What Makes a High Performing Team?

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 4th August 2017

There’s a deluge of theories about what makes a high performing team, emanating from a wide range of consultants, academics, training companies, coaches, business schools, leadership gurus and centres of something-or-other. As a member, one way or another, of all of those groups, perhaps I’m sufficiently qualified to put forward my view.

I should say at the outset that this is just my opinion. It isn’t based on any formal diagnostic process or detailed scientific research programme or study. Unless you count almost 50 years of leading teams and organisations, and of observing thousands upon thousands of teams, leaders and individuals.

What makes a high performing team?

A high performing team is founded on a shared vision

I’ve yet to find anyone in the broad field of leadership and management prepared to disagree with this. But note that this isn’t about any old vision or purpose – it must be compelling. As those on our CMI leadership and management programmes know, no vision will engender high performance unless the people in the team care deeply about delivering it, and see it as something they must achieve collectively.

Many visions or stated purposes that I encounter fall at one of these hurdles, and quite a lot at both. If the vision is to deliver something predominantly for the benefit of someone else (shareholders, the board, their leader, a regulator or whatever) then its power is likely to be significantly diminished. If individual members can divide it up and seek to achieve it for themselves (such as a sales target or something with a bonus attached), again it misses a big opportunity and could become divisive or competitive. A high performing team plays together and wins (or loses) together.

A high performing team communicates. A lot. About everything.

Being a high performing team is partly about how team members feel about each other, the team, the vision, and the leader. You can’t tell people how to feel about any of that; they have to create it themselves with the leader’s support.

If communication happens in a ‘cold’ way – updates, reports, data, facts – then it doesn’t have much ‘feel’. Teams need to speak to each other. A lot. It needs to be human communication (even if logistics mean it needs to happen remotely) and about more than just the bald facts.

A team is as much a social community as it is a means of delivering functional objectives, and this is particularly true for a high performing team. So take care when designing the way information circulates. Meetings, even if achieved via technology, matter for a high performing team, as they need plenty of opportunities to discuss and share.

Setting effective team objectives

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High performing team members are interrelated and interdependent

Building on the need to communicate effectively, members of a high performing team work on things together a significant amount of the time. This isn’t necessarily about them being in the same room, though that can be helpful in creating a healthy community, but about the need to rely on each other and to share. Once team members rely on each other to make something happen or to achieve something worthwhile, powerful things happen.

It can build the team’s self-confidence (which makes it more courageous), and it can build trusting personal relationships (which makes it more resilient). It can also encourage sharing of ideas and war stories (which makes it more innovative). All of this is about enabling and encouraging the team to bond, to learn together and to be brave enough to try things.

It is not for the leader alone to build a team that has that capability, more to create the conditions in which such a team can flourish, and then to encourage and support it to grow and develop.

High performing team members are autonomous

As is indicated above, a high performing team can’t do everything through its leader. It needs to work horizontally at least as much as it does vertically. Psychologically and emotionally, team members that can make decisions among themselves are significantly more likely to become a high performing team than those who need the leader’s agreement to do everything.

It may be that some things still need to be discussed with the leader before action, but it should only be those things where the discussions adds real value, or where the leader is taking a decision of sufficient magnitude to require such an ‘escalation’. Wherever possible, the power should be devolved to the team. Think Tannenbaum and Schmidt stage 6 with an occasional stage 7.

A high performing team has a leader who is visible but not controlling

The effective high performing team leader is a positive and powerful force, but often in their absence. Now, it may not start that way as the team is ‘forming and storming’, but once things develop into the ‘norming and performing’ stages, the team needs to be allowed room to establish itself without (too) much input from the leader.

Yes, it needs parameters, guidelines and protocols, and it needs clarity about many things discussed here, but it needs a sense of itself and an identity. Too much control makes it simply a tool for the leader to wield to deliver outcomes. That can be valuable too in the right context, but such a team won’t be a high performing team.

As suggested in the last section, the team needs the leader to empower and delegate effectively, to enable and support but with an optimum level of intervention, which means as little as possible. This links strongly to the referent and expert powers discussed by French and Raven. If the team seeks the leader’s input because they value it or because they trust the leader’s expertise and judgement, that is a very different thing to feeling the need to get permission to do something.

A high performing team needs to know how it’s doing

Think air traffic control and pilots, pit crew and F1 drivers, NASA and astronaut crew, conductor and orchestra. The team needs constant feedback and the ability to track and steer its own performance. Both are crucial. If the team can only find out how it is performing from you, then it’s independence is undermined. If it can’t tell in real time, then it can’t manage itself, and thus can’t become a high performing team.

The team needs to have absolute clarity about performance expectations and timely, complete and accurate information about performance. It then needs the authority and capability to adapt and make changes to improve its performance and to see the impact of actions taken. Your job is to be the conductor, not to play every instrument. Having said that, and referring back to the ‘expert power’ mentioned earlier, if the team know you are a virtuoso pianist or viola player, that doesn’t hurt either. But that doesn’t mean you take the viola away and start playing it yourself. It just means your feedback and opinions have more weight.

A high performing team contains a freak – or at least a maverick

Long ago, Dr Belbin highlighted the importance of there being a ‘Plant’, as he called the creative thinker in a team. Tom Peters has reiterated this for years, as have I. A high performing team needs someone who thinks in odd, quirky or downright bonkers ways. It means the team will challenge conventional wisdom, and will be stopped in its tracks and forced to re-evaluate things. It means it will at least consider unusual options. All necessary traits for a high performing team.

By definition, no great breakthroughs have ever been achieved by someone following a checklist or a procedure. That way you get more of the same. Good for many things, but not for this. Yet still so many organisations seem to value compliance and conformity and seem to mistrust the oddballs and the mavericks. If you want a truly high performing team, make sure there’s a wierdo in there somewhere.

Finally, a word about models

By which I don’t mean Gisele Bundchen or Naomi Campbell. I mean the kind that academics and consultants love so much. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve contributed to a few in my time.

However, my warning is this: consider the rationale behind a model. Is it designed to illustrate a complex idea or to help you understand something? Or is it to enable someone to put © or TM beside it and make money? Now, just because it’s the second of these options, that doesn’t necessarily make it bad or wrong. But it should make you cautious.

In particular, watch out for any model that uses a linguistic device such as an acronym or 8 words that all begin with the same letter. You know straight away that such a model has been shaped and adjusted to fit the premise. Probably, another arm or title word has been added to make it fit, perhaps even another concept. Dangerous ground. It probably makes it less coherent or at best muddies the water.

There is only one real model that works in leadership and management. The one in your head. Read about the subject, consider your own experiences, reflect on what you know and create your own principles to live by. If you want to use the guidance here to help you think it through, so much the better. You are the master of your own ship. Sail it well.

As a leader or manager at any level, you need to know what makes a high performing team, and be able to put your knowledge into action. Our range of flexible CMI accredited leadership mentoring programmes develop your ability to do this, and to engage and motivate team members towards shared goals. To find out more get in touch below, or on 01332 613688.

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