No one feels fully prepared when stepping into their first management position. You’ll need to learn unfamiliar systems and rules, bond with your team members, and of course, tackle everyday tasks. Finding the right balance between these things might feel intimidating, but how you manage them can make or break your success.

Your very first priority should be getting to know your team and how they work. Both small-scale studies and large research initiatives show the culture of a team — or the habits and norms of behavior among its members — has a big impact on its performance. Your new leadership role will be an opportunity to either fix, build, or improve the team culture. If you can do this well, the rest will become much easier to navigate.

Fortunately, characteristics that make up high-performing team cultures have been being studied for decades. Though the methodologies used in each study vary, when you gather and compare the research, three common themes quickly emerge: High-performing teams are marked by a sense of common understanding, psychological safety, and prosocial purpose.

Let’s examine each of those elements and talk about how you can bring them onto your team.

Common Understanding

Every person on your team will possess a distinct set of knowledge, skills, and abilities, along with tasks and responsibilities. It will be essential for them to comprehend how their own expertise and job duties contribute to the bigger picture, meaning the performance of the team and organization. To do achieve a common understanding, they need to understand the following areas about themselves and each other:

  • Individual expertise (specialized skills)
  • Assigned tasks (roles and responsibilities)
  • Context (how those tasks fit into organizational goals)
  • Communication preferences (how people like to interact)

Your team needs to know who specializes in what and how to best approach each person for assistance or collaboration. Teams function optimally when they’re familiar with each other’s preferred working styles. Research suggests that shared understanding can even enhance the overall intelligence of the team. As team members develop social sensitivity — the ability to perceive and understand the feelings and viewpoints of others —they’re more likely to tap into the insights of each member, resulting in improved decision-making.

How to Encourage Common Understanding 

As a new manager, a quick yet effective approach to fostering common understanding is through a “Manual of Me” exercise. A week or two after you’ve settled into your role, ask each team member to create a brief document that sheds light on their individual traits and work preferences.

You can use a straightforward template that consists of four fill-in-the-blank prompts:

  • I am at my best when __________.
  • I am at my worst when __________.
  • You can count on me to __________.
  • What I need from you is __________.

Distribute these prompts ahead of a meeting and encourage the team to contemplate them before convening to share their responses. In the meeting, go one-by-one allowing time for each member to share. While their initial sharing should only take a few minutes, allow time for questions and clarifications after each statement. It may take a moment for people to relate the information being shared to their past interactions. As people share their responses, a deeper understanding of each other — including their strengths, weaknesses, and motivations — will emerge, contributing to collective growth in team intelligence.

For example, after reading your team member’s document, you might better understand why they always choose to volunteer on a certain type of project (it sits in their area of interest) and avoid another (it doesn’t). You might gain clarity around why one teammate prefers to write long, logic-driven emails (they prefer written communication) and another is more comfortable talking through ideas on a call (they prefer verbal communication).

“Manuel of Me” guides will only save time and minimize confusion, but also reduce conflicts, often more effectively than expensive personality assessments.

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety happens when team members feel safe expressing themselves, speaking up when they have questions or concerns, disagreeing with each other, making mistakes, and taking interpersonal risks. This atmosphere encourages diverse perspectives and minimizes failures, as people are more likely to intervene and state their opinions or concerns before errors occur.

Psychological safety isn’t created by filling a team with close friends who always agree or people who think and act in similar ways. It’s about establishing norms that encourage constructive conflict centered on “the work” as opposed to “the person” doing the work. Research shows that on diverse teams, which are more likely to generate innovative ideas, psychological safety determines whether employees can effectively use their strengths or if they hold back out of fear and fall short of their potential.

How to Create a Psychological Safety

The most effective approach is to lead by example — by exhibiting vulnerability and trust. Trust is a two-way street. When you openly acknowledge your failures, uncertainties, or personal weaknesses, you’re signaling trust in your team. This might seem counterintuitive, given that many corporate cultures reward the most self-assured, seemingly flawless individuals with managerial roles. But, maintaining an illusion of perfection doesn’t encourage your team to trust you. Instead, it encourages your team to feign perfection themselves, eroding trust over time.

Prosocial Purpose

When team members know they’re making a valuable contribution to the world and producing work that positively impacts others, they feel what I like to call prosocial purpose. In the past few years, meaningful work has gained a lot of attention. More and more people desire to do work that benefits others. Knowing the reason behind their work’s importance isn’t enough — employees also want to know who their work is serving. One study even indicated that when people hear stories about how their colleagues’ work benefits others, they become more motivated to engage in helpful actions. This suggests that when people hear how their work is positively affecting others, they’re more likely to set their own goals and desires aside and focus on the needs and objectives of the team. 

How to Make the Work Meaningful

One powerful and simple method is regularly sharing stories about the team’s or company’s impact. Stories wield the strongest influence on our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors — including our desire to contribute to a team. They stimulate our brains and help us understand the world in a way that only centuries-old traditions can.

Specifically, share stories that connect the team’s efforts to the people who benefit from their contributions. Whenever possible, gather specific instances of how your team positively affected colleagues, clients, or the community. If you come across a tale about how your team’s work assisted another group, jot down a quick note and save it. This way, when you’re about to start a team meeting, you’ll have an array of stories to choose from that can set a compelling tone.

. . .

Consider all three aspects and the behaviors associated with them as habits that you, as a new manager, should display — and ideally that the team will adopt. Ultimately, a team’s culture comprises the habits and common behaviors of its members. As these habits persist, the team’s mutual understanding, sense of security, and awareness of how their work benefits others will expand. These changes will lay the foundation for a high-performing and happy team.