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Developing team culture

Culture is all-important in teams. Watch Paddy Upton explain more.
PADDY UPTON: Peter Drucker is apparently the person who coined the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and I mostly agree. There are various models and frameworks to measure culture, one of which comes from the work of Harrison and Handy. They propose four different culture modes, namely power, role, achievement, and support, all of which exist in a dynamic balance within teams and all of which have positive and negative attributes. The first is power and often is the dominant culture when a team or organisation first starts out. The energy, drive, and decision comes from the leader. Its healthy manifestation is where the leader is strong, charismatic, and leads with courage and clarity.
They’re demanding yet fair, take care of their followers whilst rewarding and protecting particularly the loyal. This leader is wise and benevolent, acts unilaterally but in the interests of the team and its members. The negative manifestation of a power culture happens when people blindly and fearfully bow down to the leader even when they’re leading the team in the wrong direction. People will cover up mistakes and keep bad news from the boss. An unhealthy leader will see to it that their friends and allies rise to power even if they’re not competent, something fellow South Africans would all too regularly have witnessed under Jacob Zuma’s presidency.
A role culture emerges as the organisation grows in size and especially when more people join who were not there in the beginning. In its healthy form, the role culture necessitates the organisation adding role clarity and job descriptions where any ineffectiveness, uncertainty, and confusion is reduced by establishing clear objectives, systems, and procedures. Job descriptions, key performance indicators, key responsibility areas become commonplace, and people are safe and are rewarded by meeting requirements. Power shifts from the leader to due process where rules and compliance limit the arbitrary use of power and where the need for individual decision making is reduced.
The negative side is that people follow rules for the sake of following them, even when those rules get in the way of what actually needs to be done. Jobs are so tightly defined that there’s little room for people to contribute their unique strengths and ideas. And everything needs so many levels of approval that they give up trying to make improvements. The rules and procedures become more important than people, who end up being treated as replaceable cogs in a machine.
Once roles have been established and people know who needs to do what, the next stage in culture development is to focus on achievement where, in its healthy form, the common focus shifts from internal rules and procedures to competing for and striving towards achieving goals. People become free to do what’s required to achieve success with rules and regulations no longer getting in the way of people doing what is best. People have greater self-esteem, are more self-regulating, have a greater sense of camaraderie and common goals, and thus are happy to work longer hours. Power is somewhat diffuse, being based on expertise rather than position or charisma.
The negative side of too much of an achievement culture is that work takes precedence over people’s needs, over their family, and social life. Unhealthy internal competition can arise between team members, especially where individual achievement is highly rewarded. A very successful achievement-oriented team can become overly self-admiring, which can see them becoming arrogant and overly competitive. And because dissent and criticism are stifled in this environment, the team can have difficulty correcting its own errors. As the achievement culture starts working against the team organisation, people naturally move to become more caring and supporter of one another both professionally and personally.
In a support or people-oriented culture, harmony and well being is valued, where people go out of their way to cooperate, make sure that conflict is resolved, and that everyone is included and on board. Team members are treated as human beings rather than as resources. They appreciate and acknowledge each other’s contributions. People in this culture feel a sense of belonging, and they like spending time together. The negative is that people can become more focused on relationships than on getting work done. People are so busy being kind and nice that they don’t have the difficult conversations, which in turn causes conflict to fester under the surface.
Where consensus cannot be reached, the group can become indecisive and lose direction, and changes can take too long to happen when not everyone is on board. Everyone gets the same reward despite unequal contribution, which can cause further frustration, particularly with the more ambitious. As the negative side of a support culture becomes too commonplace, the organisation’s performance is likely to suffer, which will often result in a new leader being appointed. And the cycle can start from the beginning with a new leader reclaiming the power. As we’ve heard, these different cultures– power, role, achievement, and support– all have positive and negative manifestations.
As organisations naturally ebb and flow, it’s important to maintain the appropriate balance or dynamic tension between each of these dimensions. Most teams need some amount of decisive, focused, and strong leadership, good systems and structures to regulate who needs to do what, to have commitment and energy towards delivering high levels of success while still having a cooperative, caring, and supportive team environment. The leadership’s role is to keep a healthy balance between these and to recognise and avert negatives before they have any discernible impact.
This requires a leader to ideally have both good awareness and self-awareness to engage with team members in assessing what is required, which implies a person-centred approach and to realise that they do not need to be the all-powerful, all-knowing expert.

Power, role, achievement and support: each has a place within the team and each has positives and negatives.

There are a number of frameworks available for coming to understand an organisation’s culture: the one used here is based on four ideologies identified by Roger Harrison.

An organisation’s ideology “affects the behaviour of its people, its ability to effectively meet their needs and demands, and the way it copes with the external environment” (Harrison, 1995, p. 150). The four ideologies are:

  • power orientation
  • role orientation
  • task orientation
  • person orientation

Harrison (1995) notes that much of the conflict surrounding change in an organisation is really an ideological struggle, and once this is recognised the points of conflict can be more easily understood.

This applies equally to teams, and so coming to understand which orientation is in operation in your team, or the organisation of which the team is part, will help you better understand the team’s culture, how it develops and your role in the development of that culture.

Your task

What percentage of power, role, achievement and support are present within your team? Create a pie chart to represent this visually.

If you were to advance or consolidate your team how might you re-distribute these percentages? Create a second pie chart to visually represent this shift.

What is the action you can take as coach in this redistribution?


Handy, CB 1993, Understanding organizations : Charles B. Handy. 4th edn, Penguin, Harmondsworth, accessed from
Harrison, R & Schein, EH 1995, ‘Understanding Your Organization’s Character’, in The collected papers of Roger Harrison, McGraw-Hill developing organizations series, McGraw-Hill Book Company, London, pp. 149–164.
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