The Essential Elements of a High-Performing Team

Posted in : HR Updates on 30 August 2017
Shauna Hughes
Eye Change Consultancy Ltd

Shauna Hughes of Eye Change Consultancy takes a look at the importance of effective team-working in organisations and points to Lencioni’s model ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ to pinpoint the essential elements that must be in place to create a high-performing team.


Read the transcript:

Hi, my name is Shauna Hughes, and I have always been exceptionally interested and curious about people's behaviour in organisations.

Having worked in the world of global HR for a Fortune 50 company, and alongside many small, medium, and large companies across all sectors, one question keeps popping up in my head:

“As human beings, do we actually perform better as individuals or as part of a team?”

So, I’ll let you in on a little secret... the reason I ask this question is because I personally like to work alone. I feel I get more done when I work alone, and not just tactical things, strategic things, too, things that require me to engage my creative brain.

So my question is, why have more and more companies opted for the noise and inefficiencies of open-plan offices? Why do they force people to work as part of a team? And why is such a huge piece of what I do with organisations around team effectiveness?

Why do organisations force people to work as part of a team?

Maybe the simple fact is that in order to survive, animals have had to operate as part of a herd, a pack, a team. We know from drawings on cave walls that primitive man operated as part of a team. This is how they survived.

We also now know that our brains are pre-programmed to seek out social acceptance. Neuroscientists have discovered that in conditions of social pain, the area of the brain traditionally associated with the sensory processing of physical pain, the posterior insular cortex is activated. Basically, social rejection activates the same brain regions as physical pain, but it gets more interesting.

Take a look at these pictures. How do you feel? They are pretty emotive images for the majority of us. I actually find it hard searching for images like these. This is because, for most people, even when witnessing social pain of another person, our brain region is activated in response to pain. So this pain, this activation in the brain, occurs both when social rejection is experienced in first person, and also when experienced vicariously. So, in effect, teams aren't something we should have to create, force, or drive. They are actually a natural state for humans to succeed and live in.

So, I understand why animals, why primitive man, needed to operate as part of a team. But is this really the best way to optimize human performance in modern times? Is this idea of striving for high-performing teams a fallacy, a diversion? Are we actually more effective working alone? In teams, we can take longer to reach a solution. The group can be dominated by a few individuals, there may be lack of accountability from everybody, and inequitable participation. A member may take credit for someone else's ideas or personality conflicts may hinder productivity.

The high performing team

Personally, I have enjoyed being part of several high-performing teams outside and inside of work. In fact, being part of a team allowed me to face and overcome some personal fears. I hate being submerged in water. I hate cold water. So when I decided to compete in a Tough Mudder challenge, the obstacle I decided I wouldn't do would be the Arctic Enema.

So this is a dumpster filled with water and ice. You slide down into it and then you swim under tires to get to the exit. You have a few seconds to compete and to complete it before you're hauled out. However, on the day, the team talked me into it, and one team member held my hand the whole way through and pulled me through it. After that, the electric shocks, the rat pipes, the tear gas, they were all a walk in the park. And the important lesson for me was that there was no way I could have done that independently. The only reason I did it was because I was part of a team.

So other examples of high-performing teams are the Great Pyramid of Giza. This was an original Seventh Wonder of the World, and it comprises of two million, one and a half blocks of limestone, which were carried 500 miles. It took 100,000 workers 20 years to build it, and it represents an example of high-performing teamwork, because this team worked with a massive sense of urgency to complete the project as quickly as possible. It was probably designed by a single priest or an engineer. The skill and scope of the project suggests a universally-shared vision, and wide-scale cooperation between the planners, etc., and developing the methods to implement the vision, and to ensure sustained efforts from the workers. There wasn't a silo mentality here.

Another example of a high-performing team was the Royal Society of London. This group was formed in 1660 to promote the free exchange of ideas and to discover the truth and scientific matters. Prominent members included Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Christopher Wren (the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral), Edmund Halley (the astronomer), Robert Hooke who invented the steam engine.

The Society invited membership of scientists regardless of their nationality or the state of war, so there were countries at war and scientists came from those countries and came together. And in a mere 70 years, the sciences of anatomy, geology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and botany were formed, in a 70-year period by these people. The free flow of shared information between the Royal Society members led directly to the Industrial Revolution, embryonic evolution theory, mechanical computation, and the understanding of planetary gravity.

