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

Building my first team was a real eye-opener. I thought simply bringing talented people together would lead to success. How wrong I was!

The Myth of Effortless Teamwork

We often assume that if we throw a group of people together and give them a task, they’ll figure it out with minimal effort. This isn’t the case. Different personalities, communication styles, and work habits require active coaching to align effectively.

The Challenge of Creating a Thriving Culture

Creating a high-performing team is harder than we think, and building a thriving culture is even tougher. To achieve this, we need to understand what makes a team high-performing work and how to create an effective culture.

Any leader should prioritize teamwork, as it remains one of the most sustainable competitive advantages across industries in today's fast-paced business environment. Teamwork is hard to measure because it impacts an organization's outcome in a comprehensive and invasive way. It is also hard to achieve; it can't be bought or acquired by hiring a smart business school graduate. It requires courage, discipline, and a certain level of emotional energy.

My Journey to Discovering the Six Crucial Steps

Through years of research and experience, I’ve identified six crucial steps to creating a powerful team and influential culture for your startup.

To start, watch the video below for an overview of these six steps. Then, read the article for a detailed explanation of each step and how it contributes to building an effective culture.

1. Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is the foundation of any high-performing team. At the core of any exceptional team and thriving culture lies psychological safety. It serves as the vital foundation upon which greatness is built. It’s defined as an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking risks and being vulnerable in front of their teammates. 

High psychological safety means team members feel secure are willing to make mistakes, speak up, and share different opinions without fear of repercussions.

Characteristics of psychological safety include:

  • Comfort in admitting mistakes
  • Learning from failures
  • Open sharing of ideas and feedback
  • Trust flourishes when a team has high psychological safety, leading to effective relationships—the hallmark of all high-performing teams.

When a team has a high sense of psychological safety, they know 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 condemned by each other for making mistakes.‍

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

Trust is the key ingredient that fosters psychological safety among team members. It opens the door to authentic connections and paves the way for the remarkable collaboration that defines high-performance 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. Each team member should understand their role and how their contributions affect the team. This clarity fosters effective decision-making and creates a flat organization, eliminating unnecessary hierarchies and middle management. The focus grows into encouraging an environment of empowerment to help unleash a self-sufficient team and help keep the team agile and informed in their decisions and roles as a team. 

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

Empowerment leads to:

  • Team members speaking up
  • Sharing collaborative feedback
  • Enhanced and proactive decision-making
  • Prevention of managerial bottlenecks

👉 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. Effective Communication: Embrace Conflict When Communicating

The third step in creating an effective team culture for your startup is to nail your communication practices.

Healthy communication is just about what you don’t say as what you do. Healthy conflict is crucial for high-performing teams. When approached productively, it’s a sign of an engaged team that is constantly aiming to push the boundaries on their ideas (not the people behind them).

It involves disagreeing, challenging, and questioning to find the best solutions. Productive conflict leads to in-depth discussions, greater collaboration, and innovation.

Teams cannot communicate effectively without productive conflict. Without in-depth discussions created from well-managed conflict, your business's output will remain mundane and uninspired. 

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

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.

However, conflict must be managed well to be productive. Psychological safety is essential for healthy conflict, as it creates the trust needed for open debate and productive feedback.

Otherwise, the conflict will become destructive.

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.

This is why continuously working on those foundational levels of high-performing teams is critical to the success of all subsequent levels.

They all feed on each other and help build a stronger and more resilient team. 

👉 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

As teams progress through the previous levels, they become more agile and naturally develop a sense of personal accountability over their roles. This is a sign of leadership becoming fluid and a shared responsibility. Each member leads in their area of expertise, relying on collective knowledge to solve problems. This approach fosters a growth mindset, where challenges are seen as opportunities for improvement.

Each member understands their unique role and contributes to the team's success. They trust one another to make decisions aligned with their expertise, enabling the team to tackle challenges collectively.

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 that benefit the entire team. In contrast, finance team members 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 encounter.

They know that they can rely on each other for help and that, given any problem, the team can 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 as opportunities to help them adapt and improve as a team.

Implementing a culture of leadership stems from psychological safety, empowerment, and the ability to embrace conflict. Only then can they embrace coaching, adaptability, and constant learning, which are central to being adept at agility, innovation, and troubleshooting, which are characteristic of high-performing teams.

👉 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 we’ve established a leadership culture within your team, it's time to delve into a critical question: Does your team feel a deep sense of purpose in their work?

Team members need to feel that their work is meaningful and contributes to the organization’s mission. When employees understand the importance of their contributions, they feel valued and motivated, leading to higher productivity and quality output.

Ensuring that your team members understand how their actions contribute to the business's overall mission is vital. They need to feel that their work has a meaningful impact on the startup, transcending the feeling of being just a cog in a machine.

Understanding the significance of their work instills a sense of pride and fulfillment, enabling them to produce their best work with greater efficiency.

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 stride in cultivating a winning culture is embracing an all-encompassing vision that unifies the entire team. 

A shared vision unites team members and fosters collaboration toward common goals. When your startup team shares a clear vision of the future they are building, it becomes a rallying point for collective efforts. 

A common goal unites team members and ignites their drive to work together productively for the betterment of the team and the mission at hand.

👉 To help create a shared vision, read our article, How to Create a Shared Company Vision that Will Energize Your Entire Team.

Following these six steps can transform your team from good to great. Unicorn Labs offers team-building seminars and leadership workshops in Ottawa and Toronto to help your startup integrate these steps and create a more effective corporate culture.

Ready to take your team to the next level? Book a call with us today and start your journey towards a high-performing team

👉 Check out my workshops page to learn more.

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