Every business aspires to get the best out of its people, but how do you get them working together effectively, and what are the key attributes of the best high-performance teams? By Ian Ash.

I wonder how many readers of this article have ever been part of a high-performance team? I suspect many may well have been part of a team that produced great results, or a team whose members enjoyed working with one another, or perhaps one in which the team felt that they were engaged in something really worthwhile, but these things alone do not constitute a high-performance team. Sure, they can be indicators of great performance but participation on a high-performance team is a rare and very special experience.

Over the decades I have worked in various different teams across a range of industries and organisations and have been privileged to have been part of what I consider a “high-performance team” on just three occasions. Although each team operated in quite diverse domains, with different objectives and unique team members, the common, consistent element between each team was a feeling of effortlessness and invincibility – stretch goals and outcomes were achieved seemingly without any real struggle, it was a genuine pleasure to be working together, and there was a shared belief that there was nothing this team could not achieve. Watch a high-performance team in action from the outside (such as in sport) and the experience appears similar – a high level of confidence and self-belief in which results appear to be achieved almost naturally, effortlessly. You know when you are part of a genuine high-performance team as you can sense it and feel it.

These feelings of effortlessness and invincibility were indicators that something special was going on, but they were not the fundamental reasons why these teams were so successful.

So what factors constitute a real high-performance team? I have given considerable thought to the three high-performance teams I experienced, and have derived seven essential characteristics. These things do not come about easily, so I would like to elaborate on each below. It is important to note that all these characteristics need to be in place, not just a subset.

  1. Solid and deep trust in each other and in the team’s purpose. There is a strong and unerring belief that the team’s objectives are worthwhile and that everyone will play their part. Each person knows they can rely on every other team member to do whatever is necessary to fulfil their specific role and provide assistance and support whenever required.
  2. Everyone brings the best version of themselves. It is not necessary that everyone performs at the same level (indeed this is virtually impossible since nearly all teams have varying skill sets, experience and abilities) but what is critical is that each team member performs to the best of their ability. High-performance teams are necessarily well led. I once heard an excellent definition of leadership as “bringing the best out of yourself and in others”, so clearly high-performance teams have first-class leadership as an essential, integral part of their composition.
  3. Roles and responsibilities are well-defined and agreed. It is hard to over-emphasise the importance of this since a lack of clarity about who owns what leads to confusion, duplication and tasks left undone; it also compromises the ability to provide due recognition to team members. In our work as business advisors, we find this factor consistently differentiates high-performing businesses from the rest.
  4. Expectations and outcomes are clearly understood by everyone and people hold themselves and each other accountable through well-defined measures. There is no substitute for clearly defined and documented objectives. These need to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-specific) and are typically simply stated so that the associated measures are easily derived and reported on by all members of the team. Mistakes are admitted and lessons learned from these.
  5. Differences are embraced and respected – everyone feels free to express their feelings and ideas. At the heart of this characteristic is respect and clear communication within a safe environment. Nothing is off-limits, but communication is open and constructive with due consideration to the way in which information is communicated.
  6. The team shares common values. Shared values are at the heart of every great culture, they define standards of expected behaviour and are the bedrock of effective relationships. As Peter Drucker states, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. In other words, no matter how good the strategy is, it will be resisted unless the team culture is aligned with it.
  7. People have fun. High performance is highly correlated with enjoyment since it is hard to go the extra mile if you are not having fun and your heart is not in it. Taking the time to enjoy the journey leads to a natural affinity with where the team is going.

In the work we have done with our clients on high-performance teams, we have used the above as a basis for deriving quantitive (subjective) assessments of where teams felt they rated with respect to each of these elements at a particular point in time. From there we were able to work with the teams to derive the key areas on which to focus to drive improved team performance, and work towards the ideal high-performance team.

Ian Ash is the Managing Director of OrgMent Business Solutions, providing business advisory, coaching, mentoring and training services.