Eddie Kilkelly: Building and nurturing high performing teams

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Team of skydivers

A high performing team has the right mix of skills and personalities. In addition, team members tend to exhibit good communications skills, real commitment to the task at hand, personal accountability for the team’s success, a desire to step in where needed to support others, trustworthiness, an ability to trust colleagues and attention to results to ensure the team is on track. The team leader is clear, fair and consistent and empowers individuals to perform and develop. The team’s effectiveness tends to improve their work/life balance and reduces stress, resulting in lower rates of absenteeism and sickness and improved results.

The high performing teams also exhibit characteristics which might not typically be viewed as ideal. For example, an empowered, high performing team tends to make decisions and accomplish deliverables at a speed that can leave team leaders feeling slightly out of control. They tend to have a high tolerance of conflict. In this context, conflict does not mean aggression or argument that comes from personal egos and power struggles – simply the team’s ability to openly disagree and debate in a healthy way, in an environment of mutual trust and support, to enable more robust decision-making that ultimately leads to more successful outcomes.

Where to start 

Most team leaders don’t get the chance to choose their own teams so inevitably there is a degree of compromise; what matters is how these individuals are shaped into a high-performance team. HR professionals have an important role to play in shaping the team and supporting the team leader. Profiles, appraisals and engagement surveys can be useful to gauge each individual’s strengths and development needs, but this information must be actively used. Appraisals and career planning can help to motivate individuals, but skills gaps must be addressed through appropriate training and development. Team leaders’ benefit from leadership training and coaching that helps them to make the transition from a traditional managerial mindset to one that excels in emotional intelligence and empowering high-performing individuals to continually improve their contribution.

The Tuckman model (Forming/Storming/Norming/Performing) can be used to mould the team. In the first stage, the team undertakes an induction process to ensure that each person is clear on the team’s goals, values, structure and processes, their own role and where they can receive help and guidance. The team leader will need to have thought through all of these aspects in advance and then over-communicate to the team to ensure buy-in.  The next stage is perhaps the most difficult to manage.

As the team starts to work together, information is not always shared openly, individuals tend to jostle for status and cliques and alliances can start to form. To progress beyond this Storming stage, it is essential the team leader swiftly identifies and addresses bad behaviour in a fair and consistent way to help establish a bedrock of trust. In the Norming stage, the team is able to get on with the task at hand without the distractions of cliques and politics. Individuals are secure in their own position, information is shared and the culture of trust and honesty means that any conflict is healthy.  If the Storming stage is difficult to manage, the High Performing stage can be the most uncomfortable for team leaders, as the pace of activity increases and decisions and actions are correctly taken before the team leader is aware of them. Coaching can help team leaders achieve a balance between trusting that their team is doing the right thing and verifying that it is on track.

Maintaining the momentum

High-performance teams must be nurtured. It is essential to monitor warning signs such as increased attrition rates, absenteeism, poor body language, grievances and poor appraisal markings and address the causes, such as politics, lack of trust, ignorance, inexperience, ego or bad behavior among team members. The trust and cohesion in high performing teams can be impacted by the introduction of new people, effectively returning the team to the ‘Storming’ stage. Pride in excellent performance can turn into arrogance and complacency, impeding future performance.

Fast-growth companies can be so focused on fulfilling demand that their high-performing teams may not have the capacity to look to the future, resulting in failure to innovate and ultimately losing market share to challenger brands. In these situations, succession planning is essential to ensure that the loss of any individual can be covered easily and to provide extra capacity when the team’s workload increases. It is much easier to maintain the momentum when team members have been motivated to stretch themselves and acquire new strengths, increasing the capacity of the team and ensuring continued high performing.

Top tip – Trust, but verify!

Three studies confirm that a combination of trust and oversight is key to high performing teams. A study of research teams (Costa et al, 2005) found that trust among teams accounts for 24 percent of the variance in team performance. Research among teams of consultants (De Jong & Elfring, 2010) confirmed this link, further noting that team leaders need to actively engage in managing interpersonal relationships and fostering trust among team members. A study of MBA students (Langfred, 2010) found similar links between trust and performance, but noted that a lack of monitoring negatively impacts performance levels. Team leaders need to strike a delicate balance between trusting individuals and effectively monitoring their activities to ensure high performing.

Openly publishing the team’s goals, standards and metrics increases accountability and justifies monitoring. Results-based metrics in staff appraisals can motivate performance improvements, but people should be stretched positively by focusing on wanting to be the best. Ultimately, the positive behaviours expected of the team must be modelled by the team leader. Building and nurturing a high performing team requires effort and a change of mindset, but many team leaders, supported by HR, could greatly improve their team’s performance.

Eddie Kilkelly is Managing Director at insynergi, a provider of bespoke coaching, mentoring and training support for all levels within an organisation

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  1. Really insightful. It’s fun working as part of a high performing team… Good words Eddie.

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