How Do We Build High-Performance Teams?


True teams are a rare thing; what we typically view as a team is usually a group of (sometimes) highly functioning individuals who end up being successful more due to their own individual abilities than anything the group sets out to do.   With that, however, success takes more time and greater effort.  Most people avoid building true teams because of the perceived work up front that creates efficiency/success in the long term.

In creating any team, there is intentionality to it as you have to have trust, a comfort with conflict, true commitment, accountability and ownership across the team, while maintaining a focus on results.  As well, to be a team, you must have a common purpose, clear roles, accepted leadership, effective processes, and transparent relationships.

Qualities of an effective team leader include:

  • They appreciate the collective intelligence of the team
  • They believe in the power of diversity among team members
  • They see team leadership as a role by which to serve the team, not a position to be served
  • They see power as something to be released and shared rather than something to hold and control
  • They understand that teams are for achieving a team purpose

As well, a leader must have clear and quantifiable goals that fit into larger mission/vision/values to rally around.  The reality is that we don’t form teams, we build them, and have to have the patience to allow the organic nature of team growth to occur.  As leaders, we have to have clarity around what we are trying to build and be clear about our collaboration efforts in order to get the results we desire.  With that, it doesn’t work for the leader to be the only one who understands what an effective team looks like, the team does as well, and the definition of what is effective may vary by team and company.  There are some fundamentals, however:

  • Team development is a process, not an event
  • Development must be a felt need of the team
  • Use the work of the team to build the team
  • There are no shortcuts to team effectiveness
  • Willingness supersedes skill when it comes to collaboration
  • We must have shared goals that are aligned across the team
  • Include everyone on the specific team in the planning process – don’t alienate by exclusion
  • Review the past objectively and learn from it
  • Force assumptions out of the room
  • Be intentional in your meetings and treat time together as a precious commodity
  • Effective teams will understand the big picture, has common goals, functions as a unit (and has each other’s back)

If you’ve not ever heard of him, Patrick Lencioni has written a great collection of books around how to build highly effective organizations and teams.  They’re written in fable form, and simple to read.  According to Lencioni, “a cohesive team trusts one another, engages in constructive conflict, commits to group decisions and holds one another accountable.”  Conflict is an integral part of any team’s interaction, but it never gets personal and issues are never left unresolved.  To this end, you must address the five dysfunctions of any team, as they make a truly functional leadership team impossible.

  • The absence of trust results from a fear of being vulnerable with team members and prevents the building of trust within the team.
  • The fear of conflict results from a desire to preserve artificial harmony which stifles the occurrence of productive, ideological conflict.
  • A lack of commitment results from the lack of clarity or buy-in preventing team members from making decisions to which they will stick.
  • Avoidance of accountability stems from the need to avoid interpersonal discomfort which prevents team members from holding one another accountable for their behaviors and performance.
  • Finally, inattention to results comes when the pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success.

While they suffer from varying degrees of the five dysfunctions within the site and the leadership team and at different levels with different individuals, all five are present and impede the ability to build a cohesive leadership team.

Once an effective leadership team has been built, you can create organizational clarity.  Healthy organizations clarify topics such as values, strategies, goals and roles & responsibilities.  By making the fundamental values of the organization very clear to everyone in it, by actions as well as words, we join people together.  As well they need to over-communicate organizational clarity so that they align our employees with said clarity through repetition and comprehensive communication of all aspects of the fundamental values of the organization.  Every individual in the organization should be able to communicate their fundamental values of the organization from their first day with the group and then be constantly reminded of them.  This also means that those fundamental values must be simple and absorbable.  The team also shouldn’t hesitate to ask a member to leave if they don’t fit those values.  As well, whenever the leadership team meet, the outcome of every meeting should result in information that needs to be communicated out to the team within a set timeframe, with a specific deadline so that people don’t feel as though they are the last to know or learn of something in an inefficient manner (which leaves the message open to interpretation).  Finally, they need to reinforce organizational clarity through human systems.  Organizations sustain their health by establishing simple structures around the way they make decisions, evaluate job candidates, manage performance, reward and fire employees.  They need to stress how individuals will fit with our values as a part of the interviewing process and then reiterate those values through onboarding and with a regular rhythm for the team.

In tandem with the above, leaders need to assess which of the five temptations of a leader they, themselves suffer from.  The first temptation, which is the hardest for a leader to fix, is becoming more interested in protecting your career status than making sure your team attains results.  One suffers this malaise if one thinks the proudest day of your life was the day you were chosen for a high position, not a day when you actually accomplished something.  Great leaders should be driven by their need to achieve, not by ego. Leaders who have fallen prey to this temptation focus on enjoying the fruits of rank, work fewer hours, and worry less about the company’s performance than about their personal level of comfort.  To avoid the temptation of self-preservation, adhere to the most important principle governing every executive: the desire to produce results. Unfortunately, many leaders put the most dangerous of the temptations ahead of this goal and yield to the desire to protect the status of their careers. The danger is that after you arrive at the top, you may focus primarily on preserving your status. You are vulnerable to making decisions to protect your reputation or to avoiding making decisions that might hurt it. You may also reward the people who make your ego feel better, rather than those who contribute to the company’s bottom-line results. If you want to show that you should be the leader, don’t give in. Make results the most important measure of personal success. Don’t hold the success of the company as a hostage to your own ego.  Focus on results by publicly committing to measurable results and evaluate your success based on these results alone.

