Developing High Performance Teams
The Rehabilitation Leadership Framework provides a structure for leadership and guidance to help us improve our leadership skills.
- 1 What is a High Performance Team?
- 2 Common Challenges of Team Development
- 3 Patrick Lencioni: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
- 4 Psychological Safety in a High Performance Team
- 5 Tuckman's Stages of Group Development
- 6 Drexler-Sibbet Team Performance Model
- 7 References
What is a High Performance Team?
A high performance team is a team that understands its purpose, values are clearly set out and team members are mutually accountable for outcomes. Team members are committed to achieving the team’s specified outcomes. Specific characteristics of a high performance team are encompassed in the acronym PERFORM:
- Purpose, trust and common values
- Empowerment in decision making
- Relationships and communication
- Flexibility and autonomy
- Optimal productivity and efficiency
- Recognition and appreciation
- Morale and engagement
Purpose, Trust and Common Values
Members of a high performance team will understand the purpose of their work and will trust team members. From this foundation, the team will agree upon goals, roles will be defined and strategies developed.
Empowerment in Decision Making
A team will become empowered when it understands the decision making parameters and goals of an organisation or team. If decision making practices and accountability are clearly defined, team members can have autonomy and the opportunity to exercise collective and personal power. High performing teams will self manage and be able to work independently towards goals and outcomes.
Relationships and Communication
It is essential that team members feel they can take risks, as well as share their thoughts, opinions and feelings without fear. Differences of opinion are valued in a high performance team. If they create conflict, it is important that this conflict is managed in a respectful manner. It is also important to note that team adaptability has been found to be associated with the ability of team members to communicate effectively about goals and actions.
Flexibility and Autonomy
Optimal Productivity and Efficiency
A high performance team will always aim to achieve optimal productivity and efficiency. They have high standards and strive to meet deadlines and reach goals. They will also hold each other accountable, but everyone takes pride in the team’s achievements.
Recognition and Appreciation
Everyone, including the leader, recognises each other’s contributions. Because of this, team members feel appreciated/regarded.
Morale and Engagement
Morale refers to the pride that comes from belonging to the team and achieving defined goals. Engagement refers to the emotional connection that team members feel towards others in the group. Members of high performing will feel confident and enthusiastic. They will be optimistic that they can achieve desired outcomes.
These attributes discussed above have benefits for all connected to the team, from team members to clients, organisations and team leaders.
Common Challenges of Team Development
It is important as a leader to be aware of the pitfalls of team development. This allows the leader to be proactive and ensure the team has the ability to become high performing.
Most models of team development focus on developing positive relationships as soon as possible. Trust is essential in a team. The ways in which conflict is managed will have a significant impact on whether or not trust develops in a team. While leaders may be tempted to avoid conflict, productive differences of opinion need to be encouraged. It is important that everyone in the team feels able to share their views or opinions. They should know that every perspective or view is valued and will be respected. Teams are not, however, static - members come and go. This can affect interpersonal dynamics, which can in turn, upset the trust within a team.
Connection can be difficult to achieve, especially for dispersed teams. Because these teams rarely meet in person, they must connect through technology. This almost inevitably results in occasional misunderstandings. Some strategies to address this include:
- Video based meeting
- Intermittent in person team building
- Email or text guidelines
Team members can sometimes become distracted and lose focus. A team leader must ensure that members have a clear understanding of priorities, especially early on in the team development process.
Changes in team membership, organisational restructuring, funding changes or interpersonal tensions can affect momentum. The leader needs to be able to act to ensure a team is able to reset or refresh in order to keep things moving forward.
A focus on collaborative decision making and collective action adds a degree of complexity to achieve tasks. This can be frustrating for some team members as some individuals prefer that the leader takes unilateral action. However, high performing teams will tend to rely on collective wisdom in the team.
Hierarchical decision making in organisations, as well as power dynamics, conflicting objectives and system barriers all affect a team’s ability to achieve its purpose. This is especially true as team members often have little influence over these factors. The leader needs to be able to identify and remove as many barriers as possible to ensure the team’s success.
Patrick Lencioni: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
In this book, Lencioni discusses the challenges team leaders may face while trying to create a high performance team. These include
- Absence of trust between team members. As discussed above, trust is essential in a team. It allows members to establish a rapport with each other as well as to feel confident that they can share ideas, shortcoming and vulnerabilities without fear. If team members trust each other, they won’t hesitate to ask for or offer help. However, where there is an absence of trust, team members may work separately and not take part in team activities.
