Team management

Creating High-Performance Teams

by Robin Stuart-Kotze Ph. D – Robin is Associate Consultant with Corporate Dynamics

“Team” is one of those words that is used indiscriminately and that has all sorts of meaning and connotations. Almost every group of people who work loosely together, or sometimes who even work in a common physical area, is referred to as a team. Most “teams” in organisations are really working groups. And most team building has nothing to do with creating real teams. It barely scratches the surface of what operating as a high performance team is about. It is based on the fiction that teams are simply about working together.

The short definition of a team is a group of individuals committed to a common goal. The qualifier is that an effective operating team must also be small. The Roman army organised men who lived together, ate together, and fought together in groups of eight. In a fighting situation it is important to know where your comrades are and what they’re likely to be doing. Small teams of people can do that, large groups can’t. The issue is interdependency. Harvard professor Richard Hackman says that high performance teams have “a collective task that demands a high level of interdependency among (their) members”. In a work environment, research shows that once the size of a team exceeds eight or ten people this interdependency decreases and the team tends to fragment into sub-groups. 

The single most important characteristic of effective teams is that every individual in the team feels a deep commitment to a common purpose and common goals. Without this no team ever attains or sustains a high level of performance. 

The leadership behaviour that is most effective for creating high performance teams is a combination of three main things: taking initiative and setting an example, asking for people’s input and ideas, and employing what we call full-strength delegation – i.e. delegating as much responsibility and accountability to people as they can handle, and not interfering with them. This is a very difficult behavioural combination to master and we have found it to be relatively rare (slightly less that 20%) among the many thousands of managers we have studied and worked with. 

At the beginning of its life it is rare to find a team that has all the skills it needs to perform most effectively. However if the team has a common goal to which all members are committed, people quickly identify the skills that are needed, and develop them. High performance teams are hothouses of growth, learning and development. There are few things quite as motivating as working closely together with a group of people to achieve an important goal.

People in high performance teams are able to flex their roles and responsibilities to deal with whatever needs to be done. One of the problems that haunts ineffective teams is the issue of who is responsible for what. There are often conflicts over whether A or B is responsible for something, or over how a joint responsibility between C and D is to be dealt with, or how to deal with the situation when the team is responsible for something but no individual in the team is willing to assume the responsibility personally. Low performance teams are plagued with responsibility overlaps and underlaps.

High performance teams are clear about each team member’s role, even as they flex and change. The Roman army units of eight men were effective because each of them knew what he was supposed to be doing and knew what the others were doing, and they were able to change their roles as the situation demanded. In teams where roles are rigidly or poorly defined, problems occur. Rigid role definition stifles individuals’ ability to acquire new skills and limits the team’s capability to deal with changing situations. 

If you want to build a real team then you have to get in the trenches and find out first if there is a common goal to which everyone is prepared to be deeply committed, and second if they are willing to adopt a common approach to working, with clear rules of behaviour.

A team is created when you have

  • A small group of people
  • Who have complementary skills and experience
  • Who are all deeply committed to a common purpose and goal
  • Who accept working by a clear set of rules
  • Who trust one another to (a) do what they say they will do and (b) do what they can to help every other member of the team, and
  • Who accept mutual responsibility for outcomes – “If you fail, I fail and we all fail”

high performance team is created when one further element is added:

  • When every member of the team is committed to the success, growth and development of every other team member.

More about professor Robin Stewart Kotze you can find here.