9 Things High-Performing Teams Do Differently
By Adam Daniel, Associate Consultant, Courageous Co.
When it comes to building brilliant, courageous and high-performing teams, researchers have long appreciated that three psychological needs are essential: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Decades of research demonstrate that when people feel psychologically fulfilled, they tend to be healthier, happier, and more productive.
However, creating a high-performing team is often easier said than done. They’re the holy grail and leaders in every industry work long and hard to achieve them. You can spend hours reading books, going to workshops, and investing in team-building training, just for it to remain as elusive as ever.
The key is to get your team off to the strongest start by making sure the right foundations are in place for your people to adapt, grow and thrive.
There are three characteristics that differentiate high-performance teams from the rest:
- They have an understanding that they share fundamentally compatible goals in the long run.
- They desire and aspire to have a more effective working relationship, and are willing to put in the work to achieve it.
- They trust each other and always operate on the assumption of positive intent when interacting with each other.
So, what are 9 things high-performing teams do differently?
1. High-performing teams get clear on the team’s purpose
To be able to be most effective as a team, they need to know why they exist.
Knowing their purpose helps people feel like they are a part of something bigger and gives them a clear framework to work against.
Take action: Get your team together and collaborate on what your team’s purpose is. If you already have one, does it need any tweaks? Has anything changed? By getting your team involved they automatically feel more aligned and connected with the purpose.
2. High-performing teams cultivate a sense of psychological safety
The most important factor that sets high-performing teams apart is their sense of psychological safety. When the entire spectrum of team members can safely speak up without fear of embarrassment, this dynamic consistently leads to smarter team decisions.
Take action: Practice genuine inquiry that draws out others’ ideas, listening thoughtfully to what you hear in response, when this happens, psychological safety in the team grows. The need for inquiry is heightened in diverse teams because of the number and variety of perspectives represented.
3. High-performing teams make empathy the default
Empathy is a key element of emotional intelligence and is often considered a ‘soft’ skill, yet the power it can have within an organisation is huge.
- -75% of employees would choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over an employer offering a slightly higher salary.
- -73% would choose an empathetic employer even if it meant changing their role, industry or career path.
- -83% would consider leaving their current organisation for a similar role at a more empathetic organisation.
For some people, empathy is easy to access and manage. For others, it has to be practiced and worked on regularly.
Take action: Create opportunities to connect with your team and for them to connect with each other. Utilise check-ins at the start of each day or at the beginning of meetings. Using techniques like this works wonders for developing interest and understanding of each other’s lives and subsequently develops more empathy.
4. High-performing teams establish team agreements
If you want to work together as a team cohesively and avoid misunderstandings, you need to make sure there are clear expectations set out.
These agreements can be thought of as team rules, although they shouldn’t be used to restrict individuals and instead should be decided on as a group, for the benefit of the group.
These agreements can be expectations like “We will arrive five minutes before meetings” or “everybody has to contribute at least one thing in check-ins”.
If these agreements are being regularly flouted, you can question whether your team agreements need to be re-evaluated. This shines light on the behaviour rather than the person and gives everybody the opportunity to either adapt their behaviour or adapt the agreement for the good of the team.
Take action: Bring your team together and establish some agreements that work for you. Unspoken rules aren’t enough. You have to document them and make sure your working agreements are visible and accessible to the whole team otherwise there’s no accountability.
5. High-performing teams give and receive appreciation more frequently
A key reason the need for relatedness contributes to better performance at work is that it makes us feel valued, appreciated, and respected by those whose opinions we prize. It’s why recognition is often a more powerful motivating force than monetary incentives.
A recent study showed, members of high-performing teams reported receiving more frequent appreciation at work — both from their colleagues (72% more) as well and their managers (79% more). Critically, they also reported expressing appreciation to their colleagues more frequently (44% more), suggesting that within the best teams, appreciation doesn’t flow from the top down. It’s a cultural norm that’s observable in peer-to-peer interactions.
Take action: Learning to value one another really is as simple as telling your team what you value about each other. It might feel strange in the beginning, yet regularly get your team together and keep sharing the positives, and watch your team go from strength to strength.
6. High-performing teams reflect regularly
To keep your finger on the pulse of your team and make sure the foundations are still relevant as you grow you need to reflect. The workplace, and the people in it, are constantly changing. What works one day might not further down the line. To make sure your team has the right foundations in place to succeed you need to reflect, re-evaluate and adapt often, as a group and individually.
Take action: Rather than waiting for annual reviews or performance meetings to roll around, create the ritual of reflection and practice it on a regular basis. Try coming up with a framework you can start huddles with or go through at the end of projects. Questions like, ‘What is going well?’, ‘what isn’t?’, and ‘what can we change?’ gives you a clear structure to follow and makes it easier to get the ball rolling.
7. High-performing teams are not afraid to pick up the phone
While telephone calls are becoming increasingly less common in the workplace in general, that’s not the case among high-performing teams. This makes sense. Recent studies have found that while most people anticipate that phone calls will be awkward and uncomfortable, that’s a misperception. Not only are phone calls no more awkward in practice, but they also tend to strengthen relationships and prevent misunderstanding, contributing to more fruitful interactions among teammates.
Take action: Instead of communicating via email suggest the team pick up the phone and speak more frequently maybe add it to the team agreement!
8. High-performing teams are more strategic with their meetings
Findings indicate that high-performing teams avoid the common pitfalls of poorly run meetings by incorporating practices shown to foster more productive gatherings. Specifically, they are significantly more likely to require prework from participants (39% more likely), introduce an agenda (26% more likely), and begin with a check-in that keeps team members apprised of one another’s progress (55% more likely).
Take action: Ensuring that time together is both effective and collaborative, by making sure only the right people are in the meeting, pre-work is completed, agendas are sent out beforehand and everyone checks in with how they feel and where they are at.
9. High-performing teams invest time bonding over non-work topics
From a managerial standpoint, it’s easy to frown upon workplace conversations that have nothing to do with work. After all, what good can come from employees spending valuable work time chatting about a major sporting event or blockbuster film?
However, research suggests that discussing non-work topics offers major advantages. That’s because it’s in personal conversations that we identify shared interests, which fosters deeper liking and authentic connections.
Take action: Encourage your team to invest time connecting in genuine ways, which will lead to closer friendships and better teamwork later on.
Creating a high-performing team takes more than simply hiring the right people and arming them with the right tools to do their work. It requires creating opportunities for genuine, authentic relationships to develop. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.
By incorporating simple, evidence-based practices that lead to better communication, more productive meetings, and deeper friendships, every team has the ability and opportunity to fuel people’s basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness and lift team performance.