The second temptation is the desire to be popular with the people who report directly to you, rather than holding them accountable for their assignments. You need to tell people what you expect, remind them of those expectations, and make the consequences of not meeting those expectations clear.  Avoid the desire to be popular. Many leaders fail because they don’t hold the people who are directly reporting to them accountable for delivery on their commitments, which is the basis for achieving results. Leaders succumb to this temptation because it is lonely at the top. Leaders spend time with few people except those who report to them directly (their “reports”), who are often the same age and earn about the same amount of money as they do. Thus, leaders commonly become friends with their reports and they share their feelings about any employee problems and concerns. When it comes time to criticize their reports and hold them accountable, many leaders are reluctant. They don’t give as much attention to their performance reviews as to those of lower level managers, and they don’t give good constructive or negative feedback. They are too concerned with being friends. Seek your reports’ long-term respect, rather than their affection. Don’t see them as a support group, but as high-level employees who have to deliver what you expect.  Hold people accountable by confronting direct reports immediately about behavior and performance and clarify expectations up front to make confronting direct reports easier.  Frankly, an employee should never be surprised by their performance review nor if they are put on a performance management program because their manager or leader will have over-communicated around expectations and delivery.

The third temptation is being so concerned that all of one’s decisions are correct that one is unwilling to make decisions with limited information. You want to be absolutely sure, to achieve certainty, even at the risk of clarity and action. If you don’t make decisions, you can’t hold people accountable, because you haven’t been clear about what you want. Thus, you must make decisions about your business group’s goals and the responsibilities of people in the team to meet those goals, even if you don’t have all the information you need. As in the military, it’s better to make any decision than to make no decision. One’s job as a leader is to come up with answers.  Don’t worry about being wrong. Become comfortable making tough decisions with limited information, because people need that clear direction to move forward. Be willing to make mistakes when faced with uncertainty.  Be very clear about what you want, rather than being afraid to be wrong. Achieving certainty is impossible, because the world abounds with uncertainty and imperfect information.  Many leaders who feel a need for precision may postpone decisions or fail to let people know exactly what they are supposed to deliver. People will not just figure out the right answers as they go along, so the likelihood of good results is limited. Strive to achieve clarity, rather than accuracy. It is better to take decisive action than wait for additional information. One of a leader’s responsibilities is to risk being wrong so one needs to welcome conflict and challenge.  It’s not only leaders that prefer harmony to conflict and obedience to insubordination, but the consequences for leaders that get carried away by these desires can be dire.  Provide clarity by setting public deadlines for making key decisions and practice making decisions without complete information around less risky issues.

The fourth temptation is the desire for harmony. Although people naturally want harmony, it can undermine good decision making, because you can close yourself off to other ideas that might lead to discord. By contrast, you should have the full benefit of everyone’s ideas to make good decisions.  When you seek harmony rather than being open to productive conflict and opposing ideas, you can lose credibility. People may find you inconsistent and unfair, because they aren’t sure how serious you are when you issue an instruction since you’ve never pressured them in the past. Perhaps you have tried too hard to be nice to get people to like you. No one likes conflict, but in the process of avoiding it, you can cut off good ideas and opinions, and keep people from gaining clarity about their tasks. This can deprive you of information you need to make decisions.  Avoid developing such a strong desire for harmony that it prevents one from getting the information you need to be clear. This quest for harmony can interfere with achieving clarity, because you may be shutting down people who might express divergent opinions or ideas. Many leaders do this because they like to see people agree and get along, rather than have disagreements and conflicts. It is in your best interests to get different views and opinions out in the open so you can make good decisions and consider all the available knowledge.  Establish productive conflict by drawing out differing opinions and perspectives from staff members and engage in and allow passionate discussions about key issues.

The fifth temptation is invulnerability, or being afraid to trust others (coming back to one of the foundations of the five dysfunctions). To get others to trust you, you have to trust them, which means being willing to be vulnerable. Many people don’t do this because they are afraid of getting burned. But even if you do get burned at times, it’s not fatal. You should trust people to have healthy, productive conflict.  Establish productive conflict by drawing out differing opinions and perspectives from staff members and engage in and allow passionate discussions about key issues.  To avoid invulnerability, put aside the desire to appear invulnerable. Many leaders mistakenly think they will have less credibility if they show that their ideas can be challenged. But a free exchange of ideas is far more productive; people say what they think and you get better input. Encourage your people to challenge your ideas. Trust them with your reputation and your ego. If you show you trust people, they will return that trust with both respect and honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable, too.  Build trust by acknowledge your own weaknesses and mistakes and allowing direct reports to see your human side.

From a people management standpoint, Lencioni has three very basic suggestions for getting better results and performance out of the team:  make things measureable, provide accountability and know your people.  While these would appear to be something we already do, we in fact for the most part do not.  In describing them, it will become obvious that we don’t.  The three signs break into components of anonymity, irrelevance and immeasurement.

