Almost every leader I have interviewed and or worked with, tells me they want a high-performance team. In fact, the number of team building training sessions, workshops, books and ropes courses equate to more than 10,000. Clearly, when it comes to constructing a team of people who work well together to create winning outcomes, knowing ‘how to’ and understanding ‘how to’ are two very different phenomena. Let’s first distinguish elements of a high-performance team, by reviewing what a team is, is not, and revisiting Patrick Lencioni’s world famous book, The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team.
Engagement, accountability and purpose are all table stakes required to build a high-performance team, and all three of those requirements are grossly suffering across most of today’s organizations. A solid workplace culture exists when people come together for a common purpose and align their efforts around that common cause.
The strong and astute organizational leader is one who is committed to optimizing their resources and maximizing their return on their investment. Given the people expense is often the largest investment in any enterprise, creating this kind of culture is simply smart business. As a leader, empowering your workforce to unleash their strengths and encouraging people to collaborate and innovate, leverages people’s ability to act as a team and produce results.
In work cultures where people focus on only their piece of the puzzle, it leads to silo mentality and ultimately breeds ineffectiveness and inefficiency. A high-performance team cannot exist in an environment where competition and one-upmanship prevails. When people on the team focus on each other’s limitations and detriments, and on the why things cannot be done, they all too often miss opportunities to make the organization better. Additionally, teamwork is adversely impacted when the people on the team feel the need to focus on fighting and jockeying for authority or power. This need to be ‘better than’ decreases collaboration and limits innovation. It is a recipe for stagnation and conflict, neither which drive long-term results.
In Lencioni’s book, he boldly shines the light on what does not work for a team. While he has sold over two million copies, implementing his fundamental teaching seems to be much harder said than done. As leaders, it requires rewiring our minds and our teams to repair an absence of trust. However, before you can rewire, you first need to be aware and responsible for the absence of trust in the first place. When people avoid conflict, it is most often because they either have a fear of retribution for saying what needs to be said, or they lack the self-confidence and may second guess their competence, which constraints their ability to speak up and call attention to something that is not working. When people on the team are not engaged, or are not on the team for the right reasons, it instigates a lack of commitment. Frankly, even the best of leaders cannot inspire a lame duck. Unfortunately, an avoidance of accountability seems to be the number one epidemic in organizations today. Having those crucial conversations, holding the bar high and implementing consequences for poor performance is behavior that is avoided by most, like the plague. Again, this might stem from leaders not having the confidence to believe they have the ostensible authority to hold people to account, a lack of training or it could be poor former modeling that could cause it. Lastly, when the leader and the people on the team do not focus on the big picture or don’t focus on achieving specific measurable results, the team might work hard, however, they rarely fulfill on the purpose and intention of the team’s focus.
Whether you are seeking to create a high-performance work team or a high-performance culture, there are 7 steps for creating the circumstances that high performance and teamwork can thrive.
1. The first step in creating a high-performance team is identifying and clarifying the purpose for the team. People must understand the WHY behind what they are doing. Once the purpose for the team is crystallized and talking points are clearly outlined, it is the Initiator of the team’s role to connect the dots for people to see how they relate to it. Communicating an inspiring vision for the people on the team and mapping what success looks like when it is achieved, is a foundational element for congealing a group of people and getting them geared up to work together in unison.
2. The second step in establishing and building a high-performance team is selecting the leader. The leader does not have to be the person who invents the possibility and purpose for the team; it does need to be a person who accepts the responsibility for shepherding and guiding the team to success. The leader’s job is to be present, and to be there for the team. All teams go through the four stages of forming, storming, norming and performing, and the skilled leader is right there with the team through it all.
3. Establishing the rules of the game is the third step in building your team. People need to know what is expected from them, and from the team. People need to know and understand where the boundaries are regarding decision-making, autonomy and performance. Giving people the rules of the game before they agree to play it, allows for people to opt in or opt out of the team and the game. Advanced clarity of expectations also reduces unnecessary problems, reduces ambiguity and confusion, and serves to mitigate poor performance and unwanted turnover on the team.
