The secret to high performing teams

The high performing team…. key to an organisation’s competitive advantage? Well, yes. The research consistently demonstrates that great teamwork delivers higher quality outputs resulting in better customer satisfaction.
But despite huge investments in the recruitment and development of key talent, and leadership and team building interventions, truly high performing teams remain a somewhat elusive concept for many companies. And today, with the shifting dynamic of work, more and more teams are facing the likelihood of permanent remote working – making this an increasingly complex issue for leaders.

Before we explore this further, let’s consider what we mean by high performing team. In its simplest terms we are talking about a team that delivers its stated objectives consistently, considers all team members to be equal (and not dependent on a stand-out ‘quarter-back’), and continuously innovates to stay ahead of changes in the external market and its customers’ requirements.

The question is how you create and then maintain such a team. Is it just a matter of recruiting the smartest, high potential individuals? Or is it about recruiting a specific blend of personality profiles, a unique human algorithm whose output ultimately results in high performance?

Numerous studies over the past decade by leading institutions including Gallup, Harvard, and McKinsey, have sought to answer these questions and uncover the elements of high-performance cultures. They have consistently found that high performing groups share certain characteristics such as a common focus on effective performance management, autonomy, accountability for results, and a culture of innovation and learning. And indeed, these are certainly critical to team performance. But a push towards optimizing these areas does not always yield better business results for organisations. Something deeper is at play.

The four elements to team collaboration

A longitudinal study by Google over a period of two years shed some further light on this. They found that team performance across their business was less about who they hired, and much more heavily related to the environment they worked within and how this enabled (or not) team members to work together constructively. More specifically, this was about the environment created by the leader to build trust among team members, and to allow them to put forward ideas and have healthy dialogue without conflict. The Google findings and subsequent publications identified four key elements critical to team collaboration and ultimately high performance:

  1. Psychological safety – essentially, this is the ability for team members to speak their mind (respectfully, of course), float their ideas, and take measured risk without fear of reproach. A team environment where members feel psychologically safe is now consistently recognized as the most critical element in driving high performance. Such an environment is a prerequisite for innovation and autonomy. Physiologically this can be explained by the fact that when we feel criticized or judged, the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response is activated by the amygdala (the part of our brain that controls reasoning and decision making), rendering us unable to respond rationally and think laterally – let alone strategically.
  2. Trust between team members – closely linked to the culture of safety within the team, the strength of the relationships between its members is key to its overall performance. Teams with high trust depend upon each other, support each other, and ultimately collaborate to achieve a common goal; this last point being very important. The distinction here is that high performing teams are more focussed on the overall team’s outcomes than their individual results because the inherent trust between team members serves to override the potential human inclination to compete with other team members in order to prove our own worth.
  3. Role and goal clarity – it stands to reason that the team must have a clear understanding of its ‘north star’ in order to deliver exemplary results. This also means that team members must have absolute clarity of their own accountabilities and how each member of the team contributes equally to its overall success. This belief that each member of the team is equally vital to its success is another key element driving genuine collaboration.
  4. Autonomy and purpose – as identified by Daniel Pink in his book “Drive” it is the intrinsic motivators of role autonomy, mastery and purpose that have the greatest impact on human performance. Pink found that as a collective, we are motivated far more by our connection to our work and how it contributes some way to the greater good, than by extrinsic rewards such as salary, bonuses, and recognition awards – although we must clearly feel we are compensated fairly and equitably for this to be the case. The confidence to effectively exercise our own skills in the team environment, our sense of autonomy, is also directly related to the levels of trust between team members and with the leader.

In these complex and ever uncertain times, the role of the leader in creating clarity for the team regarding strategy, direction and priorities cannot be underestimated. But even more important is the leader’s role in connecting team members, building rapport, interdependency, and trust. Especially when team members cannot connect physically in natural and organic ways as perhaps previously taken for granted. The current work context requires leaders to role model the behaviours which engender trust: authenticity, consistency, empathy, honesty – and personal vulnerability. This is the bedrock for establishing a psychologically safe team culture where people can generate ideas together and truly perform to their highest levels. ​

Ponte Valle Insight: The secret to high performing teams

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