What can you do to create a winning team culture in your organization? On this show Amy Stalker, Associate Department Head at the Dunwoody Campus Library at Georgia State University, talks about ways we can develop a team culture that helps us want to go to work and helps make work a place where our teams want to be.


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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

What can you do to create a winning team culture in your organization? On this show Amy Stalker, Associate Department Head at the Dunwoody Campus Library at Georgia State University, talks about ways we can develop a team culture that helps us want to go to work, and helps make work a place where our teams want to be—definitely something worth striving for. Enjoy the show!

Amy, welcome to the show.

Amy Stalker:

Thanks for having me. I’m so excited to be here. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: Well, thank you for talking with me today about creating a winning culture. You say that it is important for you to want to go to work, and further, that it’s important to you that work is the place where your team wants to be.  

Will you give us a little background on what made you look at winning team culture as a way to make that happen?  01:43 

Amy Stalker:

Sure. First though, I’d like to acknowledge that there is some privilege involved in any statements about wanting to be at work. Sadly, not everyone is in a situation where wanting to be at work is even an option that’s on the table for them. I’d like to recognize that. 

But to go back to your question, I think my interest bubbled up organically as my career in libraries was taking shape. There are a lot of work related and professional opportunities to network and share what’s going on. Something that struck me was how often conversations would evolve into discussions about the workplace environment. I was hearing this from colleagues within other departments, at my place of work, but also in impromptu discussions with librarians from all sorts of different libraries. 

It felt like management and workplace dynamic was being pulled in pretty regularly as well in conference session topics that weren’t centered on team culture. But it was clear listening between the lines, that the success and failure of some of these projects, or initiatives, were significantly impacted by the existing culture. I don’t think I’m saying anything revolutionary when I mention that this is also a pretty common topic in library related, and library adjacent social media. 

So, I found myself trying to noodle and reflect on my own positive, and negative work experiences, and realized that in places where I felt good about being at work and where things were happening, and I was feeling productive were places where at the very core there was a winning team culture, and that I didn’t have to try very hard to think about the kinds of things that were going on to make it such a pleasant place to be. 

When an opportunity presented itself for me to slide into a supervisory position I knew that I wanted to replicate as much of that good stuff for my team as I could. That sent me down a rabbit hole of research as I began to read blogs, magazine articles, and even some business books that discussed how to develop and encourage a strong sense of team.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: What makes a winning team culture?  04:09 

Amy Stalker:

In my mind a winning team culture is made up of the following–first, a sense of belonging and connection to our job responsibilities and tasks, as well as our physical environment and colleagues. Secondly, I think it involves a feeling of safety, trust, and fairness. Third, I think there needs to be a shared purpose or set of values that guide the team’s work. Fourth, I think there needs to be lots of opportunity for collaboration where everyone knows that their experience and expertise is both valued and critical to the team’s objective. And finally, I think established ways to reward and recognize what’s being done, big and small, every day—centers on a winning team culture.

I want to emphasize that good team culture does not prevent stress and conflict. It doesn’t mean that every work day plays out like a Disney film where everyone feels joyfully connected with their colleagues, and that things are running so smoothly that the library is filled with unicorns and rainbows. But I will say, that if you have those key elements in place those days when the printer is broken, or the 8 track isn’t working, or there are outside expectations of the team’s deliverables that’s generating stress and pressure, it’s so much more manageable when there is a solid team culture in place.

It’s easier for us to be supportive and/or ask for help, or grace, or backup to get through those days when we know that we are all part of being part of what’s going on in the library. Those features depend heavily on vulnerability and trust. A winning team culture supports and encourages a healthy work-life balance so that folks know that they’re supported and seen.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: So, how can we be realistic about making these things happen in or organization?  06:23 

Amy Stalker:

Well, I think it’s critical to understand that building a stronger, healthier team culture needs more than enthusiasm and ideas. Good leadership is obviously important, but it can’t entirely carry something that’s this big. To a certain extent, you need to put some faith in the idea that building a core connection on your team will set you on the right path, but you also need to remember that that road is long and bumpy. This isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight. There are external factors, such as staff turnover, budgets, and internal, and external demands on what we do every day, and that can impact it. 

Also buy-in is key, and that buy-in is going to look different from each person on your team. Their interest and engagement is going to be impacted by a variety of factors, many of which can’t be controlled. Realistically, there are going to be few things that everyone on the team is going to be interested in supporting or participating in. Their current season of life outside of work is going to strongly impact that as well. But, I would say that’s okay. You can’t let it discourage you. This is part of being realistic. Not everyone needs to do everything at 150%. People are going to respond and connect in different ways. 

Finally, I would really like to mention previous workplace trauma, because unfortunately I am finding that this is a very real thing. There are truly toxic workplaces out there. So, even when people manage to move on to a better situation, they will bring some of that mistrust and cynicism that they’ve developed with them—especially if they were burnt, or were left feeling burn-out. Their ability to be vulnerable and to trust has been damaged by those experiences. And to be honest, this can and likely will, slow things down and be frustrating as, and when, they join your team. This is where perseverance and ideas come into play. You need to be willing to try lots of different things that involve lots of different levels of vulnerability and engagement. 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: So, what kind of investments will we need to make to develop a winning team culture in our organizations?  08:50 

Amy Stalker:

I think as a supervisor, you have to be committed to making the investments that work best for your team. That level of your investment in some of these is going to depend on where your team is when you decide to get started. But, the very first step in the investment is you personally deciding to set the tone. That means that you need to model the vulnerability, and the trust, and the interest in connecting with your team first if you expect them to support this. 