- Fear of Conflict - the desire to maintain harmony (even if it is artificial) will reduce productivity. Fear of conflict reduces creativity and results in more superficial relationships and a lack of rapport.
- Lack of commitment within team - Lencioni suggests that the two major reasons for lack of commitment in team are:
- Lack of agreement/consensus across team, which results in team members feeling discouraged or disinterested. Consensus is reached when everyone’s ideas have been heard and decisions are made by the team as a whole.
- Indecisiveness - if team members feel uncertain about what to do, commitment and morale suffers
- Avoidance of accountability - sometimes a desire to avoid personal discomfort prevents team members or leaders from holding each other accountable.
- The inattention of team to results - if team members put their own goals/needs ahead of the team’s goals, the team will be less able to achieve results.
Psychological Safety in a High Performance Team
A sense of psychological safety in a team will enhance a team’s performance. In fact, it is four times more significant than any other factor in determining performance. Psychological safety ensures that team members will feel happy to ask for, offer or reject help. They will be able to discuss issues, and acknowledge if they do not know something.
If a team member is worried that they will be teased/insulted by other team members, they won’t put forwards ideas or discuss their opinions/values/concerns. This can result in problems remaining hidden and work won’t be optimal.
What can the team leader do to assess whether or not team members feel safe?
- Look for conversational turn taking
- Be aware of social sensitivity within and between team members. In average or low performing teams, members are less aware of other team members’ feelings. In high performing teams, team members will be aware of how others feel based on tone of voice, expressions and other non verbal cues. When examining emotional intelligence (EI) in a team, Chang et al found that either high average member EI or high leader EI helps to explain high performance in a team.
There are five key elements that impact on the psychological safety of a team.
- Team leader - his/her behaviour will influence the team. Team members get cues from the leader about what is valued and what is not.
- Trust and respect between team members affect the team atmosphere.
- Organisational support. If there is a lack of organisational support, teams will likely experience obstacles that impact on performance
- Team habits. The routines that team members develop when working together will either enable team members to be open/feel free to be themselves or will prevent this from happening.
- Interaction practices. Team members should be given the opportunity to practise interactions without it having an immediate impact on their work.
Tuckman's Stages of Group Development
- Forming - generally teams start at the forming stage. They establish basic ground rules and team norms. Relationships begin to form and team members start to get to know each other. At this stage, the leader directs and makes the decisions. Trust should slowly start to build at this stage.
- Storming - at this stage, team members may start to challenge others and voice their own opinions. Conflict can develop and some processes may start to break down. The leader may come under pressure from some team members. The leader needs to be able to listen to team members, manage conflict and assist in idea generation.
- Norming - at this stage, emotions and tensions start to decrease. Team members begin to accept variation and will tend to cooperate to resolve differences. Because member roles and team norms are well established, loyalty develops. At this stage, leadership is shared within the team, so the leader starts to act more as a team member.
- Performing - the team begins to self manage at this stage. There is a collective focus on important tasks, and a determination to solve problems and achieve goals. Differences of opinion are considered with respect. Because the team has developed a high level of trust, relationships remain strong despite differences. The leader has oversight of the team but the team members tend to self manage day to day activities.
- Adjourning - At some point, a team will no longer be needed and it will enter the adjourning phase where it is dissolved. It is important that the group has a sense of closure as team members can feel a sense of loss when their work comes to an end. It is important, therefore, to recognise achievements and celebrate the group’s successes. Managers can help to reduce any sense of uncertainty for members, by having transition plans in place.
The leader’s role evolves through the first four stages:
- Leader coordinates, directs and guides
- Supports and assists
- Encourages and mentors
- Cheerleads, recognises and praises
However, in reality, team development is not quite so straight forward or linear. Usually there are a number of cycles of team development. New members may join when the team is norming and the team will go back to the forming stage. Similarly, if roles are unclear, a team may move from the performing stage back to the norming phase. There may be conflict between subgroups within a team when it is performing - thus, some team members may leave, so the team goes back to the forming phase. The length of time for each stage will vary depending on the group. Moreover, there is no firm line between each phase. However, each stage is essential in the team development model.
