How to Build High-Performing Teams

Teams—both formal and informal—exist everywhere in the workplace, from departments to executive committees to colleagues who play softball together after work.

Your organization’s teaming environment has a crucial impact on employee engagement because “the team” experience is, essentially, the work experience. In fact, 83% of workers (across countries, industries, and roles) say they do most of their work on teams.

High employee engagement is linked to higher productivity, but teams are also what drive your business forward and how truly innovative work gets done.

High-functioning teams can:

  • Solve complex or previously “unsolvable” problems by leveraging different specialists’ skills to arrive at a solution.
  • Distribute work effectively, so projects are tackled with more efficiency and speed.
  • Be more flexible and responsive to real-time demands.
  • When teams are diverse and inclusive, they also improve the quality of problem-solving. Research has even shown that diverse teams outperform individual decision-makers up to 87% of the time.

But throwing people together on a project doesn’t mean you’ve formed a team. And fostering high-functioning teams doesn’t happen on its own. There must be a strategy for how you put your teams together and an approach to make sure they can operate at a high level.

Harvard professor and organizational psychology expert J. Richard Hackman names coaching as one of the five key conditions for building and maintaining effective teams:

“Teams need expert coaching. Most executive coaches focus on individual performance, which does not significantly improve teamwork. Teams need coaching as a group in team processes—especially at the beginning, midpoint, and end of a team project. ”
— excerpt from Hackman’s book, Leading Teams

To build a great team, you first need to understand the mechanics behind your team structure.

What is a team, anyway?

A team is a group of individuals who come together with a common purpose and are organized to achieve a specific goal.

What kind of team structure exists in your workplace?

  1. Dependent teams are composed of individual contributors, all organized under a primary manager or “boss.” This is the traditional management model, in which workers wait for the manager to make decisions and tell them what to do. Many organizations adopt this model because it’s familiar, but it’s not ideal. Most interaction happens between the supervisor and the individual, rather than between team members, and ingenuity is stifled as a result. This type of team is much more likely to maintain the status quo than to support one another and suggest innovative improvements to teamwork.
  2. Independent teams are also composed of individual contributors, but their work is more self-directed. Workers may receive general guidance from a manager, but they contribute to the overall team by working on their own projects with minimal supervision (think of a law office). Each individual’s success is firmly linked to their personal efforts, so collaboration is only occasional, and individual goals often supersede the team’s goals.
  3. Interdependent teams have a strong collective focus with a purpose defined by the leader and the team together. Individuals rely on each other to get work done, cooperate and coordinate with each other regularly, and often share resources directly. On this type of team, the individual’s success is bound to the team’s success, resulting in higher levels of trust, constructive risk, and success.

The interdependent team is what 21st-century leaders strive for. Hackman’s research reveals that when interdependent teams work together over the long term and develop a strong sense of each other’s strengths, they reach a high-performing state that delivers better business results.

A separate study published in the Academy of Management Journal also found a direct correlation between higher levels of interdependence (cohesion and communication) and stronger team and company performance.

How to build a great interdependent team

To build highly interdependent teams, you have to create the right environment. As Hackman noted to Harvard Business Review, there are many factors like the individuals you allow on the team, how long the team has worked together, and the size of the team that tends to determine whether a team is a high-functioning asset or a drain on productivity. By taking a strategic approach to team building and development, leaders can increase the likelihood that a team will perform well. A successful approach to team building must include:

  • Purpose: To be successful, teams must be aligned around a meaningful purpose, have specific goals, and a clear understanding of how they are expected to collaborate to achieve those goals. The team leader should ensure all these elements are defined with buy-in from the team.
  • Strong leadership: The team leader sets the tone for the team through their own behavior. A strong leader gives people the autonomy to think independently and sets a tone of respect when ideas are shared and discussed among the group.
  • Diversity and inclusivity: Companies build more robust solutions by consciously uniting people across fields, cultures, and ways of exchanging ideas and solving problems. Doing this effectively requires team leaders to create inclusive workspaces based on trust and equitable treatment for all.
  • Strengths development: Team members should have a strong understanding of their own talents and the individual n’ individual needs and strengths. A strong team leader will constantly work to develop individual strengths to achieve the right balance of talents on their team and address critical gaps.
  • Protection of the team dynamic: Like achieving a great marriage, achieving a great team takes work and vigilance. Allowing toxic contributors to impact the team will only derail the group from its purpose. Leaders know that attitude outweighs performance and will act quickly to address unhealthy team dynamics.

Team building is about more than social interaction, outings, and annual retreats. Your company needs great leaders who know how to foster interdependent teams made up of diverse talents and perspectives; all focused on a clear purpose.

Those leaders must also be coached to consistently develop individual strengths, maintain an environment of inclusivity and mutual respect, and remove barriers so that teams can function constructively.

At the same time, your teams need group coaching to improve their practices and promote healthy dynamics.

I have extensive experience providing leadership coaching in conjunction with team coaching to up-level company performance using a strengths-based approach. Contact me for a free consultation to determine how coaching can benefit your organization and your teams’ specific challenges.



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