The Anatomy of Group Culture

15 Nov

There are some places you simply shouldn’t go.  This was one of those places, but it wasn’t like I had a choice.  My present business was going to take me right into the heart of the beast.  As I walked down an unfamiliar lane, it seemed uncommonly dark, ‘Why is it so dark?’, I thought to myself. The stories of this area are legendary, stories of Harry Potter Dementor-like creatures that suck the life completely from you. Turning a corner, the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up as shadowy faces appeared out of the darkness, flickering in the light of a burning barrel. Muffled voices seemed to surround me, which quickened my pace and my resolve to get my business done and get out of there as soon as possible.  A silhouette of a figure stood under a dimly lit street light directly ahead.  This was it, let’s get this over with. All I could think was, ‘Processing a travel claim just shouldn’t be this hard!’

Are there areas of your organization that are toxic? Groups that you would rather avoid? Or maybe you are in a group that can’t seem to rise out of a pessimistic funk.  How is it possible that different groups within the same organization can have such different characteristics?  How is it that one group can collectively be sour, grumpy and dissatisfied while the group sitting just meters away can be happy, optimistic and fulfilled?

Every group will eventually deal with three interpersonal issues.  How the group deals with these issues will determine the type of group that will result.  These interpersonal issues are: Safety, Openness, and Positivity.


Safety refers to the sense of personal comfort each group member has based on the level of respect that members have for each other. A respectful environment promotes feelings of safety, which promotes participation. Participation introduces the possibility of synergy – the idea that the group working together can make greater contributions than its individual members.


Openness refers to the extent to which the group encourages outward thinking and experimentation.  A non-punitive environment, one with an absence of judgement or blame, encourages such exploration. In this environment, creativity can flourish and new ideas can be discussed and attempted.


Positivity refers to the group’s general outlook and comes from a purposeful environment, one in which there is a connection with meaningful work and an emphasis on a positive future. Such positivity results from a philosophy of abundance rather than scarcity, the belief that someone does not have to lose in order for someone to win. In an environment where everyone can win, the group can imagine a brighter future.


These three issues are the building blocks of healthy team culture.  A group that is safe, open and positive will be happy, healthy and productive.  Take the safety, openness and positivity away from that same group of people and it will produce pessimism, complaints and personnel problems.

Robert Ferguson

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