The 4 Elements You Need to Build Your High-Performing Team

Have your team members acknowledged the 'elephant in the room' at your workplace?

learn more about Morag Barrett

By Morag Barrett


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The first quarter of 2016 is nearly complete (rather too quickly for my liking!), and my guess is that like many of us, you have used the first few months of the year to get a solid start toward achieving your business and professional goals for the year. When January 1 rolled around, you were out of the starting blocks like an Olympic sprinter. Your eye was firmly fixed on the year end target. You were running fast. Your team was running fast. Your organization was running fast.

Related: 8 Team-Building Mistakes Richard Branson Would Never Make

But are you now all running in the same direction? In what ways are your individual, team or organization goals in alignment, or heaven forbid, causing confusion and conflict? What have you done, proactively, to align your team members and build a high-performing team that can cross the finish line together, and successfully?

You've probably been involved in a team-building exercise at some point. Perhaps it was a weekend retreat, or an afternoon playing golf. Whether or not you thought it was a good use of your time, I am curious to know what happened when you all returned to the office. Did everyone go back to their usual behavior -- working individually rather than collaboratively, talking about one other rather than to one other?

In my experience, managers planning a team-building activity do not spend much time thinking about "what will be different." A "day of fun" is always a nice break from the day to day, but without a clear goal and purpose, it may be seen as frivolous and do more harm than good.

To build a high-performing team, you need to ensure that the lessons learned are relevant to your team and applied when everyone goes back to work. At SkyeTeam we work extensively with teams looking to reach the next level of performance. They recognize that focused team development is not a "one-time" event, but a process that incorporates continuous improvement, to develop new habits that become part of the team's (and organization's) culture. How you do business is what matters.

In our work with teams across the globe, we have identified four fundamental elements that differentiate average teams from high-performing teams:

1. Common sense

High performance isn't rocket science, so don't over engineer it! If you ask your team members what they consider a high-performing team's characteristics and behaviors to be, my guess is that they will easily come up with a long list. (You can also ask about worst teams and things to avoid -- another long list). At that point, you'll have your recipe for high performance:

  • Which elements are you doing well and consistently?
  • Which need care and attention?
  • What are you and your team committed to doing next to move toward high performance?

Related: 10 Insights on Building, Motivating and Managing an Exceptional Team

2. Uncommon discipline

High-performing teams go beyond the transactional elements, tactics and tasks and do something concrete with the common-sense knowledge that they have. Richard Branson, for instance, has said he spends an hour a week with his direct reports discussing what is working and what is not on their team. The focus is on the interpersonal dynamics and behaviors being role modeled -- not the transactional piece or the business scorecard.

In essence, high-performing teams do what they say they are going to do. Creating the common-sense list of high-performing team characteristics in step one is easy; following-through and turning the list into meaningful habits in your team is more challenging:

  • What behaviors do your team members say they are committed to doing, but demonstrate inconsistently?
  • When crisis hits, which rules get thrown out (even if their loss is damaging to the overall team)?
  • What are the non-negotiables that the team needs to commit to. no matter what?

3. Willingness to name the 'elephants in the room'

High-performing teams have learned how to talk to each other (even when the stakes are high!) They talk about the tough topics, the elephants in the room, the gorillas in the corner, those sensitive issues that get in the way of success. Average teams espouse "The Emperor's New Clothes" approach, where all can see the problem but no one dares call it out.

To be clear, candor doesn't mean team members always agree with one other on every decision that's made. What high-performing teams do is learn to fight well, and recognize that there will be times when they disagree (sometimes quite vociferously). But, once a decision is made, they are all behind it. Dissent may happen in private, but team members offer a single voice to the rest of the organization. More importantly, even after a "stand-down fight" occurs, relationships remain intact and may even be strengthened by the previous candor and debate:

  • What are the conversations that you team should be having but choose not to?
  • What issues are evident to all but ignored?
  • What baggage needs to be cleared so that the team members can move forward together?

4. Clarity on the purpose and goals of the team

Why does your team exist? How does it contribute to the overall success of the organization? I have worked with executive-level teams who, when asked if they are clear and in agreement regarding the purpose and goals of their team, will all say "Yes, absolutely!" I love it when that happens, as I will then call their bluff and ask them to list the three strategic priorities the team must achieve in the next time period. Invariably I will end up with a list of nine, 12, 15 or more items . . . not the three that a closely aligned team would deliver.

What are the three strategic priorities/goals that your team must deliver?

  • Is everyone clear and in agreement regarding their individual roles and responsibilities to achieve these?
  • What does the team need to stop doing in order to focus on delivering these?

Related: 5 Ways to Get Naysayers to Participate in Team Building

These four steps and 12 questions will set your team up for success. What are you waiting for?

Morag Barrett

Founder and CEO of SkyeTeam, author of Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationships

Founder and CEO of SkyeTeam, Morag Barrett is also a speaker and trainer, and the author of Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationships

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