Anonymity: People cannot be fulfilled in their work if they are not known. All human beings need to be understood and appreciated for their unique qualities by someone in a position of authority. People who see themselves as invisible, generic or anonymous cannot love their jobs, no matter what they are doing.  This is the squishiest of the three in that it requires each people manager to take a vested interest in getting to know their people in-depth.

Irrelevance: Everyone needs to know that their job matters, to someone. Anyone. Without seeing a connection between the work and the satisfaction of another person or group of people, an employee simply will not find lasting fulfillment. Even the most cynical employees need to know that their work matters to someone, even if it’s just the boss.

Immeasurement: Employees need to be able to gauge their progress and level of contribution for themselves. They cannot be fulfilled in their work if their success depends on the opinions or whims of another person, no matter how benevolent that person may be. Without tangible means of assessing success or failure, motivation eventually deteriorates as people see themselves as unable to control their own fate.

Lencioni states that “management is like a ministry. You can help your employees feel good about themselves and the work they do. See that they feel important and know that they are contributing.  Give them some tangible means for marking their own progress. If you do these things, you will have an immeasurably profound positive impact on your employees’ lives. They will feel better about themselves, which will make everyone around them feel better. To create this happy, productive environment just treat the people who work for you like human beings. It’s really that simple.”  I underline tangible twice because while at Microsoft we have the tangible system of commitments by which individuals can measure themselves year on year, we don’t necessarily identify daily/weekly/monthly tangible measures by which they can do the same – most organizations and corporations don’t.  Additionally it is important that we find ways to tie the relevance of each individual’s role to someone else in the team so that their only accountability isn’t to their manager.  This allows them to see their relevance in repeatable and measurable ways.  This is where, more than anywhere else, a lack of buy in and participation by a people manager should lead to a transition for that individual to an IC role.

The last area where they should focus is in tearing down the silos that exist between both feature teams and along functional lines.  Silos are common and almost natural to organizations. They are also deadly.  Silos emerge when leaders fail to establish the right context to unify their organizations. Team building exercises and open discussions lay the foundations for eliminating silos, but they are not enough.  By approaching singular themes or rallying cries as though the team were in crisis, silos are torn down as people focus on the rallying cry as opposed to their function or team.  The thematic goal (the single, temporary, and qualitative rallying cry shared by all members of the team) is used to frame all major discussions and decisions during this time period. Our goal must be unified, but distinct from our overall operational goals. It should be a qualitative call to action expressed with active verbs. We need to communicate this goal and the interim stepping stones so clearly that our employees know how their individual actions contribute to achieving this milestone together.  All of this ties back to creating our own story and changing our myths to suit the needs of the business.

There are two other areas where Lencioni focuses, one being how we serve our customers and another how we hire the right people or, with existing teams, retain the right people.  I’ll skip the “getting naked” portion of service (as he puts it) and focus instead on how we hire or retain the right people.

When we’re looking for people to join our teams, there is any number of technical skills that we tend to vet for, no matter what industry.  What we run into at times, though, is a lack of understanding about what we need to screen for from a behavioral standpoint.   Lencioni believes, and I agree, that we should be looking for people who are hungry, humble, and smart.  What does that mean?

We’re looking for people who are hungry so that when the crunch time comes, they don’t check out and leave it up to their colleagues to get the job done.  While we have a commitment to them to ensure work/life balance, we need to know that they have the drive to get the job done when it comes down to it.

Humility is all about ego, or the desire for a lack of one.  Some might debate with me on this point, stating that people what are further along in their career are likely going to have more of an ego because of their success.  That’s crap.  We always want people who speak more of “we” than “me.”  We especially need those who lead us to be focused on the team and what the team has accomplished, not their own accomplishments.

Last is smart, but not the smart you’re thinking.  We want people who are emotionally intelligent, or people smart, so that they have the empathy necessary to be a part of a highly effective team.  When we lack emotional intelligence, we have a tendency to run rough shod over others or miss the social cues that might help us find success easier in an organization and know who is willing to partner with us to solve a problem.

Now, at any given time, a person is going a have a gap in one of these areas, if not more.  For those who have gaps in multiple areas, that’s a tough one to resolve, and typically you’ll end up coaching them out of your company if you stay true to the mantra of hungry, humble, and smart. Why is that, you might ask, and simply put, as a highly effective leader, you have a commitment to your people to help them grow, and intentionality around that in any of these areas can be a challenge to receive, to focus on multiple areas at once will likely be overwhelming.  Again, though, as leaders, we have to, as it is our commitment to our teams and, most importantly, to the individuals who work for us.

Well, that’s enough of a “book report” for the week.  I hope you’ve found it all useful, and next week I’ll get back to my usual format of tech/business trends.  Until then, be well!

Oh wait, a TED talk for you … well, this week, this talk from Tim Leberecht seems relevant.  In it, he talks about his belief that in the face of artificial intelligence and machine learning, we need a new for radical humanism in the workplace so that we focus on authenticity and questions instead of efficiency and answers.

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