Secondly, there is an everyday commitment to this. You need to think of creating a winning team as a workplace habit. It needs to be at the core of how you operate. As supervisors, we have way too many demands on our time and attention to lean on remembering to regularly kick into winning team culture gear, and recognize that any forward progress is going to be lost if we only work to invest in our team when, and if, we have the time. It needs to be a primary state of action.

Thirdly, it takes a lot out of you in terms of time and attention. That’s an expensive investment for most of us. I would say that my experience has taught me that this puts us in a pay now, or pay later situation. Some hard work on the front-end is going to pay off in spades when things get tough. Focusing on pay now is more positive and energizing than operating in pay later mode which is often extremely stressful, and involves operating in crisis mode, which isn’t good for anyone.

And then finally, I would say there is an emotional investment as you work to build a connection with your team. I don’t mean that you need to forge a deep personal friendship with every member of your team that extends outside of work, although that is something that might happen. But, when you commit to knowing and understanding what motivates and inspires your team, you will know them in a deeper way, and it can be overwhelming when someone trusts you enough to let you in to know what makes them tick. 

Now, I personally have found that these investments are worth it. My job is always a lot harder when the culture isn’t working on my team, and the resulting fixes require even more energy than investing in it on the front-end. So, as time consuming as it can feel with regard to my time, and attention, and emotions—when everything is on track, I find that that front-loaded investment is so completely worth it.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: Are there specific actions to take in moving toward developing a winning team culture?  11:38 

Amy Stalker:

Absolutely. I think you need to have a mindset where you are willing to take risks, think differently, look around and see what others have done that have led to success. Be a little engine that could, so to speak, and be willing to try things that fall flat.

I have found that sometimes ideas need to be tweaked with feedback, and sometimes it’s just an issue of timing with regard to what’s happening at, or even outside of work. It’s also important not to expect everyone to participate at the same level. That’s going to work against you, sometimes.

So you need to read the room, and regularly reflect on why certain ideas and others flop. In my experience, every team has a gold star junkie that will go all in, but there are equally valuable members of your team who may choose to hang back and participate way more passively than others. 

That doesn’t mean that connections aren’t being built. You can also take into account when you decide what types of things to bring to your team. And at the end of the day you’re looking to create opportunities for connection. That’s the goal, the connection. You can get as fancy or as simple as you need to because the connection is the ultimate prize.

Now, what does that look like in application? I think it can be workplace personality quizzes that you find online, or even something more formal like bringing in Clifton StrengthsFinder. These help people reflect and get to know themselves better. But, they also learn about other people on the team. And I think as a supervisor, this is essential and critical, because it’s a way for us to learn and think about how the people on our team think about themselves and their role in the team. 

I also think recognition of all kinds is something that often flips to the bottom of our to-do list as supervisors. This could include life events, or shout-outs, or kudos for things that are happening in your department—and I find that these are amazingly motivating. This is another situation where reading the room, and knowing what your team is motivated by is essential. Not every group is going to be up for celebrating birthdays, or engagements, but I think it can be too easy to get hung up on what you recognize. You really need to ask and listen to the folks on your team to figure out what people want recognized, and then literally recognize the heck out of it.

I think small things go really a long way. So, a hand-written note can be very meaningful to so many people, whether it’s from a colleague, or a supervisor. So, making it a habit for the team to look for ways to celebrate the work that is happening is inspiring and contagious, and often feels as good to throw someone a shout-out as it does to receive it. So, it really is a circular ring of positivity.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: Is there anything else you’d like to share?  14:47 

Amy Stalker:

I think you need to think about people on your team that may be well on their way to support building a team culture, and pick their brains. Get them onboard with getting things started. It doesn’t all need to be a top-down kind of situation. Letting people take charge builds and reinforces that sense of trust and belonging that I mentioned earlier. 

Bringing levity into the workplace is never a bad thing. We all know it can get stressful in a library setting, and camaraderie really helps manage and temper the blowback from those rough days. Things like having inside jokes, and knowing one another well enough to step in and help in whatever way help is needed is critical on a team with great culture.

And again, we aren’t talking about fostering toxic positivity, we’re talking about having tools, and responses, and relationships in place that outweigh the stresses and demands of our everyday tasks and responsibilities.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Do you have any favorite management, or leadership books, or resources, and why?  15:50 

Amy Stalker:

Yes, I have a couple that I’d like to toss out there. The first one is Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. And I also highly recommend—they have a self-paced, online course that supervisors can take. It’s fantastic. 

Then a couple other ones that I really like are Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, and Courageous Cultures, by Karin Hurt, and David Dye. I like these because they’re all centered on people in relationships, and the deliverables are secondary.  To be honest, much of what I have learned is also applicable in my personal relationships as well. I think when you are focusing on people in relationships, the winning part in terms of deliverables on the team is going to come, and the work is better placed on people, than deliverables.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: In closing, what do libraries mean to you personally? 16:48 

Amy Stalker:

For me personally, libraries mean community and connection. I feel like as an employee at a library I get the luxury of experiencing this on both sides of the desk. Our work serves as a cog for helping patrons form and connect to communities of value to them, whether it’s knowledge, or resources, or people. I think my professional life and experiences have been similarly enhanced by the community and connections I have been able to develop with colleagues, other departments within my institution, and within the profession at large. 

I consider myself a lifelong learner which includes all the great things that we know that reading builds in us, such as tolerance and empathy. But, I think libraries are also a great place to learn about people and to grow as people, and they serve as a pretty awesome petri dish for all sorts of discovery.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Community and connection, that’s fantastic, not only for our communities, but within our organizations to create winning team cultures. What a great topic, Amy. I’m so glad that you’ve been reflecting on this and shared with us today your thinking and your application of these ideas. It’s been fantastic. Thank you.

Amy Stalker:

Thank you. 

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.