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Characteristics of a High-Performing Team and How to Build One

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, famously said: “No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team”. By implication, this means that a (strong) team will always beat out a controlling leader who makes all the decisions by themself. The emphasis should be on the quality of the team, however. Weak teams can be as disruptive and unproductive as a top-down leader, whereas successful, high-performing teams create multiple benefits for both employees and the business. In today’s article, we look at the characteristics of high-performing teams and the most effective ways to develop them within your organisation.

What is a high-performing team?

Looking at a suitable definition, one can say a “high-performance work team” – as opposed to a “regular work team” – is made up of goal-focused individuals armed with specialised expertise and complementary skills. These complementary skills, aka soft or power skills, are what make the difference. 

As a team, they form close relationships and consistently collaborate and innovate. They share goals and leadership, have open communication and clear role expectations, and prioritise early conflict resolution. Through an atmosphere of mutual trust and accountability, they create the optimal environment and structure that drives productivity and, ultimately, measurable returns. 

This makes it clear that engineering a high-performing team takes so much more than simply hiring the right people and giving them the right tools to work with. 

So what characteristics do you need to create such magical teams? Ron Friedman, social psychologist and author of The Best Place to Work, The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, identifies three psychological traits common to high-performing teams: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Let’s take a closer look at each one. 

Autonomy has received a boost through the work-from-home revolution, empowering many to decide where and when they work. Autonomy is a basic human need, and employees are going to want to hang on to it as they return to the office, even if only for a few days or hours a week. They can maintain autonomy by being able to decide not only where they work but how to best do their job, what tasks to do first, how to complete a task, when to finish it, and when to take breaks. 

Competence is feeling you’re good at what you do, that you are able to expand your skills, and that you’re actually mastering new things. When employees view the workplace as a vehicle for growth, they feel a stronger connection to the business.

Relatedness is the need to feel connected to others (i.e., actually like each other) and to feel appreciated, valued, and respected. This one is tricky for business owners to cultivate, but it’s an important part of making diversity work and equally so in hybrid working environments where a lot of interaction happens digitally.

What do high-performing teams do differently?

To make the traits of high-performing teams and extraordinary work environments more tangible, Friedman looks at five things these teams do differently.

  1. They are not afraid to pick up the phone. More communication will always be better than less, and high-performing teams make 10.1 vs. 6.1 calls per day on average. This leads to fewer misunderstandings and more productive interactions.
  1. They are strategic with meetings. Poorly run meetings drain energy and cost money. Practices of productive meetings are: requiring prework from participants, introducing an agenda, and beginning with a check-in that keeps members apprised of one another’s progress. 
  1. They bond over non-work topics. Through personal conversations, we identify shared interests, and this in turn fosters deeper liking and authentic connections that positively impact team performance.
  1. They give and receive appreciation more frequently. Recognition is often more powerful than monetary incentives when it comes to motivating people. Friedman’s research showed that high-performing teams reported receiving more frequent appreciation at work, both from their colleagues and managers, and also reported expressing appreciation to their colleagues more frequently.
  1. They are more often authentic at work. High-performing team members are more likely to express positive emotions when interacting with their colleagues. They regularly joke with, compliment, and tease their teammates and use exclamation points, emojis, and GIFs in written comms. They also aren’t shy to express negative emotions. The benefit of this is they don’t suppress them – a known mental energy sapper.

What skills do members of high-performing teams have and need?

It’s easy enough to outline what a high-performing team looks like, but building high-performance teams isn’t quite as simple. Integral to building high-performing teams is ensuring each member has the power skills needed to thrive in dynamic and demanding teamwork environments. Luckily, these skills can be learned. Here are five of the top power skills your team will need:

Engaged leadership, not micromanagement, creates a positive working environment and ensures that communication, trust, and respect are maintained.

Efficient communication includes active listening and not over-communicating. It’s also providing systems that make communication easy and knowing when (and when not) to pick up the phone, email, use Slack or Zoom, or simply pop into each other’s office or workspace for a chat. 

Being confident in yourself and your work and feeling empowered to be assertive in your communication – in a professional and effective way. This fosters respect and ensures everyone has a say in how the business is run and how projects are completed. 

Adaptability and flexibility are vital to being able to accept and work with sudden changes and disruptions in routines or goals and still maintain an efficient working environment.

Empathy and respect lead to workplace integrity and professionalism and creates a more positive and inclusive work culture. It also creates trust, which is essential for a team to find their flow, feel more comfortable taking risks, and work through challenges and conflicts.

Ready to build your own high-performing teams?

We are excited to announce our Power Skills for Team Building course that will be launched in 2023. In this 10-week online course, we engage top experts in the field to show employees, managers, and leaders how to gain the essential human-centred power skills that are unique to high-performing team members. Contact us if you’d like to reserve your spot!

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