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By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University
Most managers I know would love to have a high-performing team. Unfortunately, not all managers know how to get their team to that level.
One of the issues they struggle with is, “What should be the first step to take in putting together such a team?” The argument is similar to “Which came first – the chicken or the egg?” In this scenario, do you develop a team based on the manager’s style or do you build the group based on the individual strengths and weaknesses of the team members?
I believe a manager should play the role of a servant leader and find out what the team needs to become a high-performing group of individuals. For example, when I have interviewed people for my team, a frequent question they ask me is, “What are you looking for in a candidate?”
My response always is, “I’m looking for someone who will fit into my current team, but add a shot of fresh ideas to take the team to the next level.” It would be nice to hire someone who has some of the same characteristics that bring the team together but who also possesses skills that address the team’s weak points in order to add missing value.
Characteristics of a High-Performing Team
Industry has become accustomed to trying to build high-performing teams by putting together groups of individuals who possess “super skills.” However, what any individual can accomplish does not necessarily carry over to the team if other team members are not trained to see the value of collective work and collaboration. Each member must be willing to “die to self” (put individual needs aside for the greater good of the team) to allow a collective effort to emerge and thrive, so that the work and its final product become better.
The Center for Organizational Design defines a high-performing team as a group of individuals who have decided to:
- Have a clear vision of where they are headed and what they want to accomplish
- Be excited about that vision because they took part in creating it
- Act from clearly defined priorities
- Have clear measures of success and receive feedback about how they’re doing
- Maintain open communication and positive relationships with each other
- Identify and solve problems together
- Make decisions when and where they occur
- Successfully manage conflicts
- Share leadership responsibilities
- Participate in productive meetings
- Have clearly defined roles and work procedures
- Cooperate cross-functionally
Where Do We Begin to Form a High-Performing Team?
First, get everyone on the same page. That means a leader should facilitate the process of encouraging team members to discuss their perceptions of the mission, purpose and goals. Even if each member has a different perspective, they should all be able to work together for the common cause of a shared vision.
Forbes contributor Joseph Folkman suggests that team leaders consider the following five factors to ensure that their high-performing team remains stable and focused on its goals:
- Team Leaders Inspire More Than They Drive
“Leaders of high-performance teams know how to create energy and enthusiasm in the team. Team members feel inspired, that they are on a mission and what they are doing is of great importance,” Folkman says.
- Team Leaders Resolve Conflicts and Increase Cooperation
Folkman also observes, “Conflicts can tear teams apart and leaders need to work to help resolve differences quickly and promote cooperation. Often, team leaders assume that mature people will resolve conflict on their own. If that were true, however, there would be no divorce, separations or wars.
“In high-performance teams, differences are addressed quickly and directly. This requires a level of maturity in team members. When people believe that they are trusted and others have their back, disputes can be resolved. Team leaders that focus on competition versus cooperation never achieve outstanding results.”
- Team Leaders Set Stretch Goals
Folkman notes, “Leaders who know how to set stretch goals [goals that require you to push yourself to complete an objective that appears impossible at first] create an internal drive in the team to accomplish the impossible. People don’t really want to come to work and do something that any other team could accomplish; they want to do something extraordinary.
“When they accomplish something that is extraordinary, they recognize that they personally are capable and competent. Doing something out of the ordinary helps people recognize that they are exceptional and their satisfaction with work, their engagement and pride all go up.”
- Team Leaders Communicate, Communicate, Communicate the Vision and Direction
Additional wisdom from Folkman includes, “Be a broken record and help team members to be focused on the vision. High-performance team leaders stay on message, they constantly communicate and keep people focused on the vision and mission to accomplish. It’s easy for anyone to get distracted or miss a turn. Shiny objects are all around us and sometimes team members get diverted from their mission. High-performance team leaders keep people informed, up to date and on track.”
- Team Leaders Are Trusted
Finally, Folkman says, “If a team leader is not trusted, they can’t be inspiring or trusted to resolve conflicts, get the team to embrace stretch goals or believe their communications. The lack of trust slows down everything.
“We have found that there are three basic pillars that build trust. The first pillar of trust is relationships. We trust people that we like. We trust our friends and we distrust our enemies. Building a positive relationship increases trust.
“The second pillar of trust is knowledge or expertise. We trust people that have the right answer or can provide insight. We trust people when they can help solve problems. Use your knowledge and skills to help others solve a problem and it will increase trust.
“The third pillar of trust is consistency. When you say you will do something and you do it, people trust you. Being consistent and walking your talk makes you a person that can be trusted.”
Overall, I would say my game plan for developing a high-performing team is a combination of the ideas of the Center for Organizational Design and Joseph Folkman. I believe department leaders should see themselves as coaches willing to act as troubleshooters for problems and issues that the team cannot resolve. In essence, leaders must jump in when needed and when requested by the group.
If you put together the right team of individuals, they should be able to:
- Get to a level where they trust one another.
- Develop an action plan to get the mission/goals completed by assigning each member an appropriate role to reach a mutually agreed-upon timeline and deadline.
- Be open and authentic with each another, especially when resolving a conflict.
- Ensure that the lines of communication are open at all times.
Working on a team should be a pleasant experience that each member enjoys. Let’s make sure we provide our teams with the appropriate tools that will allow them to work as a “collective” ready to conquer the world through “team power.”
Start a management degree at American Public University.
About the Author
Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.
Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.
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