The value of high performing teams
Have you ever been on one of those high performing teams? Where everyone contributed, and your results exceeded expectations? Feels great, doesn’t it? And I’ll bet that you wanted to work with that team again!
Most leaders are aware that an effective team can make all the difference when it comes to creativity and innovation. We hope for that synergy, whereby the team achieves results that are greater than the sum of what individuals could produce. But it doesn’t always work that way.
On the flip side of my opening questions – have you ever been on a team that was ineffective? Perhaps even dysfunctional? It is frustrating for all involved. And can lead to long lasting conflict and resentment. So what can you do to ensure high performing teams? And what type of team leader skills are required?
What leads to effective and productive teams?
During my career, I had the opportunity to participate in and lead many different teams. I was also fortunate to receive some very specialized training in developing and leading high performing teams. Later, when I enrolled in an MBA program, I wanted to delve more into team performance. In particular, I wanted to better understand how diversity impacts team performance. Thus, I requested and was granted permission to do some specialized research on diversity and team performance.
Pouring through the existing literature and research on team performance was a fascinating (if not somewhat overwhelming!) experience. There are many theories, which at first may seem contradicting. But I think my key learning from this is that there are different types of teams. For example – a task team set up to work on a one-time project may be very different than an ongoing work unit team. And thus, there is no one size fits all team leadership approach. Leading high performing teams requires an ability to assess and adapt to the situation.
However, there are some key criteria a team leader can use to increase team productivity and effectiveness. The following framework is based on a combination of my training, research and experience in leading teams for over 20 years. I continue to apply these in my current work with diverse and virtual teams.
How to Lead High Performing Teams: 7 Criteria Success
Be clear on the teams purpose and/or goals
J. Hackman, in his 1990 work Groups That Work (and Those That Don’t), suggests that managers can influence the outcome of teams by ensuring clear purpose, and by ensuring quality in the initial design of the teams. So consider: Why are you forming the team? Is it to deliver a specific project? Or will this be an ongoing work team in your operations? Are you hoping that group work will lead to innovation? Or is your goal to promote greater efficiency and productivity? Knowing the purpose will allow you to “design” and structure the team to ensure specific outcomes. For example – if you seek innovation, you might want diverse and self directed teams. Whereas a team focused on efficiency might be more homogeneous and have a lot of structure.
Asking the question also helps you to avoid the trap “because we have always done it this way” and/or “others are doing it this way”. A team approach is not necessarily the best approach in all cases. Sometimes, a leader may just break up the work and assign it to different individuals.
Structure the Team to achieve your goal
How many people should be on the team? What expertise and/or roles do we need? When selecting team members, remember to consider not only ‘technical’ skills and knowledge, but experience working in a team environment. Remember that there can be a learning curve for those new to group work.
Other things to consider – how will they conduct the work? For example – do they need to meet in person? How often? What tools do they need? Do they need to provide reports and updates on their progress? Will there be assigned roles, such as team leader/chair, recorder, time keeper, etc?
Set clear (and positive!) expectations
At the onset, make sure the team has a clear understanding of what must they deliver (and when). In addition to productivity, you should also outline behavioural expectation. This is especially important with diverse teams. We often assume that everyone just understands our values. But this can very depending on both national and organizational culture. So it can be worth outlining specific expectations. For example – be respectful and listen when someone else is speaking, be open to ideas that are different from your own, etc.
Support Team building
Team building may be seen by some as a soft skill, and/or nice to have but not necessary. We often want to get down to work, and may see team building as a low priority. But a team needs time to communicate, develop relationships and ultimately, build trust before they can truly be effective.
Patrick Lencioni, in his 2002 book “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”,explains that as trust is the foundation of team effectiveness, lack of trust leads to fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results
Learn more about team building ideas in my previous article Diversity Team Building.
Recognize that your team will need to develop new skills to become a high performing team. While each person may be an expert in their own field, working effectively in a group can be something new. And each new team will need time to develop effective approaches to improve team productivity. So as a team leader, you need to provide them with feedback to help them recognize:
- What are they doing well
- What needs to be improved
Deal with difficult issues
As a team leader or manager, you will be required to manage performance of individuals. While we hope that applying the above criteria will lead to positive outcomes, there are often time where one or more members of a team are either under performing, or undermining success of the team through inappropriate behaviour. Therefore, it is important for you as a leader to stay aware of what is happening on the team, and address these issues based on performance management protocols of your organization. Some of my previous articles outline how to implement performance management and how to improve employee performance.
Apply appropriate (cooperative versus competitive) motivation
While high performing teams provide participants with feelings of achievement and satisfaction, a team leader can enhance performance with other motivators. However, you need to be careful to apply motivation that promotes team work and cooperation. Unfortunately, we sometimes want to single out and recognize those people that seem to be “the shining stars”. But this can alienate those team members that have been working quietly behind the scenes. We can end up creating an environment of competition between team members. So consider motivation , recognition and rewards that are meaningful to the group. In my course Improve Employee Performance, we take a deeper look at motivation.
Develop skills for leading high performing teams in your organization
While having the right team members is important, I’m sure you can appreciate how important it is to ensure team leader training. While some people do seem to have natural leadership abilities, leading teams is a skill that can be developed like any other. Through a combination of training in specific techniques, work experience and effective coaching, you can empower great team productivity in your workplace.
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