Build High Performance Teams in 11 Steps (+ 9 High Performance Drivers of Success Explained)
Do you know what it takes to build a high-performance team?
It's about more than just getting good people together.
The 1992 US men's Olympic basketball team is a case in point—the game's greatest professionals came together. Still, they couldn't beat a group of amateurs on their first outing. But everything changed once they understood how to work together as a team.
Building high-performance teams is essential for your organization's success.
It's how you harness the talent of your people and focus their efforts toward exceptional outcomes.
In this article, we'll take you through the characteristics of high-performance teams and what drives their success.
We'll also show you how to boost teams' performance in your organization.
🥇 What is a high-performing team?
A high-performing team is a group of people who work collaboratively towards common goals and are very effective at what they do.
It's a team that brings together "individuals with specialized expertise and complementary skills who collaborate, innovate and produce consistently superior results," highlights Brent Gleeson, former US Navy SEAL and founder of TalkingPoint Leadership.
High-performing teams benefit your people and your organization. According to Nicola Richardson of The People Mentor, a UK leadership consultancy, this reflects on:
- Motivated, engaged, and happy employees who are working towards common goals.
- Less conflict and fewer performance issues.
- Increased productivity and better business outcomes.
But high-performing teams don't just happen overnight. They need structure, nurturing, and development.
🔍 9 Characteristics of high-performance teams
So, what does a high-performance team look like?
According to Rick Conlow and Doug Watsabaugh, authors of the Superstar Leadership Model, high-performance results from the interaction of clear expectations, competence, commitment, and a supportive climate.
They express this as a formula:
High Performance = Clear Expectations x [Competence + Commitment + Supportive Climate]
Based on this framework, here are nine essential characteristics of high-performing teams.
Good performance starts with clear goals and expectations.
1. Clear goals
High-performing teams have clear and ambitious goals, have a shared vision, and align with organizational priorities.
Clear goals define an unambiguous purpose. They also direct efforts towards a common objective.
While clarity is essential, ambition provides the impetus to propel high-performing teams towards success.
And aligning outcomes with organizational goals underpins the effectiveness of teams and boosts employee engagement by reinforcing a sense of purpose.
2. Defined roles and responsibilities
Just as the overall goals need to be clear, so do the roles of each team member.
Well-defined roles and responsibilities:
- Ensure proper coverage of activities following team members' strengths and weaknesses.
- Help discourage potential conflicts. Well-defined roles reduce confusion over deliverables, workflows, deadlines, and team member accountabilities.
3. Skills and knowledge
Having the right skills and knowledge to get the job done is foundational for a high-performing team. They form the core competencies that define the team's capabilities.
It's also essential to have skills that:
- Are relevant to the team's objectives.
- Are complementary amongst team members.
4. Effective workflow
Even the best skills, objectives, and alignment are ineffective without good execution.
Properly defined, well-designed, clearly documented, and adaptable workflow processes are indispensable for high-performing teams.
Effective workflow processes generate value by improving the efficiency and productivity of teams.
5. Continuous learning
High-performing teams maintain their levels of competence, address skills gaps, and stay relevant through continuous learning. At a company level, this is enabled by:
- Learning and development programs that update employees' skills, knowledge, and capabilities to boost their productivity.
- A feedback culture founded on communication and purposefulness and designed to encourage a growth mindset and employee engagement.
6. Willing and motivated to do the job
High-performing teams show a willingness and desire to get the job done. They show commitment to their roles and are motivated by their work.
As a celebrated example of employee commitment, Southwest Airlines has cultivated a culture of productivity and customer service by backing its people's decisions.
In response, Southwest employees feel valued and supported by their employer and are committed to their roles, providing outstanding customer service.
As a result, Southwest Airline's customer satisfaction ratings are amongst the best in the industry.
7. Working well together
High-performing teams work well together due to:
- Open and clear communication: team members communicate freely in an environment of constructive criticism and feedback.
- Respect and trust: skills and expertise are mutually recognized within the team. Recognition creates solid bonds and respect and promotes trust, so that team members are comfortable taking risks and sharing ideas.
- A team-first mentality: everyone prioritizes a shared vision and common goals over individual goals.
- Bonding over non-work topics: team members get to know each other personally and have a strong rapport. They can bond over topics and activities that aren't directly related to their work.
- Diversity: drawing on different backgrounds, perspectives, and ways of thinking promotes creativity and innovation.
- Psychological safety: open communication and trust foster an environment of psychological safety in which team members feel supported and encouraged to do their best.
8. Mutual recognition and celebration
High-performing teams understand that success comes from effort and respect each other's contributions. As a result, there's a strong culture of collaboration and recognition.
Team members celebrate success to show their appreciation and reinforce their connection with each other.
9. Strong leadership
A hallmark of high-performing teams is their leadership. Strong leadership drives cohesion and performance.
Joseph Folkman, a leadership development consultant, identified five characteristics of high-performing team leaders based on a survey of over 66,000 respondents.
