The 5 Keys to Building High-Performing Teams
The 5 Features of High-Performing Teams
We are social creatures and we need each other for our well-being. We also need each other to keep making this world a better place.
Despite such connectivity being so natural, why is it so hard to not just build effective teams but also to sustain them?
The never-ending paradox between honoring the individual versus supporting the team is a delicate balance to get right. Moreover, as individuals, we are constantly shifting between a "me" focus and a "we" focus depending on what's triggering us.
Our views, experiences, perspectives, motivations, goals, thoughts and desires are all different. Nevertheless, deep down we still have the same fears and needs. Creating a safe space and answering those needs is paramount in creating a high performance team, as we'll see in the stages of team development below.
Depending on what you read online, you'll discover many variations of the list of requirements and features to build a high performing team.
For example, a 2019 paper on strategies for creating a high performing team states these key features:
• Clear goals and objectives - with the right objectives, teams have something to focus on that takes them away from their individual issues. Of course, that assumes they also have the right resources, the relevant skills and the ability for innovative thinking.
• Commitment - a high performing team is, by definition, dedicated and willing to go the extra mile.
• Openness - individuals are comfortable sharing and challenging ideas. Moreover, they have an ongoing feedback loop process to sustain learning and growth.
• Trust - the neuroscience of trust shows that such a culture doesn't just bring positivity to the workplace, it also facilitates collaboration and teamwork. We generally know that this is about building relationships and allowing for autonomy. It also means being vulnerable, focusing on professional and personal growth and even providing the right "challenge stress".
• Supporting structures and processes - effective leadership is critical as are processes and clearly defined ways of doing things.
The How versus the What of the Key Features
It isn't so much the features of a high performing team that matter. It's more about how we create the right environment to nurture those features.
Yes, a high performing team needs clear and common goals. But the members also need to be passionate about a vision. Or as Simon Sinek might say, it's all about the importance of "why".
A powerful way to get deep alignment with a vision is to co-create it with regular reviews. A vision is a living and breathing thing and so is a team. The more teams get together to explore the purpose of the collective and see how it aligns with them as individuals, the more you'll get the balance between team and individual just right.
Books clubs are increasingly entering the workplace as the ideal blend of group coaching and co-exploration. Working through nuggets of wisdom extracted from books into a learning journey gives leaders and teams a chance to develop their skills while creating a sense of belonging.
For instance, your leaders could work together through the book on Beyond Team Building to define how they can apply the ideal framework for building a high performing team.
The 5 team performance “Cs”, described in the book, consist of context, composition, competencies, change of performance and collaborative leadership. These can all be applied differently according to the environment.
And what's the secret to adapting the top features of a high performing team to the environment?
It's knowing how both individuals and teams grow, develop and change. We are not computers where you upload a new program and that's it, growth is achieved. Instead, we are forever learning, adapting and evolving with ourselves, others and the environment. Understanding the interplay of those factors is the secret.
Crafting the Right Environment for a High Performing Team
• Psychological safety - as we explained in our white paper on what separates good teams from exceptional ones, psychological safety is the fundamental building block to build a high performing team.
• Awareness of different styles and biases - not only do we all need to be in tune with how we behave and see each other differently, but we all need a willingness to keep learning and changing.
• As we further explore in our white paper on separating good teams from exceptional ones, learning behavior is critical. However, it can be encouraged through collaborative and interactive learning offered by book clubs, for example.
• The balance of challenge versus competence - another paradox that's worth mentioning on its own simply because it nicely feeds into the flow model from positive psychology. The more teams can get into the flow at work, the more content and successful they'll be which naturally creates high functioning teams.
• Embracing paradox leadership - with the increasing complexity of this world, leaders are constantly faced with tensions to manage and seemingly opposing decisions to make. The impact of paradoxical leadership has been shown to create a fair environment with greater empowerment and self-efficacy.
• Of course, even paradoxical leadership in high performing organizations is a paradox that needs to be managed. So, some employees who have a tendency towards focusing on concerns and issues can feel confused by the apparent "bending" of rules that move away from either/or decisions to both/and approaches. Again, everyone's needs must be honored for the success of the team.
Unlocking the 5 Features At Each Stage of Team Development
The key difference of high performing teams is that they are also high functioning teams. In other words, they don't just exceed on performance. They also prioritize the relational.
