Your Ultimate Guide to the Six Levels of Unicorn Teams and How it Takes Your Startup Team From Good to Great

I recall building my first team - boy, was I out to lunch in how I expected them to work with me.  

You see, we have this tendency to believe that if we throw a group of people together and give them a task to complete that they’ll figure out how to get it done with minimal effort. 

This simply isn’t the case. 

People have different personalities, communication styles, and just general ways of working and often these are hard to effectively align without actively coaching the team members.

Teamwork is much harder than we give it credit for, and what’s even harder is creating a thriving culture that fosters a high performing team. 

To understand how to create cultures that build  high performing teams, we have to decipher how to create an effective culture and what makes a team high performing.

The answers to these questions have become my life’s journey and through all my years of investigation I have narrowed down how to create a powerful team and influential culture for your startup into six crucial steps.

To start, I recommend that you watch the video below to get a general sense of what these six steps are and why they are important. Then, continue reading the article for a deep dive on each step and insight on how they apply to effective culture building.

1. Psychological Safety

Without psychological safety, the rest of the steps that make up a great team and effective culture have nothing to stand on.

This makes psychological safety the first and most foundational step of any high performing team and sets the stage for each level to follow.

Psychological safety is defined as an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking risks and being vulnerable in front of their teammates.

If there is a high sense of psychological safety team members feel secure around each other and are comfortable taking risks and be vulnerable. Team members are willing to make mistakes, speak up, and share different opinions without fear of repercussions.

Characteristics of psychological safety on a high functioning team are team members who are comfortable admitting mistakes, employees who learn from their failures and see them as an opportunity for growth, and a group of people who openly share ideas and feedback with each other.

When a team has a high sense of psychological safety, they know that they can trust each other. This creates a deeper sense of connection among team members.

They understand that they have one another's backs and aren’t going to be condemned by each other for making mistakes.

Ultimately, it’s the trust each team member has in one another that allows them to be vulnerable with each other. 

This trust then gives way to the natural development of effective relationships among team members which is the hallmark of all high performing teams.

👉 To learn more about psychological safety and to begin your startup's journey to high-performance and thriving team culture, check out my article, High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety: Here's How You Can Create it on Your Startup Team

2. Empowerment

Once you establish psychological safety on your team, team members understand that they can trust one another. But it's not enough to trust. The team must also act on that trust.

To show your team, you trust them, you must empower them through structure and clarity.

By this, I mean, there must be a well-defined structure in the breakdown of the team.

In other words, each team member must understand what role they play on the team and what the requirements are of that role.

When team members clearly understand how their contributions affect the team, they feel empowered to act and make decisions as they recognize they're the expert in that role.

By empowering your team members, you ensure there is effective decision-making throughout your organization's levels.

The even level decision making, achieved through role clarity, creates a flat organization rather than one of hierarchy where people feel inferior compared to upper management.

Removing hierarchies within your startup eliminates the need for middle management, leaving room for more important items for your startup's budget.

When you empower your team, you give them room to speak up and share more collaborative feedback, which leads us to our next level towards developing a Unicorn Team.

To understand more about the importance of empowerment on team culture, and how you can empower your startup team, read my article, Three Ways to Empower Employees to Do Their Best Work. 💪

3. Embrace Conflict When Communicating

The third step in creating an effective team culture for your startup is to embrace conflict.

Although this may seem counterintuitive initially, healthy conflict is an extremely crucial element of any high performing team.

High performing teams who embrace and encourage conflict don't hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question one another, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, and making great decisions.

Teams cannot have effective communication without productive conflict. Without in-depth discussion, created from well managed conflict the output of your business will remain mundane and uninspired. 

Well managed conflict, or healthy conflict, acts as a form of effective communication that creates productive feedback and discussion, leading to greater team collaboration.

Greater team collaboration, from healthy conflict, leads to more significant team innovation and output.

Conflict is also beneficial to innovation as it puts ideas under pressure.

When you put ideas under pressure, you can see their weak spots and pivot accordingly. There must first be an opportunity for a more in-depth discussion for this pressure to exist, which allows conflict.

