Thursday, May 18th, 2017

Critical Conditions for High-Performing Teams (Part 1/3)

I’ve had the good fortune to be part of some outstanding teams during my career. It’s something that gave me energy, motivation and enjoyment. Those same teams also delivered results, innovation and leadership within the organizations.

With our constantly changing world, what makes a high performance team is evolving. There are also many ideas about how to build a team great.

I hope by sharing some of what I’ve learned in this 3-part series, it will help you develop your teams.

Take care,


Whose High-Performing Team?

The first thing to understand is how we perceive a great team. Like so many things, it depends on your perspective!

Team Member

Have you ever had the good fortune of working with someone where your conversations feel like they’re leading to ever-better ideas and increased energy? When this happens to me, I can almost see the feeling as a tornado in reverse – growing higher and wider with each additional comment and idea. It generates a great sense of possibility, optimism and – often – new ideas. It’s very powerful, especially when combined with a shared sense of purpose, the desire to help and collaborate and camaraderie.


While most employers can see how that makes the workplace more enjoyable, they really value the results these teams offer:

  • Bottom line results
  • Innovative ideas
  • Reputation as a great employer

Being part of a high-performing team also multiplies the benefits of those employees individually since they are:

  • Self-motivated and go the extra mile because they want to
  • Great ambassadors for the organization, its brand, products and services


Ever been to a restaurant where the staff not only offer exceptional service, but also seem to be having the time of their lives? Take a moment to recall how that made you feel. That’s what high-performing teams feel like to customers.

How’d They Get That Team?

High-performing teams aren’t built overnight and it takes the organizational equivalent of a village. You can’t “make” a high-performing team; so much as you can create the conditions to make it possible.

We’re going to examine two of the pillars that encompass many of those conditions:

  • Culture
  • Structure and process


Organizational culture is a one of the enduring pillars to developing a high-performing team, even with new technology and ways of working. Given research regarding the contagious nature of emotions, organizational culture will continue to be critical to creating the right work environment for great teams.

That culture of an organization is made up of a collection of beliefs and actions that affect how it feels to work there. The more consistent those are, the stronger the culture. It includes things like:

  • Shared values
  • Access to opportunities
  • Alignment of what is said and done
  • Open and frequent communication throughout the organization
  • Willingness to learn, make mistakes, and learn some more
  • Accountability and responsibility (in right place?)
  • Diversity of people, perspectives and ideas
  • Respect, even in disagreement

An outstanding example of this was the insurance company Maritime Life, which was known for its culture and was on the Report on Business Top Employers list from its inception until Manulife purchased the company. Here are a few of the actions that really embodied the beliefs:

  • Employees were directly involved in creating the company values and later in re-branding the company;
  • The CEO and other executives conducted employee town halls across the country quarterly;
  • Challenging employee questions were welcomed and answered – at those town halls and during several mergers and acquisitions; and
  • The results of employee and customer satisfaction surveys were used to create action plans for improvement and to determine bonuses for ALL employees.

To create a culture that nurtures high-performing teams today, each organization has to find its right balance between opposing forces. This may be where technology and the drive for disruption and innovation have changed the look and feel of organizational culture the most. The evolution from command-and-control hierarchies to flatter structures where everyone was expected to cooperate nicely has given way to one where the beliefs and actions need to appropriately straddle things like:

  • Consistency and innovation
  • Shared purpose and challenging viewpoints
  • Focus and freedom to explore curiosity

Growth and comfort do not co-exist. ~ Ginni Rometty, IBM

Interestingly, everyone doesn’t need to agree on everything, but they do need to agree on how to work together, including how to deal with decision-making and differences. That leads us to the next pillar.

Structure and Process

The structure required for a high-performing team and the processes that support them vary more, especially by industry and sector.

Process is about harnessing the energy of the group to bring out their individual ideas and collective wisdom. ~ Katherine Roberts, facilitator

Even so, there are certain things that need to be in place and clear in almost all. I think of them as “The Clarities:”

  • Goals – to unite for a common purpose even if the routes are varied
  • Roles – to make the most of team members’ strengths and share the load, but not to create silos
  • Decision making – to help with the balance of opposing ideas and keep moving forward
  • Feedback – to foster learning, improvement and recognition

A person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new. ~ Albert Einstein

To these widely accepted items, I’d add another: the team agreement. Especially for teams working in innovative environments or high-stress fields, it’s important to understand the range of acceptable approaches and behaviours. A team agreement can support high-performing teams by:

  • Creating clearer expectations for how they work together
  • Fostering a respectful environment
  • Providing a framework to raise issues without appearing defensive
  • Allowing them to self-manage more effectively

Think of the team agreement as the tracks the train runs on. It supports various destinations, different directions and routes, types of cars and the spectrum of passengers, while getting them through lots of terrain safely.

Perform like Google

Google’s Project Aristotle, a two-year effort which anaylzed 180 teams to determine what makes teams successful found “Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.”

One of the commonalities across successful teams was group norms: essentially a written or unwritten team agreement on how they behave and work together. They noted what they called “five key dynamics” as well:

  • Psychological safety
  • Dependability
  • Structure and clarity
  • Meaning of work
  • Impact of work

I think there’s a strong argument that these dynamics relate to culture, structure and process!

Watch For More

In June, we’ll explore more about the people who make up – and make possible – high-performing teams.

In the meantime, I’d love to talk to you about the culture of your organization or your team’s needs for structure and processes.  Please get in touch.