Great teams aren’t born, they’re made. This post will cover what sets a high-performing team apart, why teamwork is so vital to organizational success, and how you can begin building a high-performing team today.
In sum, a high-performing team gets it done while a low-performing team offers excuses. But what traits set a high-performing team apart from a mediocre one? A high-performing team is aligned on and committed to a common goal. Each team member’s knowledge, skills, personality, and personal strengths complement those of the other people on the team. They share enough trust and affinity to communicate, innovate, and collaborate to get far greater results than they could on their own or in any other team.
Why teams matter
It’s absolutely not enough to just hire great people and hope they succeed. While everything starts with the individual, true success depends on the quality of your teams. According to McKinsey, when evaluating an IPO, 90% of investors believe the management team is the single most important nonfinancial factor.
Atlassian reviewed the research, and found that investing in your teams can make your organization better at solving problems, more innovative, more productive, more creative, and less prone to mistakes. Improving your teams can also make your workers happier, enhance their personal growth, and reduce their risk of burning out.
How to build high-performing teams
Over the past decade, McKinsey has asked more than 5,000 executives to describe their “peak experience” as a team member. They consistently heard three key dimensions of great teamwork.
1. Are aligned on the company’s direction and their team’s role in achieving company goals
2. Trust each other, openly communicate, and embrace effective conflict for high-quality interaction
3. Feel empowered to take risks, innovate, bring in outside ideas, and succeed against the odds
According to the Harvard Business Review, a leader must meet three psychological needs to foster a high-performing team:
1. Autonomy: People need to feel empowered to make decisions
2. Competence: People need to feel they’re in the right role
3. Relatedness: People need to feel like they’re part of the team
In the rest of this post, we’ll cover in detail how leaders can start today to create teams that trust each other, feel a shared sense of purpose, feel empowered and autonomous, and feel truly interconnected.
This might seem like a huge lift. But the good news is that McKinsey estimates that, with concerted effort, you can make a low-performing team a high-performing team within a year.
Let’s get started!
How to choose the right people for your team
The right skills and knowledge for the tasks at hand is obviously important. But we’d argue genuine enthusiasm for the mission is even more essential. That’s because while knowledge and skills can (and often must) be learned on the job, you usually can’t pick up enthusiasm in a Udemy course. When it comes to what else to look for, you want team players. McKinsey recommends selecting people who care deeply about the organization’s success, not just that of themselves or their team. You also want to select for people who are persistent in the face of adversity. And people who are good role models for others to follow.
How big should your team be?
According to McKinsey, the ideal team size is between six and ten people. You want a team to have at least six members for three reasons. First, a smaller team may not have enough diversity to consider enough aspects of a potential decision before moving forward. Second, they might not have enough capacity to move quickly enough to succeed. Third, they’re going to have a harder time with succession planning with fewer people to choose from. You don’t want more than ten people on a team for two reasons. First, a group this big often subdivides into factions and people start maneuvering and internally competing for position. Second, since it’s harder to ensure everyone is heard when making decisions, people feel less shared ownership of those decisions.
If your team is currently larger than ten people, look to the example of a CEO of a global insurance company who found himself with 18 direct reports. He split that team into three teams. The first focused on strategy and long-term goals. The second focused on short-term goals and operations. The third focused on governance, policy, and HR. He staffed these teams with executives, some being on more than one team. He also brought in people from two levels down to ensure the teams had the right expertise.
Of course it’s not enough to bring together a group of six to ten values-aligned, talented, persistent team players who are also great role models. The way team members work together is as important, or moreso, than the individuals when it comes to results. The next section will cover some tips for bringing your team into harmony.
How to bring your team together (building cohesion)
To see how important teamwork is to results, look no further than the 1992 US men’s Olympic basketball team. It was a truly all-star team, including Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, and Scottie Pippen. Yet a team of college players bested this “Dream Team” by eight points in their first month of practice. Each player knew how to play, individually. But it wasn’t until they learned to play as a team that they went on to win the Olympic gold and score more than 100 points in every game that year.
So how do you take a group of high-performing individuals and turn that into a high-performing team? Let’s examine the research. We’ll look to HBR’s three psychological needs of high-performing teams, Google’s five characteristics of successful teams, an ignite80 and Front survey of 1,106 U.S.-based office workers, research from Organizational Behavioral Scientist Amy Edmonson, and Westrum’s Typology of organizational cultures.
Let’s revisit HBR’s three psychological needs of high-performing teams: Autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Most leaders have the most trouble with the relatedness part. “It’s one thing to attract talented employees — but how exactly do you get them to like each other?” writes Ron Friedman, Psychologist and Founder of ignite80, which teaches science-based strategies for building high-performing teams. This has always been difficult. But remote and hybrid work haven’t exactly helped. However, many teams are finding subtle ways to leverage social connections over physical distance.
Friedman’s company partnered with Front to survey 1,106 U.S.-based office workers to discover what high-performing teams do differently. Workers rated their team’s effectiveness and compared their team’s performance to other teams in their industry on a 1-10 scale. Workers who rated their team a 10/10 on both questions were on high-performing teams. So what do those teams do differently? Every theme points to relatedness and connectedness.
