Blog Articles

4 Tips to Creating High-Performing Teams

Michael Gugel, CPO @ GoCo

by Michael Gugel, CPO @ GoCo - April 18th, 2016


What does it takes to build an effective team? There is no single recipe for success. The variable is the human element, which cannot be controlled. An effective leader understands this unpredictability and puts certain practices in place, creating an environment that encourages success. Check out these four tips to building high-performing teams:

1. Safety: Building the Foundation

One of the first concepts introduced in entry-level management courses is Maslow’s Hierarchy
of Needs. Abraham Maslow’s theory relates to human motivation. To reach full potential, or
self-actualization, other needs must be met first. It starts with physiological requirements (food,
shelter, water), then progresses to other areas, such as safety, love and esteem. Physiological
and safety needs are quite literal. People cannot reach their full potential when worried about
where their next meal will come from or how they will stay warm at night.

Think of your team in a similar fashion. While they can survive on the bare basics, they will thrive when certain conditions are in place. Part of a leader’s role is to create the environment where the team can perform at its highest potential. When it comes to safety and security, if people are concerned about making mistakes or the company going under, they will not function optimally. Your role depends on the situation. You may have to run interference or take heat yourself to shield the team.

The dynamics within the team play into this as well. If a small number of members dominate its decisions and conversations, the team is not a safe place. The group has to understand each other.

When Google began studying teams in 2012, it stumbled onto what psychologists call “psychological safety.” This term describes the safe place where teams thrive: the environment where team members are immersed in mutual respect and, most important, trust. This type of company culture is where ideas and risk-taking flourish. For organizations like Google, it is where they create products and services that change the world.

2. Communication: Honing the Ax

There is an old story about an experienced lumberjack in a tree-cutting competition with a younger lumberjack. In a contest to cut down the tree fastest, the younger, inexperienced lumberjack grabs his ax and gets to work. He chops ferociously, at first making significant progress, but diminishing as he goes along. The veteran lumberjack has a different approach. He takes time to sharpen his ax at the beginning of the competition. He prepares his tool to perform its best. As he begins cutting, the exhausted young lumberjack slows down. The experienced fellow cuts down his tree with fewer swings in less time.

For teams, taking the time to understand different communication styles and personality types is akin to the way the lumberjack honed his instrument. Some may find this activity fun; others may think it a waste of time. When it comes time to deliver, though, the team that “sharpened the ax” will be more effective.

Take meetings, for instance. Is the team going to work better by having an agenda in advance and sticking to it, or can it be free flowing? Individual preferences may not necessarily dictate the team’s direction. Some people may prefer structure, but given this particular team environment, they may be just as comfortable going with the flow. To become a great HR manager or founder, letting a team get to know itself and its preferences in the beginning creates a safe place with greater understanding.

3. Mission: The Guiding Light

Another area that sets many teams apart is grasping its mission. Members should understand how their work affects others. They should know their contribution to the project (or product) matters to the organization’s viability. They should understand how their work affects customers.

It is not enough to mention this at a teambuilding event. The mission should be front and center. There should be reminders throughout the process. Not everything will go well all the time. Doubts may arise; morale can deteriorate. Use the mission to pull people back to what matters.

4. Perspective: See the Big Picture

Most people recognize the value of teams and the potential they hold. Leaders and managers should keep in mind that sometimes teams are better off navigating on their own. There are going to be times when people need to be put together for specific reasons. Certain competencies and knowledge may be necessary. It is important to note that just because people should do great work together, does not mean they will do great work together.

Some groups experience success for reasons not even they understand. Team dynamics work in interesting ways. It is important to track team members’ engagement and performance. Creating the right environment can make all the difference in teams’ pursuit of success.

Building high-performing teams is crucial to building a great company. Find out how GoCo can help your employees be more efficient and effective with our 1-0n-1 performance management.