How Do Cultural Viruses Affect Team Culture?

by | Nov 5, 2020 | 0 comments

Everyone wants a healthy culture in the workplace. It’s what makes people happy to contribute their best ideas, go the extra mile, and work as a team. So it’s no wonder businesses are investing in culture decks and team socials. Some even hire agencies to build an Employer Brand, and compete for titles like the ‘best company to work for’. But with all the hype, it’s easy to forget that no culture is perfect. We’re all human, with different ways to communicate, and different ideas on how people ‘ought’ to work together.

Talking about culture, and particularly about culture problems, is hard. Team culture is a fuzzy topic, and we’re still developing a common language for expressing ourselves without blaming, shaming and complaining.

The trouble is, unaddressed problems tend to fester. And this is particularly true for culture. Every team has patterns of behaviour that get in the way of great teamwork. And they tend to spread into something we call Cultural Viruses.

The antidote? Change begins with awareness.

What are Cultural Viruses?

Cultural Viruses are those infectious behaviours that get in the way of great teamwork. They’re frequently subconscious, hard to spot and even harder to talk about, and spread if left unattended.

We’ve identified 35 common Cultural Viruses, including

  • Spin Doctors:  Dressing things up to look better than they really are.
  • cc All:  Informing everyone of everything, just in case.
  • Shiny New Things:  Getting excited by every new possibility, only to abandon it when the next one comes along.

(You can find all 35 of them in our free Cultural Virus Test, but first we want to tell you how they work, and what you can do about them!)

How do Cultural Viruses work?

Generally, these Cultural Viruses fly beneath our radar. Our brains process tremendous amounts of information, and we only have the capacity to examine a tiny portion of it.

That’s how they spread. Most of our behaviour is learnt by emulating others, subconsciously or based on our subjective assumptions about the context, reasons and outcomes of their behaviour. This means we can pass Cultural Viruses on without even being aware of it. The odd one-off behaviour can easily be misunderstood as ‘the way we do things around here’. Especially if it comes from a leader. Then, all it takes is for one person to repeat that behaviour for it to be reinforced as ‘normal’.

Consequently, Cultural Viruses are hard to spot in their early days. We don’t have the headspace to notice every warning sign. It’s only when a harmful behaviour becomes impactful, or frequent that we start to see the patterns and feel its significance. At that point, we’re no longer talking about giving feedback to one or two individuals, but intervening across the entire team.

You can see how easily Cultural Viruses can work their way into any team. In fact, we’ve never seen one that’s virus-free. But the good news is, change starts with awareness.

Do Cultural Viruses make a team dysfunctional? 

The short answer is no, but they can. Dysfunctional teams happen when Cultural Viruses go unaddressed and create a downward spiral. Unhealthy behaviours become increasingly common, making team members unhappy, and stopping them from doing great work.

When a Cultural Virus gets out of control, or when multiple accumulate, people will start looking for the exits. Those who leave first tend to be the most talented, and the most attuned to the issue. So when they leave, the team has less awareness of the Viruses and fewer resources to fight them. The longer this situation goes unaddressed, the more ingrained these patterns become, and the harder it is to pull a team out of the downward spiral.

But does having signs of a few Cultural Viruses make your team dysfunctional? No. No team is perfect. Which also means that every team has the opportunity to improve performance simply by becoming more aware of their patterns.

So what do you do about your Cultural Viruses?

It all starts with pugs.

When you become aware of something – like when I first heard about pugs and found them hilarious – you start to see it everywhere. It’s not that there weren’t any pugs before, but that I didn’t have a clear mental category for them. Which meant that my brain didn’t have the capacity to surface them into consciousness. (This is called selective attention.)

The same happens with Cultural Viruses. When you (or ideally your whole team) learn about the Viruses, you become attuned to them and spot them more easily. It’s a bit like strengthening your immune system – when your white blood cells learn to recognise a pathogen, for example through a vaccine, they can identify it quickly and stop it spreading.

That’s why we’ve mentioned a few times now that change begins with awareness.

Ready to start identifying the Cultural Viruses in your team?

If only you could just pick up a list, right? Well…

The easiest way to build your awareness of the Cultural Viruses and get clarity on what’s going on in your team is to take our free Cultural Virus Test. In 10 minutes, you’ll discover the 35 most common Cultural Viruses, and if you leave us your details, we’ll review your results and send you a personalised report within two weeks. 

About Daniel & Rebecca
We're the cofounders of Renegerative Teams. We build tools for transforming team culture and offer hands-on support to help you and your teams thrive.

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