1. Communicate synchronously – It’s no secret that async communication norms are essential for productivity and in a remote and hybrid world. However, teams can get too async. High-performing teams are more likely to pick up the phone when it can save time rather than going back-and-forth over Slack and/or email. Leaders can help facilitate this by encouraging workers to overlap at least some of their working hours with the rest of the team. You should also explicitly encourage synchronous communication norms where appropriate.
2. Run their meetings well – High-performing teams are more likely to require meeting participants to show up prepared, create and stick to a meeting agenda, and begin each meeting by updating everyone on everyone else’s progress. (Learn more: How to run more efficient, effective, and engaging meetings and How to avoid these 3 common meeting etiquette mistakes)
3. Connect over more than just work – High-performing teams are more likely to frequently engage in personal conversations about shared interests like sports, books, and family as well as have met with colleagues for coffee, tea, or an alcoholic beverage over the past six months. Zoom team building activities and creating Slack channels where team members can spend time together having fun can be useful here. We also like to use meeting icebreakers here at Clockwise to get to know each other better.
4. Appreciate each other – High-performing teams are more likely to have given and received more frequent appreciation at work from colleagues and managers. Remote work tools like Disco can help encourage and automate employee recognition and rewards over distance. Disco makes it easy for anyone to give colleagues praise and recognition for their contributions and accomplishments within Slack.
5. Show up authentically – High-performing teams are more likely to have frequently expressed authentic emotion, positive and negative. Leaders should encourage team members to express their feelings and not punish people when they show disappointment, frustration, etc. as long as they can do so productively.
Of course offsites are super useful for building cohesive teams. One way to do an offsite, from McKinsey, involves spending two days together. On the first day, the team tackles questions that require the entire team’s input. This could be strategy, resource allocation, cross-functional collaboration, etc. The next day, the team could focus on team dynamics. Did everyone feel they were working toward the same goal? Is everyone fully bought into the conclusions the team reached? Did the conversation bring out the best in everyone? For all these questions, why or why not? Just having the conversations can foster openness, deepen trust, and help people become aware of the way they’re perceived by others.
Speaking of perception, identifying and redirecting behaviors that tend to erode cohesion and trust can be super helpful to building team cohesion. We thought this suggestion from McKinsey was both novel and likely to be useful: Bring an impartial observer into your initial meetings to find ways to improve team dynamics. This person could, for example, interrupt when conversations get off-track and bring the conversation back to useful territory. They should also make a note when a team member dominates the conversation, interrupts other team members, and/or takes credit for others’ ideas or work. This person can also check to see if everyone is actually aligned on team and company goals.
Another way to limit unproductive behavior is to provide thoughtful feedback in your 1:1s on how your reports interact with each other. Here again, if a team member doesn’t listen to others, etc. you should bring it up with them. It’s also a good opportunity to ensure your reports are aligned on team and company goals.
Lastly, team norms can also come into play when dealing with unproductive team behaviors. McKinsey pointed to a Latin American mining company which implemented a “yellow card” system. This was how workers safely pointed out unproductive behavior and offered constructive feedback.
Trust is a major theme in high-performing teams. And trust needs to start at the top. Leaders should trust their team members and be someone their team can trust. An untrustworthy leader can’t inspire great performance, motivate teammates to work hard to achieve stretch goals, or resolve conflicts as effectively. Trust has three pillars:
1. Mutual affinity: We trust people who we like and who we believe like us.
2. Competence: We trust people who we believe have the desire, skills, and knowledge to help us solve problems.
3. Integrity: We trust people who say what they mean, mean what they say, and do what they say they will do.
Another trust-builder is transparency. When people trust they’re getting the whole, accurate picture they feel safer and able to cooperate more fully. Speaking of safety, in Indistractible, Nir Eyal writes that Google found five characteristics of successful teams:
- Structure and clarity
- Meaning of work
- Impact of work
- Psychological safety
By far, psychological safety was the most impactful trait, and underpinned the other four. Originating with Organizational Behavioral Scientist Amy Edmonson, psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”
Leaders should help create psychological safety by:
- Framing work as an opportunity to learn, not just perform
- Openly acknowledging their own mistakes
- Modeling curiosity by asking lots of questions
Another way to keep information flowing through an organization is to look to Westrum’s Typology of organizational cultures. It categorizes teams into three types: “generative,” “pathological,” or “bureaucratic.”
Leaders of generative teams prioritize the mission over personal gain or following the rules. They create psychological safety by encouraging experimentation, letting go of blame when failure occurs, and focusing on working together to succeed.
The authors of Accelerate: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations found that teams with generative cultures enjoy shorter lead times, more frequent releases, faster service restoration, and higher levels of job satisfaction.
(Learn more: How to improve remote & hybrid team dynamics)
Turning a group of high-achievers into a high-performing team takes effort and time. But, done correctly, you can make major strides in a year or less. The key is to keep the team small, but not too small. Ideally a team has between six and 10 members. Pick people who are enthusiastic about the mission and team-oriented. Then, when you have your team, make sure you’re nipping unproductive behaviors in the bud, giving the team opportunities to connect outside of work, and fostering psychological safety.