How to cook up a positive atmosphere for your team

Dedicated to the scoutbee team :)

How do you keep such a positive atmosphere?

This question took me completely by surprise. I always took it for granted, but only at that moment did I understand how much we’d achieved thanks to it: creativity flourishment, tolerance, boosted efficiency and engagement…

I could sing our virtues all day, but let’s get to the point! Let’s start by discovering the “symptoms” of a positive atmosphere: how we can know when we achieve the goal. Then, let’s move to the practical advice that will help you to start building it from scratch and strengthen it in more mature teams. You can both watch a presentation about it or embark on the journey in the blog post here.

Setting a clear goal

Let’s look into what is really implied in “positive atmosphere”:

  • Safety is prioritized. In short, every team member feels like they can share their thoughts without thinking about how they will be perceived. There is no place for fear, which kills creativity. The responsibilities are clear, and there’s a sense of stability that enables all players to concentrate on high-level problems.
  • Optimism is highly valued at the company. It’s considered cool to be optimistic, to concentrate on the solution and setting goals rather than complaining and pointing out the negative points. On the contrary, the toxic comments, laughing at others and disrespectful tone are frowned upon.
  • Honesty and trust are important, as optimism has to be healthy: Yeah, being honest pays off at this workplace! The courage to point out problems is appreciated, but we’re doing it to tackle the challenge, to improve, and we do realize that problems will always exist. We want to fail fast, remember?
  • No blame culture is allowed. When bad situations happen, it’s smart to concentrate on what can be improved in the moment to mitigate the consequences, and later on, to look into how similar situations can be avoided in the future. It’s disapproved to make others guilty and show off.
  • People are supportive and nice to each other. That should be a part of the team culture and considered normal behavior. Here, it’s important to align the hiring strategy so most of the people come to the company with such values; however, that’s not the topic of this article. In any case, it’s essential to show that delivering results counts only if you do it as a team. An advanced solution nobody else can maintain is nothing more than a temporary one. Introduce mentorship and coaching practices, start them from the onboarding and keep on. And remember, it has to be supported by salary calculation and the overall status of mentors and coaches at the company.
  • A culture of lifelong learning is fostered. We don’t know everything, but we strive never to stop learning. There are processes set up to boost knowledge sharing as a regular practice. Mistakes are not a big deal if you learn from them.

It’s no accident that safety goes first. If you want a truly positive atmosphere, it has to be sincere.

Disclaimer: Most of the practices here eventually have to be aligned with corporate strategy. In particular, defining the compensation rules, on-boarding practices, hiring strategy and status of the employees at the company must be coherent and consistent across the company. If you need changes, it means close collaboration with HR and other colleagues.

The company culture has to mirror, or at least not contradict, these points.

Let’s make this actionable

Now, here are practical recommendations on how to achieve this atmosphere in the long run.

Praise and appreciation

It’s completely natural for people to give negative feedback, to point out the weak parts and flaws. What isn’t a part of our “default” habits is to praise and focus on the positive parts.

Start with yourself and set an example. Praise others, but only for a reason, and to the extent it’s earned. Do it at the general meetings and one-on-one chats. Don’t try too hard, though; be 100% sincere. Your praise will only matter if you also point out the problems when they happen and when you are fair.

Coach other people on how to praise others. Explain the importance and the effect and then let the habit spread through the team — like a viral video about kittens ;)

You can also use some standard tools and approaches:

  • Conduct the retros with the focus on the positive. E.g. with the Spotify kit, you can find some formats that will focus on achievement appreciation, planning and looking toward a bright future. Feel free to facilitate your own group session, where you describe the variation of positive atmosphere your team would love and investigate what’s missing to arrive there.
One of my most favorite retro techniques is defining what speeds up our ship and how, and what kind of rocks are slowing us down. Appreciation is an important part of the journey as well.
  • Scrum experts advise discussing how the values of Scrum will be visible in the daily work, adding them to a retro and introducing a funny “values prize.”
  • Well-known kudo cards will definitely come in handy when you want to foster personalized feedback (although, be careful with these: when you have toxicity in the air, they can deteriorate the situation).
  • Praise should be a part of the regular appraisals, adaptation and on-boarding activities. Adaptation, personal development meetings and the like should have a default agenda item to review the positive and negative feedback about the performance (important: don’t forget to ask for the feedback in return!). It’s important to have enough time to discuss the points, analyze them together and give the opportunity for the person to self-reflect in a calm way.