Collaboration, open communication and overall unity take time to develop. Leaders also play a pivotal part in creating such a culture. You could even say they are the stewards of employee experience.
This experience usually comes in phases when referring to teams, as described below.
The forming phase is when everyone is excited about the new team. They're usually on their best behavior as they politely interact and watch how the dynamics will evolve.
At this stage, building high performing teams is about role modeling the right behaviors. A leader needs to take the lead because the connection hasn't been created yet. As such, the team needs the leader for guidance and reassurance.
• Establish the need - to set the scene for a high performing team, it's important that the leader brings everyone together to understand both their individual and collective needs. From there, the leader can lead the co-creation of the purpose and vision.
• Set expectations - it's important that goal setting happens early as well as defining what success will look like. Most importantly, what will individual growth within the team look like? Again, this can be a powerful question for a book club to work through. By exploring different frameworks detailed in books, the team can align their individual purpose and mission to that of the group.
• Get to know each other - when building a high performing team, you need to nurture collaboration and openness. That can't happen unless everyone understands their personality types and work styles, including vulnerabilities.
As teams become more comfortable with each other and revert back to their natural selves, tensions arise. Most people are now more focused on "me" and the art of building high performing teams is for the leader to rebalance the focus with "we".
• Normalize conflict - many people fear disagreement but it's actually a great way to discover new ideas especially when building a high performing team. Leaders should therefore bring the conflict to the open but ensure the discussion remains respectful and compassionate. It's important to facilitate conflict such that there is no need to be right.
• Build trust - this almost ethereal trait is fundamental for building a high performing team. It creates better teamwork and performance overall but to get it right, leaders need to understand the drivers of trust. And what better way to explore connection, significance, autonomy, fairness, learning and other drivers, than through book clubs?
• Regular check-ins - not only do leaders role model continuous learning by asking for constant feedback but they also impact the structure of a high performing team. One example is to work through common team interventions as guided by a book club. This creates the safe space people need to open up and learn through conflict together.
With norming comes the more confident stage. Individuals understand their strengths and weaknesses and how they all contribute to the overall purpose.
They're generally more committed and better grounded but this balance needs to be monitored. Leaders should do this by asking questions rather than directing.
• Track energy levels - being part of a high performing team is motivating but the balance can easily tip backwards if too much is expected from individuals. As a result, they all need to make sure they include in their process a way that suits them to check in on each other's mental state.
• Provide learning opportunities - things quickly become stale, including a high performing team, if there's no learning. The balance that needs to be maintained is the need for performance versus trying out new things and learning along the way.
• Gratitude - maintaining the balance isn’t just about recognition. It's also about noticing the present state and being grateful for having reached it.
At this point, a high performing team is in place. It needs minimal intervention because it has the structure and supportive traits, such as trust, to make things happen. Compassion and empathy lead the dynamic and everyone understands how they're all connected.
• Celebrate success - a high performing team knows what it needs to ensure it feels encouraged and motivated. Pausing to celebrate success boosts both individual morale as well as team connection.
• Encourage interdependence - it's still important to acknowledge collective decision making and problem finding to keep nurturing a high performance team. Through such shared exploration, different viewpoints are at the forefront and the team continues to be engaged.
• Nothing lasts forever - high performing organizations make a point of ensuring a smooth transition to other teams. People come and go and these new viewpoints and ways of being also need to be integrated. This is part of the regular check-ins and continuous learning mindset.
Building Your Own High Performing Team
Having a sought-after high performing team ensures results as well as employee well-being and motivation. What's less clear is how to get there.
The danger with over-relying on processes and structures is that teams don’t develop the necessary foundational traits. Collaboration, commitment and unity need to be nurtured along the stages of team development.
Each stage requires a different mindset and level of leadership involvement. Moreover, those leaders who can embrace the paradox approach are more likely to ensure each team member feels valued whilst the collective also feels important.
So, what are the 5 keys to building high performing teams? A vision and purpose, trust, enabling processes, communication and effective leadership.
Furthermore, exceptional leaders balance the tensions that come with teams, as well as the needs of the individual versus the collective, every step of the team's development journey.
Or as professional basketball player and coach, Phil Jackson, would say, “the strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”