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Values and behaviours in communications. They’ve never been more important in our industry than right now. So how about formally agreeing a set of principles for the ways in which your team will operate?

by Jude Tipper

Mine was Jimmy McNulty. My boss chose Jeff Goldblum.

Jimmy and Jeff joined Mike from Neighbours, Mary Berry, the female Dr Who and Lovejoy.

These are just some of the secret TV crushes admitted to by my team for an away-day ice breaker. They featured in an (uber competitive) quiz complete with buzzers and bells to guess who was who’s. Hilarity ensued. And that was before I played their chosen walk-on theme tunes. And before I showed their faces superimposed onto the animal they each said best characterised them (oh yes, I actually did).

It’s one of the things I love about my team, we’re not afraid to laugh at ourselves or at each other. We’re not afraid to question why (seriously, Lovejoy??). And we’re not afraid to challenge…in this case the scoring system and who buzzed in first. And it turns out – given the amount of correct first guesses – we know each other pretty well.

There’s 17 of us. A big team in an even bigger one. But we’re a tight unit. That’s not to say the last couple of years haven’t been rocky for the team – with a hefty restructure, reapplying for jobs, redundancies and new ways of working. Oh, and me turning up a year ago…God help them.

As part of our work to address and tackle problems, strengthen relationships with each other, with our wider team and with the organisation we wanted to set some boundaries. We collectively chose to articulate our behaviours and define our team culture. Does that sound like corporate navel-gazing BS? Read on, I promise it isn’t.

On a crisp cold morning in February we bunched together in a room at the Open Data Institute gazing out at the Leeds skyline. We came with caffeine, ten tons of Percy Pigs, post-it notes and a big dose of willingness to do what seemed overwhelmingly impossible: to articulate what it felt like to be in our team.

It was the first item on our away-day agenda – after our TV crushes – and it was surprisingly very easy to do. I don’t really know why I was surprised, perhaps it was just relief to be in a team that knew itself so well.

We opened the conversation with the why. Why were we doing this? Why, when we have an organisational set of values and behaviours, did it matter to articulate the way our team behaved? Why set out our stall? Why define our boundaries?

I turned to research professor and best-selling author Brené Brown for help. She’s spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy and she has one of the simplest and best definitions of boundaries I have come across: “Simply our lists of what’s okay and what’s not okay.”

We spent five minutes watching this video clip. (Can I humbly suggest you also take five to consider it – not just from a work point of view, but personal too. She speaks a lot of sense.) And so, with Brené ringing in our ears, we worked in small groups to write our lists of what’s okay, and what’s not. What we wanted to be known for and how we wanted to behave.

What was fascinating and incredibly affirming was that as each group stuck their many post-its on the wall, themes emerged and it was clear we were aligned. There was nothing anyone disagreed with, nothing that had been missed or needed to be argued over. There it was, on the wall, a jumbled map of how we saw ourselves. And we’d finished the exercise way ahead of time. “It felt easy”, “We’re all on the same page”, “I’m proud of this team”.

The team grabbed a break, hoovering up several packets of Percies alongside my infamous brownies, whilst I photographed the themes on the wall and carefully took the post-its down.

(In case you’re wondering, the rest of our away day looked at our team profile and working preferences, alongside our leadership styles.)

Back at the office the next day I had a slightly sore head following the obligatory post away-day quiz and (ahem!) couple of drinks. Still, I set about writing up the post-its. It was a joy to do and I’m damn proud of what tumbled out onto the page. This was checked back with the team and agreed upon as exactly summarising what we’re all about.

I couldn’t bear to name it ‘our behaviours’ or ‘our culture’ or some other over-abused organisational development nonsense. So, instead, I kept the title simple. And here it is, in all its glory.

The way we do things around here:  

We are bold
We’re inquisitive and optimistic. We are curious and keep asking ‘why?’ We take initiative and are not afraid to challenge or be challenged. We’re supportive, collaborative and deliver on promises. People trust us.  

We are skilful
We like to join dots and view the bigger picture, influencing and challenging constructively. We love to plan yet can also react quickly. With our unique mix of experience and expertise we problem solve and stay positive. We’re very reliable.  

We are professional
We lead by example and are non-hierarchical. We take pride in our work, ourselves and each other. We’re inclusive and considerate, respecting all skills, experiences and opinions. We agree and respect boundaries.   

We love to learn  
We listen with fascination. We evaluate what we do so we can continuously improve. We are generous with our knowledge and eager to develop. We learn about ourselves to work together at our best. We’re open to feedback.  

We embrace change
We are forward thinking, flexible and resilient. We are comfortable with a little discomfort. We stick our hands up to get involved and show where we add value. We’re realistic, always looking for and negotiating solutions.  

We are ourselves
We are friendly and kind. We have empathy. We know what matters to each other – and we respect that. We choose our words and conversations carefully, so we never inadvertently offend. We have integrity and never cast blame. We’ve got each other’s backs. We love to laugh. 

Sound like a team you’d like to work in? Yeah, me too. We’ve agreed we’ll keep this alive; not just stick it on a wall. We’ll use it to frame improvements, to challenge our mindset when times get tough, to celebrate our success, to continually improve, to advertise any roles and to induct new starters.

Has your team ever attempted an exercise like this? Have you set your boundaries and come up with your unique lists of what’s ok, what isn’t and what you want to be known for?

If you haven’t, I bet you know what your team feels like. That’s the thing about team culture, it seems to just happen. Yet you can be intentional in setting it, in articulating it and making sure that each person knows it’s up to them to uphold and shape the way you do things around here.

I’m really proud of my team – I’m proud to help lead it. Each and every one of the team help lead it too. We’re intentional and proactive about this, and it’s these behaviours that will sustain our success and our happiness. We take pride in our work, ourselves and each other. We’ve got each other’s backs.

In the words of Jimmy McNulty: “We’re good at this. In this town, we’re as good as it gets.”

Jude Tipper is assistant head of communications network at NHS Digital and vice chair of the CIPR health group. You can say hello to her on Twitter at @JudeTipper

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