NB: When you praise and express appreciation, you stimulate the production of serotonin, the main hormone of safety and creativity. Small wins also trigger a dopamine boost, just like a tasty chocolate, but they do not have such a long-term effect.

When you love, you trust

It’s very easy to lose trust in your team, and when it happens, it undermines the overall company culture and significantly decreases efficiency. Lack of trust fosters toxicity and makes it more and more difficult to estimate the true results of work, questions approaches to it. People tend to spend more energy on looking good than on achieving success in their job. Under such circumstances, it works out the best for a person to protect themselves and put the blame on others. Initiative is punished; accepting mistakes and working on them are considered ridiculous in the long run. Bit by bit, and it will remind you of the Soviet regime in miniature.

Let me share some symptoms of no trust:

  • Questioning the approaches to work. One of the easiest ways to give a sense of instability and alarm is double-checking every step with other people. Instead, you’re to impose a friendly cross-learning culture, not be the KGB, especially if you are in a leadership position.
  • Sarcasm when talking about the mistakes of others or their challenges. Hurting people’s feelings isn’t helping; they’ll shut down if you do that. And a friendly smile with a pat on the shoulder won’t ease it.
  • Unconstructive general feedback without a call to action or suggestions for improvement, as it demotivates heavily. This destroys trust in quite a cruel way. “Your code is not consistent,” “Your behavior is unacceptable,” “You’re so hot-tempered!” won’t stimulate changes in people’s behavior, but irritate them.
  • Unclear “rules of the game” and lack of consistency. When an action can be interpreted as a positive and negative event in similar cases, our brains enter the crises. E.g.: If one day, pair code review is cool and another day it’s considered a no-go, although no clear changes of context happened.

How to improve?

  • Avoid micro-managing as much as possible, and instead, encourage everyone to develop a lifelong learning mindset. When you find your team member underperforming, consider it an opportunity for learning and try to analyze and fix it. Provide feedback in a straight yet gentle way. Be supportive instead of directive.
  • Clear boundaries aren’t less important. Fear of the dark is the fear of the unknown, so you have to make the limits clear. People will be happy to experiment and innovate only if they’re not afraid.
  • Boost the sense of responsibility for work outcomes. It is a totally different situation when people feel the obligation to deliver high-quality results and themselves look for ways to ensure the best performance. Empower your mates to take on responsibility and agree with the team regarding what it means and what the expectations are.
  • For the international team, mind the cultural differences and ask for help from your foreign colleagues. For example, black humor in the U.S. and black humor in Ukraine differ a lot, and for unprepared Ukrainians, some Northern American jokes can be hurtful, while Ukrainians being too straight-to-the-point can be considered rude. Cross-cultural education can be really helpful here, for your whole team.
In one episode of “Friends,” Ross “fakes” his own funeral. For a Ukrainian, it can look not only extremely weird but also not funny at all, while for most Americans, it’s totally fine to laugh about the situation in a TV show.
  • Share important information across the company and do so with proper tools. It won’t just boost trust, but will also prevent gossip and political games. All the important news has to be communicated repeatedly on a regular basis and in person: company goals, structural changes (e.g. hierarchy changes, hiring plans), strategy and success/failures of the product. You could, for example, use the OKR’s framework to guide you with this communication strategy by involving employees.

Use non-verbal means to boost the good mood

Your emotional intelligence will be your most efficient weapon against the bad mood in the team.

By nature, if people are involved, they mimic the non-verbal communication of their interlocutor. If you’re exploiting your voice and add some flavor to your intonation, if you smile, if your gestures are open when you are leading or participating in the meeting, you‘ll infect all the team with such a mood. Always start with yourself, then coach your team, meeting facilitators and formal as well as informal leaders.

Change Management workshop. As you see, sparkling with optimism :)

Knowledge Sharing Culture

Proper learning culture not only promotes the positive atmosphere but will also help you to attract talents and make your teams considerably efficient.

The general practices are described in the XP concepts and can be extended: pair programming, code reviews, mob programming. When you are not impressed by those, you can also form interest groups and communities and foster demos, trainings and workshops organized by your teammates.

It is very difficult for me not to bombard you with more experience sharing now, so let me just get by on this short preview to the topic. How to initiate the learning culture and make it organically spread is coming in a future article :)

What worked for you to boost the positive atmosphere? Share in the comments, so we all can learn!