In Search of Unicorns and High-Performance Teams

Anyone who has been on a team they might reasonably describe as “high-performance” understands how rare these experiences are in the workplace. In my informal polling in workshops and other programs, less than 50% of respondents indicate they’ve ever been on a team they would label as “high-performance.”

Sadly, too many teaming experiences feel a bit like those horrible group projects in college where one or two people did all the work, three or four argued constantly, and at least one decided to take a working holiday.

Add in the challenges of groups new to virtual collaboration, and the potential for underwhelming outcomes rises considerably. However, with a few essential adjustments, the team leader and members can counteract the team development challenges and live to prosper together.

Three Hacks to Help Team Leads Set the Stage for High-Performance

1. Bring Purpose Front and Center

The research on teaming is unambiguous about the need for a clear and compelling purpose to serve as the binding force for team development. We’re at our best when we connect our efforts to something we believe is important.

The team lead owns bringing a clear and compelling purpose to life across the group. There’s a lot of noise in the signal-to-noise ratio in our world. The team lead must redouble efforts to uncover and articulate purpose in even the most mundane sounding of initiatives.

Fortunately, if you peel the layers back on most activities, there are customers somewhere—internal or external—dependent upon the outcomes for doing something themselves. Team leads need to follow the value-chain of initiatives to connect their part to the larger picture.

For example, no one is particularly motivated to lead or work on a software automation initiative that will displace people from their jobs, particularly in this economy. However, if the effort is about freeing these people up to focus their gray-matter and valuable time on something critically important to someone else, the purpose begins to emerge.

For team leads, dig deep to uncover purpose with your initiatives and then make this purpose part of the daily dialog. 

2. Focus on Creating Swift Trust 

The research from leading in dangerous situations suggests individuals evaluate those in leadership roles on three key points:

  1. Are you competent?
  2. Are you credible?
  3. Are you going to look out for their safety?

There’s little doubt the first two are essential in any team situation. In my experience, the third one is slightly more important because it points directly to the issue of trust. Without trust, there is no performance.

Your goal as a team lead is to foster Swift Trust on your team and create the environment for individuals to feel comfortable extending their trust to you and each other. While trusting without evidence seems risky for all parties, your ability to show you trust them creates a catalytic reaction across the group.

Time and experience will either reinforce or challenge the initial view on trust. You can adjust your perspective as you gain evidence. As the team lead if the scale tilts based on experience to “Don’t trust” it’s incumbent upon you to make a change.

In virtual settings, we’re challenged to make trust decisions often without one-on-one experience and little evidence to support our perspectives. One team lead I work with spends a significant amount of video time with each individual talking about their project experiences and genuinely getting to know them. He backs this first-hand experience with a dialog with the individual’s manager and even prior team members. After doing this necessary homework, he makes his trust decision and doesn’t look back unless the individual gives him a reason to rethink his view.

The flip-side of the trust issue is giving individuals cause to trust you as the team lead. I love giving team members a voice and vote on the responsibilities of the lead role.

Use Angela’s Question: At the end of our time working together, when we’re, and you’re successful, what will you say I did?  The insights from the group offer great material to create a personal Leadership Charter the team lead can share back to the group.

Asking the group to hold you accountable to the charter gives them more reason to trust you at the start of the initiative. 

3. Write the Rules for Success Together 

Armed with a strong sense for the purpose of the initiative and supported by an emerging culture of trust, I love the many benefits that emerge from working with team members to create the rules for success (team values). An excellent team lead I worked around was known for spending ample time early in the team formation process to get everyone to articulate their expectations for:

  • What does accountability to each other look like on this team?
  • How are we going to engage with each other?
  • How are we going to listen to each other?
  • How will we problem-solve together?
  • How will we resolve disagreements?
  • How will we give and receive feedback?
  • How will we make decisions?
  • How will we generate ideas?

That seems like a long laundry list, yet, the questions force the team members to voice their perspectives on how they want to pursue high-performance together. Additionally, instead of the team lead saying, “Here are our values, let’s all do our best,” everyone feels involved and accountable to them.

Ultimately, any guidelines or set of team values are only worthwhile if they become part of the operating code of the group. The team lead owns bringing these to life every single day in every encounter and meeting. The team members are accountable for self-policing each other as well. 

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s a great deal more to say about creating team success. However, in my experience, executing on the three outlined in this article: a clear purpose, catalyzing the emergence of trust, and writing the rules for success in the form of values, moves you more than half-way to high performance in live and virtual settings. Use the ideas in great team formation and performance. 

Art's Signature