As most of us know, experiences of working within a team can be wildly different. At some point during our lives, most of us have found ourselves working in a less than desirable team environment, where fear of speaking up, ongoing conflicts and that unpleasant feeling of ‘walking on eggshells’ is part and parcel of a day spent in the office.
Conversely, being part of a successful, high-performing team can be a rewarding and motivating experience for both the team and business. And as Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn cofounder) once said, “No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team”.
In this article, we explore the definition of high-performing teams and the characteristics you can look out for to identify one. We discuss the most effective ways to build high performance teams and develop them within your organisation and provide information on some of the tools available to support you with this.
What is a high performing team?
As a group, a high-performing team strives for excellence through two-way open communication, mutual trust, common goals, shared leadership, clear job roles and constructive conflict. Each team member accepts accountability for their own workload and actions.
The benefits of high-performing teams include:
- A broad range of talents and skill-sets
- A group of innovative thinkers, each with their own ideas and suggestions to bring to the table
- Little requirement for management input
- Improved morale
- Better productivity
Characteristics of high performing teams
Individuals working within high-performing teams can be described as being:
- Goal-oriented and ambitious
- Committed to their colleagues and the overall team mission
- Highly skilled
- Experts in their field
- Collaborative, encouraging contribution from all team members - including the introverts
- Able to work to a high standard
- Willing to accept constructive criticism
Professor Ina Toegel suggests high performing teams should be formed of no more than 8 people - too many people means “challenges in coordination, increased tension and reduced productivity”. She also advises considering the use of peer recruitment, enabling members of the existing team to play a part in the attraction and selection of their future peers.
Common types of high performance team models
What does a high performance team look like? Structurally they are designed to boost performance but also focus on the details of delivering results. There are many different versions that organisations use in order to establish their identity and interestingly, they will all be things that your organisation will already have in place in one way or another. Here are some examples:
Work teams are responsible for fixed areas such as production, customer service. They are a collection of employees whose specialities all lie in the same sector.
Whether it is producing goods or providing services, the work team is a typically stable, usually full time and well-defined team. Found in both manufacturing and service organisations, they are usually managed or directed by supervisors who make the wider decisions in how it is done and who does it. If you were to self-manage your team. Self-managing teams involving employees making decisions that were formerly made by supervisors are gaining favour.
Virtual teams allow companies to curate teams of the best talent possible.
Thanks to a global pandemic we became very attuned to the possibilities, strengths and weaknesses of a virtual team. This is where a group of individuals work together in the pursuit of common goals across time, space and organisational boundaries. Linked through technology (i.e. Zoom, WebEx, internal networks) members of a virtual team coordinate their work predominantly with electronic communication tech to complete specific tasks and may never actually meet face to face.
Because of the lack of geographical constrictions, organisations are best positioned to obtain the best talent possible to complete specific projects. They are equally viewed as more efficient in expenditures of time and related travel costs.
Project teams are typically temporary teams used for completing outputs with a definitive end, i.e - product launches. They draw in specialities from across departments.
Project teams do not get involved in repetitive tasks but moreover, their considerable application of knowledge, judgement and expertise is valued. The result is a membership that is diverse, drawing from different disciplines and units so specialised expertise can be applied to the project.
Management teams provide direction to subordinate teams and guide business performance.
A management team's authority comes from the hierarchical rank of its members. At the top of the hierarchy is the executive management team which establishes strategic direction and manages performance by applying its collective expertise and sharing responsibility for the overall success.
Parallel teams pull people from different work units or roles to perform functions the organisation is not equipped to do very well.
Traditionally, parallel teams sit alongside the formal organisational structure and have limited authority to make decisions - they can however make recommendations which can cause wider changes. An organisation will normally explore the use of parallel teams as a way to solve problems and make improvements. This is often done through task forces, employee improvement groups, quality improvement teams etc.
What are the roles in a high performance team?
Within every high performance team there are roles that need to be fulfilled in order for it to be successful and work. Many organisations will look at the work of Dr. Raymond Meredith Belbin who is responsible for designing a nearly ideal team composition. The basic theory is that by understanding your role within a team you will be able to develop your strengths and work with other members of the team to manage weaknesses.
This enables you to improve your overall contribution to the team and the team's performance. In order to do this, each member must understand their role, the different roles include:
- Action roles - focus on improving team performance, driving project plan and meeting deadlines
- Implementer - whose strength lies in translating the team’s decisions and ideas into manageable tasks and priorities.
- Shaper (task leader) - this is a dynamic role where the strength lies in getting the goal organised as well as challenging ideas and working hard to overcome obstacles.
- Completer/finisher - their strength lies in meticulousness, attention to detail and the ability to meet deadlines
- People skills roles - this is where people and ideas are brought together
- Coordinator - strength lies in facilitating decision making.
- Team worker - this strength lies in being a good listener, collaborative, cooperative and tactful.
- Resource investigator - someone who is an extrovert, who can easily make friends, gather information, communicate well, explore new ideas and opportunities.
- Cerebral/intellectual role - Thought oriented roles that apply technical expertise.
- Planter - The planter’s strength lies in problem solving and out-of-the-box thinking.
- Monitor/Evaluator - The monitor/evaluator’s strength lies in good judgement and good strategic thinking ability.
- Specialists - experts in their fields to provide technical oversight on task completion and review
How can you build and develop a high performing team?
It’s easy enough to outline what a high performing team looks like, but building high performance teams isn’t always an easy task, but the benefits are definitely worth the effort. When building high performing teams, there are a few key areas to focus on.
