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What high-performing teams look like

Last updated on 
October 16, 2020

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Being part of a high-performing team can completely redefine how your approach your work. It can mean the difference between feeling excited to get to work or anxious; it can be the difference between a sense of belonging and alienation. From an employer’s perspective, it means the difference between accomplishing seemingly impossible goals or just doing the bare minimum.

But how do businesses achieve this holy grain? What do high-performing teams actually look like? And what can employers do practically to enable them?

The anatomy of high-performing teams

Simply hiring talented, determined and likeable people doesn’t cut it – if they can’t work together intelligently and harmoniously, your business won’t get far. To borrow a soundbite from basketball legend Michael Jordan, “Talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships.”

There is of course no single face to success; the anatomy of a high-performing team can vary wildly depending on industry, product and company mission. However, there are a few general principles that almost all high-performing teams have in common. Here’s what you need to achieve:

1. Psychological safety

In 2015, a comprehensive Google study set out to determine the most important attributes of high-performing teams – and the results were somewhat surprising. Rather than citing expertise, smarts or ambition, having psychological safety was found to be the most crucial. When teams feel psychologically safe, it means they feel secure enough to take risks, be honest and share their ideas without fear of the consequences.

The concept of psychological safety may not seem like the most important cultural attribute, but if people are afraid to try new approaches, your business is unlikely to innovate or adapt. Without it, people won’t recognize errors – one of a team’s most vital tools for improving and learning together. If you don’t have psychological safety, effective communication – the next key component of high-performing teams – will be almost impossible.

2. Thoughtful communication

Exceptional problem solving requires exceptional communication. High-performing teams regularly share information and offer help to ensure they’re aligned and making best use of their resources. They listen to one another, update proactively, share learnings and protect open dialogue. It ensures all input is considered, everyone is included and people have access to relevant information when they need it.

But effective communication shouldn’t be mistaken for constant communication. More communication is not necessarily better, if it is confusing, unstructured and disruptive. High-performing teams keep communication thoughtful – they use communication structures to standardize updates, they clarify the purpose of different communication channels, and ensure that everyone can easily find what they’re looking for when they need it. Crucially, they recognize the supremacy of asynchronous communication and only resort to “resource expensive” meetings when absolutely necessary.

3. Clarity of purpose and direction

No matter how smart and focused individual people might be, a team can never deliver their full potential if they’re unsure what their goals are. Priorities, objectives and unity of purpose matter – It’s all too easy for problems to appear when wires get crossed, so team members need to be on the same wavelength. They need to understand what the company is striving for, what their individual roles are, and what role the team as a whole will play in accomplishing any given task.

Implementing company OKRs is a great solution for this – keeping all efforts aligned and clear. Ultimately, whatever shape the journey takes, everyone should be driven by the same end goal and share the same vision. Aside from actually pulling in the same direction, that sense of unity strengthens team solidarity and helps build a supportive working culture.

4. Age diversity

And what about the team itself? What’s the winning composition for high-performing teams? While a 2018 Dropbox study found that smaller teams are more efficient, it concluded that age diversity was more significant. The best teams had a mix of old and new collaborators – interesting, when you consider many people think the more analogous team members are, the better they’ll perform. The Dropbox study found this wasn’t necessarily true – optimum performance occurred when teams had a mix of ages, where new energy and enthusiasm is met with expertise.

And expertise is important. The same study reported that teams performed best when they had at least one member with a proven track record. A team full of rookies understandably will take longer to get to grips with a task, get a feel for each other and the learn the best ways to work. But again, teams performed at their peak when they had a combination of inexperienced members and veterans. This dynamic allow some team members to inspire and lead, while others learn and improve. Like many things, it’s about finding the right balance.

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