Why is it that some teams excel and other teams fall on their face? Is it talent or luck? Is there a magic sauce we can sprinkle on a team to make it high performing?
There is no magic. No key to turn or mantra to follow. But over time you can build teams that perform in excess of the individual talents of its members. Talent does matter, but a good team of average individuals will, with consistency, outperform a mediocre team of super star individuals.
To create a high performing team, you need to do four things:
1. Provide a psychological Safe environment for everyone
2. Create a culture of We over a culture of Me
3. Have a shared Vision of what the team is trying to accomplish
4. Live by a shared set of Values on how to achieve that Vision
To have a high performing team you need each member performing at a high level and contributing at the top of their ability. For team members to contribute this way they need to feel psychologically Safe. They need to feel Safe to respectfully question anyone or anything. They need to feel Safe to speak up and offer ideas. They need to feel Safe to take on hard problems that they may fail at solving.
If there is a single answer to creating a high performing team it is creating trust between team members that they have each other’s back and when they speak up their ideas and concerns are taken seriously no matter their title, length of service, or reputation. People need to not only be allowed to take (good) risks but encouraged to take (good) risks.
Management needs to actively encourage a Safe environment and assertively deal with any team member that reduces anyone else’s psychological Safety.
Me vs We
For a team to be high performing they have to care more about the team’s interest than their own short term self-interest. This dynamic is the classic prisoner’s dilemma. In order for rational individuals to participate in and embrace a We culture they need to trust each other. Trust cannot be substituted with process, rules, or familiarity. Liking each other or spending time outside of work with each other is not indicative of trust. You can deeply disagree with an individual and still trust them.
Trust is knowing (not hoping or believing) that your team members are working for the team’s best interest. Trust can’t be manufactured. It has to be earned by consistently acting with transparency and integrity. It requires the team and its leaders to hold team members who do not act in the team’s best interest accountable no matter the likability or performance of the individual.
The cardinal sin on a team is not being wrong or messing up. The cardinal sin on a team is acting in your own self-interest at the expense of the teams. If this is allowed to go on without being publicly addressed, trust will be eroded and the culture of Me will begin to take over. Team members can think Me, but not at the expense of We.
That said, we all have individual needs and styles of working. A We culture doesn’t suppress individuality. It actually encourages individuals to be their true self as long as they are working in good faith and in alignment with the team to move the team’s goals forward.
It is almost impossible to create a We culture without a compelling shared Vision to buy into. We are asking individuals to potentially suppress their own short term self-interest to accomplish this Vision. If the Vision isn’t clear or compelling the reward for accomplishing it isn’t enough to suppress the Me.
This doesn’t mean that the Vision has to be audacious. We don’t need a moon shot to inspire people. Often just the promise of being on a high functioning team is enough to motivate individuals. The key is creating a Vision that substantially benefits everyone on the team and clearly articulating that Vision so everyone understands it and agrees with it.
It is impossible to overstate the value of the Vision in creating a We culture. If we do not agree on where we are going then it is impossible for us to actively work to get there.
Vision is where we are heading. Values is how we get there.
Alignment is critical in any endeavor. Individuals can disagree on tactics and strategy. They have to agree on Values. Values are the ground rules and the expectations that the team lives by. Values are the yard stick we use to evaluate every situation, determine acceptable behavior, and make decisions. Values inform how we think and how we act. If team members behave in a way that is not in line with the team’s Values, it needs to be addressed immediately or trust will erode.
Values give you an objective way to evaluate if a team member is acting in the interest of Me or We. It helps build trust and increase productivity because each team member has a mental model of not only what they are working toward but the types of attitudes and actions should be used to accomplish it.
Your culture matters. To have sustainably high performing teams requires building a culture that maximizes the contribution of every individual on the team. Want a high performing team? Then create an environment where your team feels Safe speaking up, thinks We instead of Me, works towards a compelling Vision, and has aligned on shared Values.