Three Cultures, Three Realities: How Unstated Beliefs Can Hinder Performance (and a Starter Guide to Building Team Operating Agreements)

I recently ruffled feathers on a team I've newly joined; and my feathers were reciprocally ruffled in the the way the team handled resolution and next steps. There was triangulation, second-guessing, and determinant conversations that didn't include all team members. One month in and frustrated, it gave me pause.

It was as if we were on stage together telling a story we all deeply believed in but no one was responding the way we expected nor were we to them. We forged ahead but the response to each well-intended line was complex and confusing — Wait, why did you say that? That’s my line? What story are you trying to tell? We were doing the best we could with the information we had but the aggregate made no sense. We were reading from different plays.

With no agreed organizational structure, this is what we’d done as a team. We’d been contributing enthusiastically from a role within an org structure we believed we were -- not collectively, but individually. We had differing views on what team, and its inter-related culture, power and collaboration meant and how we expressed those unstated beliefs looked like contribution to one and disrespect to another. The result wasn’t just a confusing stage play, it was conflict.

Earlier this year co-teaching for Presidio Graduate School we used Schein's The Corporate Culture Survival Guide for our course on leading complex organizations and he wrote,

"Not only does culture reside within us as individuals, but it is also the hidden force that drives most of our behavior both inside and outside organizations...Culture matters because it is a powerful, tacit, and often unconscious set of forces that determine both our individual and collective behavior, ways of perceiving, thought patterns, and values." (1)

Ron Westrum, a sociologist and organizational researcher wrote,

"A culture is defined as the organisation’s pattern of response to the problems and opportunities it encounters. Three dominant types—pathological, bureaucratic, and generative—are described. These types are shaped by the preoccupations of the unit’s leaders. The workforce then responds to these priorities, creating the culture." (2)

Westrum’s three dominant types of organizations, could directly conflict with each other if you’re not all on the same page.

  • Pathological - Focus on personal needs

  • Bureaucratic - Focus on departmental turf

  • Generative - Focus on the mission

“These preferences create recognizable climates that affect the processing of information and other cognitive activities. The climate shapes activities such as communication, cooperation, innovation, and problem solving.” (2) And his research shows the last, Generative, is the most efficient structure to build the resilience needed for sustained change and success.

Three Cultures_Ron Westrum.png

In what ways might you have a conversation about your org structure that help you perform as a team? Harvard Business Review recommends For Great Teamwork, Start with a Social Contract.

I’ve compiled a Team Operating Agreement Template and Field Guide to Team Operating Agreements that might be of assistance. Download below.

Feel free to use and share. I’d love any feedback you have.


1) Schein, E. H. (2009). The corporate culture survival guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1765804/pdf/v013p0ii22.pdf