So actually teams, when we look at these examples, benefit from more information and knowledge. They can generate more alternatives, they often lead to higher quality decisions, and they can push us to even higher levels of personal performance, and group participation increases with the acceptance of any solutions.

What is a team?

Well, according to Katzenbach and Smith who have written a lot in the area of team effectiveness, a team is a small number of people with complementary skills, who share a common purpose and goals, who are committed to a common vision, and progress with mutual responsibility.

How do you create a high-performing team?

There are many things to consider and there are several prominent theories in this, but the one I'm going to focus on today, given the time constraints, will be Lencioni’s ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’, and he outlines five steps in which to create a high-performing team.

So for Lencioni, if a team has an absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, they avoid accountability, and they have inattention to results, this is a dysfunctional team.

The first step, according to Lencioni, is trust. So to become a successful team, we need to build trust. Now, Lencioni was not talking about predictive trust, knowing someone long enough that you can predict what they're going to say, or how they will react to certain situations, or what buttons you can press to get a reaction. No. He was referring to vulnerability trust or the ability to show a weakness without losing something, something like esteem, pride, or strength, and that needs to include the leader. Can the team leader demonstrate vulnerability without damaging his or her reputation or career? Simply put, as a leader, how comfortable are you in saying to your team, “I don't know”? This might be difficult initially, but what I find is that it creates a much better environment to work in.

We're all human and we all make mistakes, and we all have bad days, and it’s much nicer to know that on these days, the team will support you and cover for you. So members of a team with an absence of trust will do things like concealing their weaknesses and mistakes from each other. They'll hesitate to ask for help or even to provide constructive feedback. They'll hesitate to offer help outside of their own areas of responsibility, back to the silos. They'll jump to conclusions. They'll fail to recognize or tap into each other’s skills. They waste time and energy on behaviours, and hold grudges, and dread meetings, and avoid spending time together, and usually, a team like this has low morale.

On the flip side then, members of a trusting team admit their weaknesses and their mistakes and ask for help. They accept questions and input about their areas of responsibility. They give one another the benefit of the doubt, and take risks in offering feedback and assistance, and they appreciate and tap into each other's skills. And critically, I think, for me looking at organizations, they focus time and energy on important issues, not the politics. They often accept apologies without hesitation, and they look forward to meetings and other opportunities to work as a group.

The second step is managing conflict. As human beings, the majority of us avoid conflict. However, Lencioni believes that productive ideological conflict is good. Dialogue in which no one is holding back for fear of reprisal, or criticism, or dismissal is healthy for any team. On-air conflicts have a nasty habit of reappearing again and again, usually in another form like personal attacks around the coffee machine or the water cooler, and these are just as deadly as conflict. A non-confrontational person is like a time bomb waiting to go off. The worst situation, from my perspective, that you can have is a yes-man team. Challenging one another when we do not agree, and having constructive and passionate bits of what is good for the company, for your teams, for yourself should be a goal we all strive to achieve.

Teams that fear conflict normally have boring meetings. They create environments where politics and personal attacks thrive. They ignore controversial topics, and they fail to tap into the opinions and perspectives of team members. They waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management, while other teams that engage in conflicts usually have lively and interesting meetings. They extract and exploit everyone's ideas, and solve problems quickly, minimizing politics and putting the critical issues on the table. The leader of a team must demand debate, must welcome it, support it, but also know when to put it to bed, and that brings us to the next step.

So the third step is commitment. Lencioni strongly believes that there can be no commitment without debate. How can you actively buy into something when you were not allowed to state your opinions and discuss your thoughts about it? Lencioni was adamant that there is no such thing as complete consensus, which is a change from the 90s views where it was all about trying to get 100% consensus before we accepted something. He states that by allowing everyone to voice their opinions, discussing those different ideas and finally forcing clarity, you, as the leader, will get closure on the topic and full commitment.

Everyone needs to get to a point where they can say, “I may not agree with your ideas, but I understand them and I support them”. A team that fails to commit creates ambiguity about direction and priority, lets opportunity slip by due to excessive analysis or unnecessary delay, breeds lack of confidence and a fear of failure, revisits discussions and decisions again and again, and encourages second-guessing. However, a team that commits, creates clarity around direction and purpose, underlines the entire team around a common objective, develops an ability to learn from mistakes, taking advantage of opportunities before your competitors do. This team will move forward without hesitation, and change direction without hesitation or guilt.