As your team realizes, conflict creates productive and deeper discussions; they naturally become more committed to one another as teammates because they understand they perform better as a unit rather than individually.

But, healthy conflict doesn’t necessarily occur naturally. It’s important to remember that team conflict can’t be embraced without psychological safety. Otherwise, conflict will become destructive.

Psychological safety creates the needed foundation of trust to enable team members to debate openly, collaborate, and give productive feedback.

Beyond psychological safety, productive conflict is also reinforced by empowerment.

Once team members are empowered to speak up and voice their opinion, they feel safe in debating with one another. This debate leads to productive discussion and improved team collaboration, which results in higher team performance.

For more reasons to embrace conflict and to gain a greater understanding of its significance to high-performing team culture check out my article, Why You Should Embrace Conflict in The Workplace. 👀

4. A Culture of Leadership

The next step in creating a high performing team is to foster a culture of leadership.

In high performing team culture, leadership becomes fluid and something that all team members are capable of.

This leadership culture is successfully implemented from the trust everyone shares, empowering the team to make decisions and take action within their position.

To this extent, each team member leads to the strength of their role on the team.

For example, the team member responsible for marketing is trusted to make advertising decisions for the entire team's benefit. In contrast, members of the finance team are most trusted to take leadership in annual budget decisions.

This form of decision making and leadership also allows the team to realize that they don't need immediate answers to problems they come across.

They know that they can rely on each other for help and that given any problem, the team will be able to find the solution through the group's collective expertise.

This then sets the stage for a growth mindset where team members feel comfortable coaching each other and can understand challenges to be opportunities that help them adapt and improve as a team.

Implementing a culture of leadership within your startup team creates an opportunity for your team to reach their full potential and comes from a foundation of psychological safety, empowerment, and the ability to embrace conflict in a productive way.

👉 To fully understand the meaning of a culture of leadership and how it's created on a startup team, check out my article, Develop Leaders: Three Effortless Steps for Transforming Employees into Leaders.

5. Making an Impact

Once you have established a culture of leadership within your startup team, your next task is to ask whether your team feels that the work they do helps to move the mission of the business forward.

In other words, it's essential to understand if your team members feel their actions make an impact within the startup.

An essential part of creating a high performing team culture is understanding that your employees need to feel that they're more than a cog in a machine.

Employees must feel like they have a high sense of contribution to the team and the startup as a whole if you want them to produce their best work most efficiently.

When team members feel that the work they do genuinely contributes to the organization's overall goals, they feel more motivated to contribute their best to the startup. Understanding the importance of their work makes team members feel their work is essential to the business and contributes to something more significant than the company itself.

Understanding the importance of their work helps team members feel purposeful and shows them the value they bring to the team.

When team members feel valued, they act more productively and generate a higher quality output of work.

With greater employee satisfaction and engagement, mission-driven startups can foster a higher-performing organizational culture.

To help your team members understand the importance of their contribution to your startup be sure to read my article, Here's How to Make Your Employees Feel Valued at Work. This article will help you put in place an employee recognition system that exhibits team member importance.

Remember, team members will not be able to understand the importance of their work if they have not moved through the first four foundational steps.

Suppose team members don't feel psychologically safe or empowered and don't contribute their feedback to the team. In that case, they will never see themselves as leaders on the team, preventing them from seeing the impact they make to the startup.

6. An All-Encompassing Vision 

The final step to create a winning culture is to have an all-encompassing vision that the entire team stands behind. 

When you're clear about the future your startup team is building, then your team is able to rally behind that vision. 

When team members realize a common goal they understand that it’s in their best interest to work together productively for the betterment of the team and the mission. 

Read my article, How to Create a Shared Company Vision that Will Energize Your Entire Team, to help you form an all-encompassing team vision.

By working with your team through these six steps you will be able to take them from good to great. 

Here at Unicorn Labs I run team building seminars and leadership workshops in Ottawa and Toronto locations to help your startup team integrate these six steps for a more effective corporate culture. 

👉 Check out my workshops page to learn more.

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