1. Inspiring—leaders inspire more than they drive and know how to generate energy and enthusiasm, creating a sense of importance for the team's mission.
2. Resolve conflicts—leaders address differences and disputes quickly and directly, rather than letting them fester, focusing on cooperation rather than competition.
3. Set stretch goals—leaders create internal drive by setting goals that stretch the team, boosting satisfaction, engagement, and pride when exceptional outcomes are achieved.
4. Relentlessly communicate vision and direction—leaders constantly remind the team of its vision. Leadership has to help employees stay focused on goals and regularly update and inform the team to keep them on track.
5. Trusted—leaders are trusted by their teams, built on the foundations of strong relationships, having the proper knowledge and expertise, and being consistent in what they say and do.
🌱 11 Steps to building a high-performing team
Now that we've seen what they look like, here are eight essential steps for building high-performing teams at your organization.
1. Make communication a priority
Encourage open and transparent communication to strengthen relationships, reduce misunderstandings, and promote more fruitful interactions.
High-performing teams communicate more frequently.
Research has shown that teams who speak more often on the phone, for instance, perform better than their peers.
As non-verbal forms of communication have become more common, however, like emails and messages, some people perceive verbal communication as being awkward or uncomfortable. But this is a misconception. Recent studies have found that verbal communication is no more awkward than other forms of communication and creates stronger social bonds.
2. Create a clear mission and a shared sense of purpose
Create a well-defined mission statement that conveys a strong sense of purpose. Reinforce this using SMART goals, i.e., goals that are:
- Specific—clearly define your team's goals and discuss them frequently, so they are front-of-mind and carry clear intent.
- Measurable—stay on track by ensuring that you measure progress against your goals and systematically revisit progress to motivate your team and keep them energized.
- Achievable—set goals that are within reach and achievable (even if aspirational) so that they remain credible in the eyes of your team.
- Relevant—aim for goals that align with your organizational priorities and core values, keeping them consistent with your company objectives.
- Timebound—be realistic about the timeframes of your goals and set relevant deadlines, promoting a sense of urgency and encouraging efficiency.
Also, take the opportunity to reinforce your team's mission and goals when you add new hires to your team.
➡️ Communicate your team's mission and goals from day one with an effective onboarding strategy.
3. Set clear roles
Setting clear roles is essential for high-performing teams.
Give your team members certainty about their responsibilities and offer them context that shows how their deliverables align with organizational priorities.
Tip #1: Ensure a logical fit between roles so there aren't any gaps in team deliverables while covering the full scope of activities the team should address.
Tip #2: Pay attention to team composition when mapping out roles. Consider the complementary skills and attitudes of team members, suggests Scott Keller, a senior partner at McKinsey.
Tip #3: When mapping out teams, ask yourself questions like:
- Do they have the energy to persevere through difficult situations?
- Are they good role models?
- Do they feel accountable for the organization's success, not just their own?
You'll leverage individual skills and promote synergy when you match roles with each team member's strengths, weaknesses, experiences, and motivations.
Measure the degree of role clarity by using:
- Role clarity questionnaires—surveys to seek feedback on how clearly your people understand their roles.
- Clarity exercises—activities that test and verify that your people know what they should do in their roles.
If you feel there's insufficient role clarity in your team, define a suitable competency model and use role cards to articulate each role's specific skills, capabilities, and activities.
Tip #4: Once you have clearly defined roles for your team, ensure sufficient role transparency.
You will empower your team to share information and ideas and promote accountability and trust between team members.
4. Focus on team cohesion and culture
Building solid relationships based on trust, cooperation, and mutual respect helps create an environment of psychological safety.
Trust is one of the critical dimensions of high-performing teams, says Keller, based on over 5,000 surveys of executives.
Trust creates an environment where people are more likely to communicate openly, interact freely, and embrace conflict.
Also essential is cooperation.
In a classic anecdote about the value of cooperation, the 1992 US men's Olympic basketball team lost to college players in a practice game.
The world was stunned. The US team had the most remarkable individual players of the time, including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. They were expected to dominate every game.
Speaking after the defeat, the team attributed their loss to not knowing how to play with each other. They didn't know how to cooperate as a team. But, after learning how to play together, they dominated.
However, a positive team culture filled with trust and cooperation doesn't always happen easily. It's a process that needs nurturing and development.
So we rounded up four ways to help you build team cohesion.
Encourage a sense of belonging in your people
Help everyone in your team feel supported, acknowledged, connected, and proud of their work.
When employees feel like they belong, it will boost their sense of well-being and engagement and enhance their job performance.
If you have remote workers in your team, remember to integrate and support them.
Here are some suggestions for integrating remote employees:
- Use onboarding programs that are designed for a remote experience.
- Provide relevant and purposeful training that employees can complete virtually.
- Encourage virtual ways of meeting, like coffee or lunch roulettes.
- Centralize the information your team needs, ensuring easy, virtual access by all.
5. Promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)
A lack of diversity in teams leads to poorer decisions, suggests Keller. This relates to diversity in thinking, perspectives, and experience, in addition to a diversity of personal backgrounds, life choices, and circumstances.
Keller recommends a team size of at least six to generate sufficient bandwidth for diversity and decision-making.
Promoting DEI will boost your team's performance and enhance team culture. A recent Forbes article argues that DEI is essential for business success as it brings:
- Greater innovation and clarity;
- A wider range of skills;
- Happier employees;
- Increased productivity;
- Better customer engagement.
You can improve DEI in several ways, including:
- Choose inclusive language and demonstrate empathetic leadership.
- Promote a culture of respect and open-mindedness in your team.
- Encourage participation from everyone and be mindful of quieter team members, offering them different ways to share ideas, e.g., email or private conversations.
- Host inclusive social events, being careful not to isolate team members by the nature of the event. For example, a vigorous sporting activity may alienate some team members.
- Challenge traditional ways of recruitment and be open to new hires with different backgrounds or experiences.
➡️ Explore 30+ practical ways to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in your workplace.
6. Resolve conflicts
Misunderstandings are inevitable, but they don't need to be harmful. Instead, turn conflict into a constructive opportunity by:
- Recognizing that conflict is natural and, in some ways, beneficial—conflict counteracts groupthink, for instance.
- Encouraging dialogue and open communication.
- Drawing on high levels of trust to focus on cooperation rather than competition.
7. Establish connection rituals
Encourage your people to talk, communicate, and interact more frequently and naturally with each other.
Building connections reduces stress, fosters empathy, and strengthens interpersonal bonds.
Use fun and engaging ways to connect, such as walking meetings or setting up opportunities for meaningful conversations.
➡️ Team Zavvy uses Walk & Talk and Conversations That Matter as ways to connect and learn to work better together.
And since we like these programs so much, we turned them into ready-to-use templates on Zavvy. So you and your teammates can take advantage of them in just a few clicks.
8. Share feedback regularly
Show your team that you value their work and contribution by giving them regular feedback.
According to Indeed, proper feedback brings many benefits, including:
- Enhanced team performance;
- Greater confidence amongst your team members;
- Stronger loyalty.
There are also several types of helpful feedback that you can give, all of which increase employee enablement, i.e., giving your people everything that they need to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
And to get a complete picture of how your team is performing, solicit feedback from multiple sources, both within and outside the team, using 360 degree feedback.
This type of feedback is more objective and comprehensive and less susceptible to any one person's perceptions, increasing its credibility for those receiving it.
9. Invest in employee development
For high-performing teams to continue performing well, it's essential to keep their skills and competencies updated and relevant and to promote their growth and development.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans who quit their jobs cite a lack of career growth as a major reason for leaving.
Prioritizing employee development has been shown to reduce turnover, increase engagement, and improve organizational performance.
Tip #1: Keep your people motivated and engaged by ensuring they have sufficient career growth opportunities.
Tip #2: Employee development plans help retain your people and give them a successful career path. These are structured and targeted action plans that focus on career growth.
Tip #3: From a day-to-day perspective, keep your people's skills and competencies updated by promoting continuous learning through:
- Learning in the flow of work—where learning occurs on the job rather than through separate training programs, making it more time-efficient, relevant, and practical.
- Reskilling—to help your people acquire new skills, keeping their competencies up to date and adaptable.
10. Celebrate achievements
Recognize your people for their achievements and milestones, or simply show your appreciation for their work. Recognition benefits your people and helps your teams maintain their high performance.
Tip #1: Use recognition to motivate your people, validate their efforts, and boost their sense of well-being. It will also spill over their sense of purpose, engagement, and creativity.
Tip #2: Recognition comes in many forms, from an informal "thank you" at the office water cooler to formal awards or recommendations on LinkedIn.
Tip #3: Whichever approach you choose, recognizing your team's efforts will go a long way towards uplifting performance.
➡️ Not sure how to show your appreciation? Check out our 42 meaningful employee recognition ideas to boost engagement.
11. Establish effective workflows
Make sure that your teams' workflows are well-designed and efficient to support the performance and productivity of your people.
Tip: Embrace automation where possible. Tasks that are structured and repetitive are good candidates for automation, especially if they're high-volume in nature.
In HR workflow automation, for instance, you can improve the employee experience and organizational gains by prioritizing social engagement and increasing accountability and transparency.
High-performing HR teams take advantage of workflow automation to help them stay productive.
Also, establish clear documentation and manage time frames for critical milestones and deliverables. These are essential for effective workflow management.
➡️ Develop and maintain high-performance teams with Zavvy
High-performing teams are the drivers of success in your organization, and we know what it takes to build them.
Could your teams use a boost to their performance?
Your people will have a more satisfying experience at work when they perform well, and your organization will flourish.
We at Zavvy have the tools and expertise to build your teams into high-performing powerhouses.
Book a free 30-minute demo to see how you can maximize the potential of your people and your organization by boosting and maintaining the performance of your teams.