The fourth step then is accountability, and accountability is being personally responsible for what was agreed upon, but also calling out our peers and others when they show unacceptable behaviour. So a team that avoids accountability creates resentment towards members who have different standards of performance, encourages mediocrity. And usually missing deadlines and key deliverables, and placing undue burden on the team leader as a sole source of discipline are things that you will see manifesting in a team that has an avoidance of accountability.

But teams that hold one another accountable ensure that performers feel pressure to improve, and this type of team identifies potential problems quickly, they’re questioning one another's approaches without hesitation, and respect is established amongst team members because they're all holding themselves and each other to the same high standards. And interestingly, in this team, bureaucracy is avoided around things like performance management.

And this takes us to the top of Lencioni’s pyramid, so the fifth step, and this is attention to results. So to create a high-performing team, the team members must be focused on team goals, not just individual’s goals. This would theoretically mean rewarding the team and not individuals, which actually is the opposite of what happens in many organizations, although we are in the process now that that’s changing.

A team that's not focused on collective results will fail to grow, and will rarely defeat its competitors, and those achievement-oriented employees will most likely leave. And in this type of an organization or team, team members are actually encouraged to focus on their own careers, and this team can get easily distracted. So the next big initiative, the next buzzword, this type of team will go off in search of that rather than being focused on the organization's vision and critical goals. A team that focuses on collective results, however, retains good employees, and minimizes that individualistic behaviour, and typically enjoy success and benefits from individuals who put their own goals to the bottom and put the goals, and the needs, and the interests of the team to the top. And as a result, distractions are typically avoided in this type of team.

Common vision and clear goals

Now, Lou Gerstner, chairman of IBM, actually found in IBM, same as most organizations, most organizations say they want high-performing teams, I mean, the posters are up on the wall, talks about teams, and we do this with our values, etc., as well, we want teams, it's on the wall. But in effect, what most organizations still do is reward and recognize individual performance. Personally, I believe that in a high-performing team, individuals should be given the opportunity to be their ‘best selves’, and they should be given the flexibility possibly to go off and, on their own, compile their thoughts and ideas, and then bring these back to the group where it can be discussed and unpacked, and the collective decision can be reached.

But to do this, individuals must be equipped with the ability not to be so precious about the work that they're doing. They must be willing to be flexible and to change their views based on that discussion that happens and also the evidence that is presented from others, and key to this is trust, as Lencioni said, and also a common vision and clear goals.

Rewarding individual and team performance

Another thing I see in organizations is organizations working towards high-performing teams and other things like employee engagement, but they haven't removed the potential demotivators yet. So, for example, pay isn't necessarily a motivator, but it is a demotivator, and if people think it's inequitable or they're not getting adequately rewarded for what they're doing. So in organizations, one of the first steps, I believe, that should be taken is, you need to decide how you're going to reward people. Is it going to be as individual contributors? Is it as teams? Is it a mixture of both? And this may involve a change to your current performance management process, which a lot of organizations are currently going through.

What does a high-performing team look like?

So in seeking to attain the optimized human performance, I think that the key to remember when we're looking at human performance, and team effectiveness, and high-performing teams is that performance isn't something that you actually need to drive, and you don't have to create a process around it because, in effect, as humans we want to succeed. We are pre-programmed to succeed and to work together in teams to reach an ultimate goal. This is what drives us. This is what satisfies us. But what we need are the right factors in place in the organization to do that.

So in conclusion, using Lencioni’s model, what does a high-performing team look like? Well, in a high-performing team, people trust each other. They have unfiltered conflict and debate around things. They commit to decisions and plans of action. They hold each other accountable, and they focus on the achievement of collective results.

So if you would like to discuss how to overcome dysfunctions in your team and create a high-performing culture, please feel free to send me an email, and my contact details are on the slide. And I would just like to thank you for listening to me today, and that you’ve enjoyed this presentation today that you've taken something away from it. Thank you very much.

This article is correct at 30/08/2017

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Shauna Hughes
Eye Change Consultancy Ltd

The main content of this article was provided by Shauna Hughes. Contact telephone number is +44 (0)7917817428 or email

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