High-performing teams: how to build a solid foundation for your team to flourish

High-performing teams: the holy grail of organisations. Like the search for El Dorado, clients often pursue this glinting golden mirage – always on the horizon and perpetually out of reach. Leaders and managers are packed off on courses, sent to workshops, and furnished with the teambuilding handbook du jour. Yet a high-performing team remains as elusive as ever.

There are plenty of theories on effective teams. Bookshops are awash with volumes from ex-sports stars, military personnel, even politicians, on the importance of cohesive, highly effective teams.

Tactical teambuilding, military theory and political intrigue provide great examples. The problem that L&D people are left to wrestle with is, how can that be translated to everyday life?

The shift from theory to practice

In our experience, theory is helpful only to a point. It’s much more important to have an experiential understanding of how something works. Patrick Lencioni’s model tells us that high levels of trust are critical for building effective teams; not a lot is said about how to build that trust.

To create trusting, high-performing teams, leaders have to act as role models. Instead of seeing and treating colleagues as a job role, leaders need to instil a sense of humanity back into the team. Otherwise, we forever see our colleagues as a job specification.

The foundation of trust means embracing the human heart of the team

Team leaders are faced with a difficult task. Before delving into any complex theory or structured initiatives, they must ask: are we talking enough? And that means talking: not emailing, not instant messaging, and not leaving a voicemail. That means speaking in person, in real time. How often do days or weeks pass by with zero contact between leaders and team members? This is often more pronounced in remote teams. During the course of our work, we notice that even in teams where there’s an existing sense of cohesion and a degree of trust, conversations tend to be transactional:

  • “Can you do this?”
  • “I need such and such by tomorrow.”
  • “Are you attending that meeting? Can you prepare the report?”

It’s about getting a job done. Fine. Sometimes things need to happen, and fast.

The problem is that when there’s no open conversation, there’s no trust. And when there’s no trust, there’s no vulnerability. Nobody shares anything of their true self. And that’s problematic, because if you’re part of a team and you don’t understand your teammates, there’s no reason for you to make yourself vulnerable. If you don’t understand colleagues, you can bet there’s a high degree of probability that they don’t understand you. So why would you want to put yourself in a vulnerable position?

In a fast-moving VUCA world, leaders must find the courage to take the time to get to know the human behind the job description; to find out what makes people tick and what’s going on in their world.

The struggle for leaders – and faced by leaders

The trouble with talking, is that it’s very easy to assume that you’ve ticked the ‘open conversation’ box. Often people talk, for a very long time, about superficial things. Yet, if there’s no trust, then people aren’t going to really explain who they are to their work colleagues. By putting the time aside to have more conversations, either in one-to-ones or in a team situation, leaders have to pave the way and move beyond the superficial. That’s when leaders start to show others how it’s done. And it can be very challenging to have those conversations – to even know where to begin or how to approach the idea of organising such a thing. That in itself can be a massive step.

More often than not, it’s easier to get someone external to facilitate those conversations. Because the external party can put into place a process that you wouldn’t normally do yourself. They can create the right physical space, the right psychological space, and they can create time for reflection – all of the things needed to do this work. The environment is vital because when people are explaining their beliefs, their values, and discussing elements of their personality, they have to feel safe.

The power of the hidden and the power of exposing it

One of the biggest impediments to those difficult conversations are the invisible systems that exist within teams. These invisible systems influence the team in a way that the team leader, nor the people within the team, does not. These systems are made up of all of the things that go unseen and perhaps are not even consciously acknowledged: social, political, hierarchical, primaeval forces, that dictate the way things are done and how the team conducts itself.

These systems can be created and driven by any number of things:

  • The length of time that somebody has been in the role.
  • Perceived strengths and weaknesses – of oneself and others.
  • A sense of place – where people fit in among peers.
  • Another big factor is the idea of exchange: what people put in versus what they get out. Quite often, the exchange is imbalanced. So, one person may feel that they’re putting a lot in and extracting very little, while they may perceive that somebody else is not putting much in, and getting a great deal back.

So, what do these unseen forces matter to teams, teamwork and high-performance?

It’s absolutely critical that teams, the individuals and as a collective, know where they are beginning in order to move forwards. They have to be able to articulate what the status quo is. Quite often, these invisible systems give rise to things not being said, which creates an elephant in the room. The job of a Learning and Development provider is to create something akin to a team coaching space. They must agitate, ask questions, and provoke thought.

The benefit, of having someone external do that, is that the team leader can be a member of the team, instead of being the person to lead those discussions. And by having these conversations, instead of being the one everyone expects to conduct them, it creates a dynamic where everybody – including the team leader – gets to know one another.

Facilitating team development: the process

High-performing teams can’t be created by an off-the-shelf product. The whole initiative to move a team to a place of high performance has to include a significant practical element.

And that’s the cog which turns the wheel in the quest to build a high-performing team.

Leaders often struggle to put into practice the team leadership skills learned on courses and development initiatives. They struggle to put these things in place in real life, because the people that they need to practice with are not other delegates, managers from different departments, or maybe even other organisations.

To build genuinely high-performing teams, this work must be done with the whole team. Building a team that performs well isn’t solely the responsibility of the leader sequestered on a training course; each member has a part to play.

Why high-performing teams are so sought after

Our sporting and military friends and their books are right. A team that gels is capable of great things, of achieving feats unimaginable against all the odds. Often, the motivation – even the need – to build a high-performing team is mixed with urgent time pressure.

Nine times out of 10, the team’s in a crisis; there’s no time for bonds to develop organically. They need performance, and they need it now. Common scenarios we encounter might be that the team has changed, maybe many people have left or they’ve moved to another team, or they’ve been promoted, or new people have joined. Maybe a leader has taken over a new team and trust among everybody is low.

So, when the stakes are high and the time is short, it’s doubly vital that every team member plays their part in building the team and performing exceptionally. The individuals need to practice the skills of communication together, to make vulnerability an everyday occurrence and to build trust. Not only must they walk the development journey together, they need to commit to keeping it up even after the programme has finished. With this dedication, organisations might find that the shimmering mirage in the desert isn’t just edging closer, it’s made of something solid too.

If you’ve read the book on high-performing teams – maybe you’ve read a library – give us a call. It’s no walk in the park, though with clear objectives and hard work it’s possible to drastically improve your team’s performance. We’re on 0117 370 1800, perhaps we can help you reach the goal you have in mind?

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