4. Now that you have the vision, the outcomes and rules of the game, it is important to think schematically about who will do what and which skills and competencies are needed to accomplish the end game. The fourth step is selecting the players for the team. Whether you are building an enterprise or a team of people to accomplish a project, it is crucial that you select the right people for the right roles, for the right reasons. When this happens, people are more inclined to commit, which is the baseline for team engagement. When people are engaged, they have a strong desire to bring value to the team. When people enjoy the type of work they are doing and are able to connect their work to the bigger picture engagement soars. Engaged people focus on what is working and look to leverage talents in themselves and others for the betterment of the goal. It is wise to identify how the roles interact with one another, and how the team needs to be constructed to deliver results. The best team dynamics happen when there is a variety of people who bring their uniqueness to the team. Beyond competencies and skills, it’s important to consider unique traits that each team member brings to the table and how those unique traits can be leveraged for optimal creativity and innovation. Every successful team has one of each of the four primary communication styles on it. A high-performance team needs someone who is decisive when it comes to initiating or redirecting the project or program. A team also needs someone who promotes the program and inspires people along the way, as well as at least one team member focused on looking for potential pitfalls, has a contentious eye for what is missing and uses it to alert the team of issues and solutions for refinement along the way. Lastly, an effective team needs a person or people who are there to do the hard work of implementing the work to achieve the results in a steady and stable manner.
5. Step five in establishing and building a high-performance team is a step that is most often skipped. This is the Level Setting step. When a group of people comes together, it is crucial that they learn how to work together effectively. Whether your group has a history or every member is new, people always come to a new work situation with past behaviors, attitudes, beliefs and ways of being that may or may not be effective on this team and with this new set of people. Level setting allows each member of the team an opportunity to begin again. During a level set, team members explore their limiting beliefs and barriers to working with others in a productive and effective manner, and do the necessary work to unload those factors that get in the way. Through experiential learning, the team as a whole is challenged to work together in ways they never considered. Even the most effective, astute and self-aware people discover limits that were previously hidden from their conscious view. The team lays out the pathway for the best way to work together, how they will resolve personality conflicts and internal challenges with dynamics of the team. At the completion of the level set, the team creates a collective possibility for the team that is inspiring to each and every member of the group.
6. Once the team is selected and everyone is aligned with the vision, outcomes and rules of the game, it is time to start planning. Planning is the sixth step in creating a high-performance team. The best approach for the leader during planning is to be a source for inspiration, questions, and guidance. Leaders who step too far into planning, create teams that are dependent on the leader and lack creativity. The best leaders select the right people, inspire them toward a vision, and back out of the way during the planning stage; unless they are specifically asked for guidance. If the leader notices a problem with the plan, rather than pointing it out, it is much more empowering to ask questions that provoke the team members to activate their critical thinking skills to answer and think potential challenges through. The empowering 21st century leader may ask if the team anticipates challenges along the way, and whether they do or don’t, makes himself available for coaching during the ongoing check-ins.
7. Step seven in creating conditions for a high-performance team to flourish, is to establish a regular process for checking in, tracking progress and celebrating successes, as well as identifying obstacles and strategizing how to overcome them. When people are aware of the milestone meetings and rely on regular feedback, it reduces uncertainty and unnecessary stress. Laying out the stages of organizational effectiveness, beginning with what it means to be operating in formulation and concentration and then defining criteria for low, moderate and high momentum, gives the team an opportunity to self-regulate, correct and celebrate as they see fit. Utilizing a customized version of the agile methodology, is an excellent means to keep progress on track and support the team in attaining momentum with their project, program or goal. Daily stand-ups, bi-weekly declarations and intention setting, as well as bi-monthly retrospectives, give teams a structure they can count on and gives the team healthy guardrails to work independently and remain responsible to each other and the organization as a whole.
While knowing and understanding are two very different distinctions, doing is the link that shifts knowing to understanding. For the impatient leader, doing may be a challenge because progress is most often only experienced incrementally. Building a high-performance team is not about exponential breakthroughs. If they happen, great; however, if sustainability is your goal, impatience is your enemy. Teams respond best to a system that allows them to learn, move forward, fall, learn from mistakes, move forward again and sustain progress over time. When high concentration and effort is celebrated, and low momentum is acknowledged and genuinely appreciated, teams build confidence and fortitude to stay the course and achieve high momentum and sustainability.