receive information in a timely manner. In fact, it became a bit of a badge of honour to see who could thwart finance the most, or avoid them the longest.

“If you’re not prepared to work long hours then you won’t be asked to join the juicy projects”

This was the light-bulb moment for another leader who recognised that their own tendency to work long in to the evening and on weekends was leading to a warped perception by their team. This was creating in-groups and out-groups, those who were perceived to be ‘the chosen ones’ by the leader and those who were seen as ‘the duds’ (and therefore, not to be associated with). Not the ingredients for a collaborative climate.

They (the leader) hate the director of technology

This was the breakthrough for another leader who realised that this perception had created the ‘unwritten rule’ of not working nicely with anyone in the technology division. As a result, their team had developed a reputation for being a team to avoid or work around or put additional resource in to working with when rolling out a new technological change. All this from a heated argument the leader had on the phone with the director of technology and which was overheard by pretty much the whole team.

If you want to do this same exercise with your team, then here are the steps:

1.Each person lists the perceptions, assumptions and unwritten rules  they believe are in place that they experience every day when doing their jobs. Nothing is off the table in this step.

2. Cluster all of the lists into themes. So, for example, a theme might be ‘Friday afternoon’ where lots of people have said the perception (and hence reality) is that all senior level staff leave by 3pm on a Friday, with everyone else having to stay till 5pm.

3. Set out your expectations around collaboration. Explain what it means for you, what you want to see from the team in terms of behaviour, and what they should expect to see from you in terms of your own collaborative behaviour.

4. Split the team into small sub-groups, where each perception or ‘unwritten rule’ is scored in the extent it helps create a collaborative climate, where:

3 = completely supports a collaborative climate

2 = somewhat supports a collaborative climate

1 = doesn’t support a collaborative climate at all

5.The small groups then work through the themes and discuss ideas for resolving any perceptions or ‘unwritten rules’ which are getting in the way of a collaborative climate, namely those that have scored a ‘2’ or a ‘1’.

6. Come back together as a whole team, with each sub-group sharing their ideas. Someone should capture these in a central place in the form of an action plan.

7. Keep the team updated on progress against the action plan.

And remember, your team’s perception of you is based on what they see you do or hear you say. Your job now is to role model the right kind of behaviour so that new perceptions are formed, where collaboration is embraced within the team and with other teams.

Let me know how you get on with this exercise and what breakthrough moments you have.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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