How to Create a High Performance Team
Leading a group is like conducting an orchestra. Orchestras are divided into sections: woodwind, brass, strings, and percussion. Each section has a lead player – first violinist, first clarinetist, and so on. This is the orchestra’s executive team. In a similar way, organizations have subgroups: engineering, production, sales, accounting, and others. Section leaders of these functions are the organization’s executive team. Neither the orchestra nor the organization will achieve success unless its sections and personnel work well together. It’s the leader’s task to make this happen. From the orchestra pit to the factory floor, construction site, retail store, and executive office, the best leaders develop successful teams by following 11 time-tested practices.
Rate yourself (or a leader you know) on team leadership practices. (1 is low; 10 is high)
- Show enthusiasm for the work of the group. The leader’s emotion ignites and energizes the team. ___
- Make timely decisions based on agreed-upon goals. In this way, leaders show decisiveness and consistency. ___
- Promote open-mindedness, innovation, and creativity by personal example and conducive work climate. ___
- Admit mistakes and uncertainties, modeling honesty as a virtue. ___
- Be flexible in using a variety of tactics and strategies to achieve success. ___
- Have persistence and lasting power, never giving up on hope or effort. ___
- Give credit to others for the team’s accomplishment, meeting people’s needs for appreciation and recognition. Author John Maxwell says that a good leader takes more than his or her share of the blame and less than his or her share of the credit. ___
- Keep people informed about progress and problems, celebrate victories, and fine-tune efforts. ___
- Keep promises and follow through on commitments, earning the trust and confidence of others. ___
- Train for success; master fundamentals and practice for perfection. ___
- Put others first and self last, embodying the spirit of the caring leader. ___1
Total Score 99-110 = Excellent
88-98 = Very Good
77-87 = Average
66-76 = Poor
11-65 = Failing
The use of virtual teams is a growing trend. Virtual teams are groups whose members operate across space, time, and organizational boundaries and are linked through information technologies to achieve organizational tasks. Some virtual teams operate across a city or state; others operate across countries, cultures, and time zones. One reason virtual teams have become so widespread is that e-mail, instant messaging, and web conferencing have made it easier than ever to communicate and coordinate with people at a distance. It is interesting to see how the internet is being used by the United Nations to impact community engagement projects both within and across countries.2
The Conference Board reports five requirements for global teams to work: senior management leadership support, the effective use of communication technology, an organization structure that supports global operations, trust and respect among team members, and the ability to capitalize on the strengths of diverse cultures, languages, and people.3
Information technology makes virtual teams possible, but knowledge management and globalization make them increasingly necessary. Virtual teams operate best with structured tasks requiring only moderate levels of task interdependence. Complex and ambiguous tasks require an enormous amount of intense dialogue and are better suited to non-virtual teams.4
Many teams use a combination of virtual and non-virtual interaction. When IBM formed a virtual team to build a customer-access system for Shell, employees from both firms began with an “all hands” face-to-face gathering to assist the teamwork process. The two firms also made a rule that dispersed team members should have face-to-face contact at least once every six weeks throughout the project.5
A point to remember is that teams need meaningful face time even when doing virtual work across space and time. For example, at Lucasfilm Ltd., the creator of Star Wars, staffers across the board say the type of collaboration required wouldn’t be possible if they hadn’t been brought under the same roof. In an era of extreme telecommuting, when companies are rolling out expensive high-definition videoconferencing systems, even the highest-tech employees say there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction for their team-oriented projects if world-class work is the goal.6
Research shows that when forming virtual teams, it is helpful to include a few members who already know each other, other members who are well connected to people outside the team, and, when possible, members who have volunteered to be part of the team. It is also helpful to have an online site where members can learn more about each other and the kinds of work they are doing, as well as an online workspace that team members can access around the clock.7
Team Dynamics and Psychological Safety
Author James Collins wrote a research-based book titled How the Mighty Fall. The contrast he describes between ‘teams on the way down' and ‘teams on the way up' provides excellent guidance for leading teams. ‘Teams on the way up’ 1) address the truth, 2) use evidence-based problem solving, 3) emphasize two-way communication, 4) have a one-team attitude, 5) show mutual respect, 6) are cause-focused, 7) are learning-centered, and 8) accept responsibility for results.8
Research continues on the subject of team effectiveness. Google launched a study, code-named Project Aristotle, to learn why some teams stumble and others soar. Are team members similar or diverse, do members socialize away from work, how often do they meet, does educational background matter, does celebrating birthdays help, and so on? One strong pattern stands out: Psychological safety, more than anything else, is critical to team success. On good teams, people feel free to speak in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon referred to as “equality in the distribution of conversational turn-taking.” When everyone is encouraged to talk, the team does well. Also, good teams have high “average social sensitivity,” meaning members are aware and considerate of the feelings and needs of others.
Google found that when psychological safety is present, the sum of a group’s performance will be greater than its individual parts. A collective IQ emerges within the team that is distinct from the intelligence of any single member. This is because members listen to one another and show sensitivity to others’ feelings and needs. A Google team leader summarizes what Project Aristotle taught Google: “People want to be fully present at work, to feel 'psychologically safe,' to share thoughts and feelings without fear, to have honest conversations with colleagues, and to know those people really hear us. We want to know that work is the full expression of ourselves with others, and is more than just labor.”9
When a team works as a group, follow seven good rules: Start and stop on time; one person talks at a time; every idea is given a hearing; honesty is the best policy; listen to understand; stay on task, and give your best efforts.
For related reading, see:
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
How the Mighty Fall by James Collins
1. L. LaFasto and C. Larson, When Teams Work Best (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001); C. Burke et al., “What Types of Leadership Behavior Are Functional in Teams?” Leadership Quarterly 17 (2006); and J. Hackman, Leading Teams (Boston: Harvard Review Press, 2002).
2. P. Norris, The Digital Divide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); and T. Coine and M. Babbitt, A World Gone Social (New York: Amacon, 2014).
3. Conference Board, “Global Management Teams,” HR Executive Review 4 (1996).
4. B. Bell and W. Kozlowski, “A Typology of Virtual Teams,” Group and Organizational Management 27 (March 2002), pp.14-49; and A. Fisher, “How to Build a (Strong) Virtual Team,” CNN Money.com (December 10, 2009).
5. G. Buckler, “Staking One for the Team,” Computing Canada (October 22, 2004), p.16.
6. B. Hindo, “The Empire Strikes at Silos, Business Week (August 20 and 27, 2007), p.63; and S. Zaccaro et al., “Leadership in virtual Teams,” In D. Day et at., Leader Development for Transforming Organizations (Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum, 2004).
7. L. Gratton, “Working Together…When Apart,” Wall Street Journal (June 16-17, 2007), p.R4; and P. Dvorak, “How Teams Can Work Well Together from Far Apart,” The Wall Street Journal (September 17, 2007), p.8-4.
8. J. Collins, How the Mighty Fall (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).
9. C. Duhigg, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build a Perfect Team,” New York Times (February 25, 2016); L. Bock, Work Rules! (New York: Hatchette, 2015); see also S. Sinek, Leaders Eat Last (New York: Portfolio, 2014).