How to create a culture of openness in a team?

I'm currently involved in 2 different projects, and without sharing any more detail about what they entail, I've noticed that the teams differ a lot in terms of openness of the team members. With that, I mean to what extend people dare to voice their concern and be critical towards each other and towards the project. To me, this is not very different from the situation in academic labs, where sometimes there is more room to be critical and share new ideas than in other cases. For example, how do you deal with results that don't fit the story that the lab is building?

But how do you create such a culture of openness? If I compare these two teams that I work in, I see this as the main difference: In the open team, a lot of the tasks are shared, even if it may seem unnecessary to share this much. Meetings are larger, because more people are included. Sometimes people join who don't seem experts on the topic, but this also means that they can think out-of-the-box compared to people who have been working on something for a while. In the not-so-open team, people tend to get their own little assignment from the team leader, that they then need to report back on once finished. Sometimes the different team members aren't aware of what the others are working on, or where they are in the process. In the open team, the way of working leads to the feeling that we are all working on something together, whereas in the not-so-open team it sometimes even leads to an us vs. them kind of feeling.

When I read the piece on Theranos in Vanity Fair recently, I realized that this was almost an exaggerated description of the not-so-open team that I work in:

Holmes [Theranos' CEO] had learned a lot from [Steve] Jobs. Like Apple, Theranos was secretive, even internally. Just as Jobs had famously insisted at 1 Infinite Loop, 10 minutes away, that departments were generally siloed, Holmes largely forbade her employees from communicating with one another about what they were working on—a culture that resulted in a rare form of executive omniscience. At Theranos, Holmes was founder, C.E.O., and chairwoman. There wasn’t a decision—from the number of American flags framed in the company’s hallway (they are ubiquitous) to the compensation of each new hire—that didn’t cross her desk.

And the end of the Theranos story warns what can happen when you create a culture like this. Just to add: the team that I work in is by far not as siloed as the situation at Theranos, but reading this and comparing the two teams that I work in makes me realize the value of being open and being able to share your opinion and ideas.

And then to end: what can you do as a team member? Personally, I try to continue to share my opinion in the not-so-open team, even if that is often not met with enthusiasm from the team leader. I try to catch up with other team members and share what we are working on - sometimes outside the scheduled team meetings. But working in these different teams also makes me realize how difficult it is to change the culture within a team - as a team member at least.

3 responses so far

  • chall says:

    I think part of the silo culture is the fear of getting scooped. And the other side of the silo culture is double work and redundancy. I\m working with this in one of my teams and have had fairly good success when everyone in the team feels like they are an intergral part of the team and that the sum of contribution is better/more than one on one. It's not easy though, we have been through quite a few of discussions and sometimes disagreements. If you can anchor the behaviour with the boss and they can talk to the middle management and ensure credit to everyone who contribute, I'd seen it gone easier. (although, the author order on the paper still seem to be a slight touchy issue....)

    • babyattachmode says:

      Thanks for your comment! I'm still not sure why the silo culture exists in this one team. Scooping is not really a thing inside the company (as far as I can see). You're right that addressing it might help and we happen to have a meeting scheduled soon to discuss ways of working, so let's see what happens there.

      • chall says:

        sometimes in companies, or places where scooping isn't the issue, it's a lack of recognition or feeling that someone else will get credit for what you've done. Also the fear of being replaceable. do managers and "people above" recognize the smaller people or one silo more than the others? Playing favourites etc.

        I ended up having a very frank discussion with one of my teams where I explained that everyone is basically replaceable at work. That focusing on not sharing and keeping it all to yourself might make more harm than good. Not to mention - it's a matter of add value or team building that comes from being better together than one-on-one and that's why sharing makes it better, more efficient and covering all bases

        Not sure it got received by everyone but some of them did start being more open with other teams...

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