1. Make communication a priority
This is one of the key characteristics you’ll need to look for in a high performing team, however, it’s one that’s very often taken for granted. But failure to promote effective communication can be a costly mistake when it comes to team output, meeting targets and engagement.
To create a high performance team, managers should encourage a strong focus on team communication to ensure improvements in motivation, productivity and profitability. Equally, managers must prioritise the dissemination of information to their direct reports. For example, if there is a new working practice or policy to be implemented, share this with the team and ask for their input.
There are many barriers to effective communication, from failure to listen and making assumptions to conflicting messages and emotional distractions. If you can eliminate these communication issues from your team, you will be well on the way to successfully building a high performing and agile team.
Help your team members to understand their own and others preferred communication styles. Doing so will instantly help to drive effective communication as everyone will be able to adapt their style to best suit the needs of their colleagues. This will also enable you to establish the best approach when it comes to team briefings or formal team meetings.
2. Set SMART objectives
One of the best ways to ensure a high performance team is by setting clear objectives at the outset. Doing so will ensure the team knows exactly what they are working towards and how this contributes to the overall success of the business.
Consider setting up a goals meeting with the team as a forum to discuss key priorities. This allows them to have some input in the development of objectives, hopefully meaning they are more committed to achieving them.
3. Tackle conflict
Even with the best high performing team in the world, there will still be conflict from time to time. While in certain cases limited conflict can be beneficial, the best way to approach this is to expect it and be ready for it when it happens. Then, as soon as an issue arises, set about addressing it as a matter of urgency.
For example, if there is a difference of opinion resulting in an argument between two members of the team, set up a meeting straight away to mediate a civilised discussion. By resolving the conflict quickly, you should be able to prevent it from spiralling out of control and causing a deeper rift.
4. Understand where you are currently - and where you want to be
In order to move your team forward, understanding the dynamics of how people are currently working is vital. Consider the following questions:
- Do you know the strengths of the people working within your team?
- Are you aware of any limitations which need to be improved upon?
- What is the role of each person within the team?
- Why are they important?
- How does the team react to change?
- Are there any drivers for potential conflict within the team?
Managers should work collaboratively with their teams to answer these questions - the results will help to identify any training needs or skill gaps which can then be resolved to improve future performance.
Once these questions have been answered, encourage the team to engage with development programs, training or education opportunities. This will help them to further their knowledge and learn new skills, potentially enabling them to take on additional responsibility or move into future leadership roles.
5. Make sense of emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence (EI) is a powerful driver when it comes to teamwork. When mastered correctly, it can help to transform understanding of the team’s ‘DNA’.
EI can be described as “the capacity to harmonise thought and emotion”, i.e. an individual’s ability to understand and control their own emotions whilst recognising and managing those of other people. Being emotionally intelligent requires a person to be perceptive, self-aware and able to regulate their emotional responses in a range of scenarios.
team which can consistently utilise the knowledge given by EI will communicate effectively and naturally foster an attitude of loyalty and engagement. They will also be able to fine-tune their team working skills to push for further success.
6. The foundation of any successful team is trust
Trust is at the heart of any successful team. Without it, teams will be unable to progress due to fear of conflict or lack of commitment.
stablishing trust between team members can help take the team from satisfactory performance levels to outstanding results.
Being open and honest about strengths and limitations in workplace behaviours is one way to help generate trust between team members. Having an understanding of our own personality traits can help us to learn why we behave in a certain way. It can also identify how we interact with people and whether we need to consider making changes to our behaviour.
7. Feedback is a gift
Remember to recognise the work and achievement of the team. Even if you are unable to offer financial incentives, saying ‘thank you’ often goes a long way in showing your staff that they are valued.
Benefits of building high performance teams
There are many benefits associated with building high performance teams, their impact can be significant with broader benefits to the organisation, the members of the team and the employees across the rest of the company as a whole.
The immediate reward for developing these teams for the business is that they meet the specific objective or overcoming the problem the team was created to work on. Whether that was to create a new client service product that addressed the needs of the organisation to developing a plan for a complex office move or even creating a new company culture designed to foster greater creativity or better time management practices.
A successful high performance team can also bring long-lasting performance benefits to the company and its workers, even after the team is disbanded or set to work on something else. A key to this is to create a focused, frictionless collaboration of the kind required to accomplish high-priority objectives that can build trust among team members while bringing the wider workforce into alignment behind the company’s vision.
The benefits of building and continually developing high performance teams in the workplace include the following:
- Improved productivity and efficiency
- Due to collaboration between experts in their respective fields or experts in the project area
- Designed to achieve challenging outcomes
- More strategic in their approach
- Increased trust and engagement with work
- Business vision actualisation
- Achieving outcomes for clients or internally that further the business performance and direct towards overall business vision
- Successful accomplishment of high priority objectives
If you’ve followed the steps above, you’re already well on the way to build high performance teams. However, you also need to maintain that performance.
Having a written team charter can help to provide clarity on expectations. When drawing this up, remember to ask for contributions from the team. This will help them to feel empowered and able to contribute, ensuring they are on board with it right from the very beginning.
Be transparent about your efforts and get the whole team on side by making a collective commitment to individual and team improvements. Set out the business case for doing so - i.e. that a high performance team will capitalise on their strengths and work together effectively to achieve their shared objectives. The business case won’t remain static, so make sure this is regularly updated and distributed to the team as and when things change.
Remember, when team members work well together, there is little they cannot accomplish. Ensure you are always looking at the bigger picture to increase your chances of developing and sustaining high performance work teams.