Drexler-Sibbet Team Performance Model
This is a seven stage model of team development. It is divided into two areas: creation (4 stages); and performance/sustainability (3 stages).
- Orientation - The group learns why a team is being created
- Trust building - The team gets to know each other and the skills/competencies of members. This new knowledge leads to trust building
- Goal clarification - the group will begin to learn and define roles for team members and define their purpose/goals. Conflict will naturally occur at this stage as members figure out their place in the group.
- Commitment - The team considers how they will achieve their goals. It defines how the team will be able to work together to become productive. Team conflict may decrease.
Performance and Sustainability
- Implementation - Team members will fine tune details such as who does what, where and when.
- Drive towards high performance or wow. This is the phase in which work gets done and is similar to Tuckman’s performance stage.
- Renewal stage - The team will review what has been done and consider if the team should continue or if its work is completed. 
All three models of team development reviewed emphasise the importance of having positive relationships within the team, ensuring that there is a sense of trust, that conflict is productive and that there is a unified focus on the intended outcome.
A leader may take on a team in different stages of development. There will be different challenges depending on what stage the team is in.
A start up team is newly formed and has a defined purpose. At this stage, the leader has an opportunity to connect with members and intentionally launch the team.
This has 3 main phases:
- Team identity - discuss with the team its values, purpose, roles, accountabilities
- Environmental scan - gather information about factors that may influence success (consider doing a SWOT or SCOTT analysis)
- Team priorities - clarify the team's direction.
Sometimes you may be brought in to take on the leadership of an existing team that is struggling to perform, or an unsteady team that rarely has success, or a dysfunctional team that exhibits disharmony.
Seven steps to approach an unsuccessful team:
- Understand the problem. Some ways of discerning potential issues include:
- Team 360
- Anonymous survey
- Manage poor performance/negative behaviour as these can have an impact on other team members.
- Review team composition - look at whether or not the right people with the right skills are on the team. It is important to consider all team member changes at this stage so that the team can reform/restart successfully
- Develop a plan and take action making sure the refreshed team members understands team priorities.
- Monitor and evaluate progress
- Revisit and revise
- Communicate - this ensures that all team members will remain confident and feel informed
Sometimes you may be called upon to lead a team that is performing well. As these teams tend to self manage, it might seem like these teams can be left alone. However, a leader has an opportunity here to help such a group achieve even more. A leader could consider:
- Does the team have all the resources it needs?
- Are there any barriers affecting performance?
- Does the team feel supported to learn and be innovative/creative?
- Are there any behavioural issues that need attention
Sometimes a team will achieve its goals and no longer be required. In other instances, a team just doesn’t work out. Such teams need to be discontinued. A leader is needed to ensure that this process is well managed. The leader should help celebrate achievements (small or large) and examine any features that may improve performance in other teams down the track. It is necessary that the learners communicate to members and other stakeholders when a team is being disbanded. They can also support team members by ensuring that they are supported when looking for future opportunities.
- Giesbrecht, J. Leadership - Developing High Performance Teams. Physioplus 2020.
- Leadchange. 7 Characteristics of a High Performing Team. Available from https://leadchangegroup.com/7-characteristics-of-a-high-performing-team/ (accessed on 17 February 2020).
- Wang Y, Lei J. The action mechanism of team learning orientation in promoting shared performance. Social Behaviour and Personality. 2018; 46(4): 581-596.
- Kirks KT, Ferrin DL. The role of trust in organizational settings. Organization Science. 2001; 12(4).
- Lencioni, P. The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002.
- Chang JW, Sy T, Choi JN. Team emotional intelligence and performance: interactive dynamics between leaders and members. Small Group Research. 2011; 43(1): 75-104.
- Tuckman BW. Developmental sequences in small groups: Psychological Bulletin. 1965; 63: 384-99. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/cd78/c763010e6eb856250b939e4eec438e14ef8f.pdf
- The Grove Consultants International. Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model. Available from https://www.thegrove.com/methodology_drexlerSibbetTeamPerformanceModel.php (accessed 17 February 2020).
- The Grove Consultants International. The Team Performance Model. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WA3VkPHp2z0 [last accessed 18/02/2020]
- Boni AA. Leading and managing teams in entrepreneurial organisations: an experimental perspective. Journal of Commercial Biotechnology. 2019; 24(4): 74-80.