What does it take for your team to be a high-performing team?
I have been a people manager at SAP for 20+ years, working with ABAP development teams on solutions for insurance (SAP Claims Management) and logistics (Project Manufacturing Management and Optimization (PMMMO), PMMO blog posts). Since I also like to understand the rules that govern how things happen (maybe because I am a former physicist*), I spent some time learning about the “rules” that govern teams: How they form, grow, and – ideally – turn into a high-performing team (HPT). All of us are in a team of some kind and we all interact with teams, so this topic seems to be relevant and worth spending 4 minutes. And just to clarify: When I write a about HPTs I am referring to teams that perform at a level that exceeds what can be expected by “adding” their individuals’ skills. These teams often feel special, get a lot of things done and seem to have a lot fun. So much so, that one can get envious not to be part of them.
Let’s start with the principles of how teams develop: According to Tuckman, a newly set-up team will live through several stages that are all necessary for a group of people to grow together to a team:
- Forming: Initially, the behavior of team members is driven by a desire to be accepted by others in the group, avoiding conflict and controversy. Everyone is extra nice and extra careful. People pay compliments and busy themselves with routine and high-level activities. At the same time team members observe each other and gather information about the scope of the tasks ahead and the processes that should be followed. Envisioning how one will fit into the new team and contribute to accomplishing its tasks, helps team members gain a sense of confidence and safety. This phase is necessary for team development, although not much gets done in terms of achieving the goals the team is tasked with. But there is a risk that the team spends too much time here: Everybody feels relatively comfortable and without someone taking charge there is no progress.
- Storming: The team turns its attention to the task they are charged with and discusses how to go about it: What shall be done in which sequence, who will take on which role and who will be in the lead. When doing so, team members will have to open up and engage with each other: The team goals become their goals. In my experience some team members may resist this mental change and will not develop a sense of ownership for the team’s tasks: Their focus remains on their internal state rather than on accepting the uncertainties of being part of the team’s journey. Only if there are enough folks willing to identify with the team and its goals, the team will develop a certain “cohesiveness”, continue to grow and move on to the next phase.
- Norming: The team establishes common goals and a mutually agreed plan to get there. They feel responsible towards the team’s (i.e. “their”) goals and work towards the team’s success. Roles are being filled and team members compromise for the greater good of the team. The team members start to identify with their team.
- Performing: If a team reaches this stage (which is not always the case) its members coordinate their work in an efficient way. The team does not need external supervision, it solves internal conflicts by itself and without grudge. The roles are uncontested i.e. the team member fill out their roles to a level that is at least acceptable to the rest of team. The team structure is stable and there is a sense of psychological safety. The team’s focus is on the timely resolution of the team’s task (and e.g. not on establishing their roles as in the Storming phase).
When looking at this sequence it becomes clear that the team members need to develop a shared sense of team identity and need to give up part of their individuality. That’s a challenge and some team member will not be able or willing to commit to that mental change.
Now, let’s turn our attention to HPTs: What are the characteristics of HPTs and how can one trigger their formation?
- Common vision and purpose: The team must be committed to a common vision (Murphy, 2016) and purpose. Having a purpose motivates a team, it’s a powerful source of energy to remain engaged and overcome challenges. It also provides focus: The day-to-day tasks are prioritized by the extent to which they help the team reach their common goal.
- Team interactions:
- Trust: Team members have the confidence that their peers’ intentions are good and that there is no reason to be overly self-protective: It’s OK to be vulnerable (Lencioni, 2002). A no-blame culture helps a lot.
- Ability to resolve and willingness to engage in conflicts (Lencioni, 2002): The team discusses and resolves issues quickly and completely.
- Accountability: Team members hold each other accountable: It’s important that they have high expectations for each other’s performance and value operational excellence.
- Team identity: HPT teams have a strong sense of identity/community (Miller 2011) and give themselves playful names. They share insider jokes and go to lunch together. Also, a HPT may cultivate a sense of being special, somehow “better” than everybody else. (DeMarco & Lister, 2013).
- Fun and fulfillment: Team members are generally happy at “teamwork”: People tease each other, share personal experiences, and share off-work time: There is a sense of caring among team members (“work family”).
Last but not least, team members find a be deeper sense of satisfaction: The reward of meeting your purpose and of achieving something meaningful together as a team will be a very deep and lasting experience.
So, back to my initial remarks: It seems that there are indeed some commonly agreed upon “rules” that need to be met in order to be a high-performing team: They definitely need to have a purpose and a strong sense of (superior?!) identity. The team’s chemistry (trust, accountability, conflict handling skills, sense of community) shall be good and they must enjoy themselves at work.
What do you think? Which characteristic of a HPT is missing? Have you been part of a HPT and, if so, how was your experience?
Please share your thoughts.
*In the 1990s, when I joined SAP, the acronym SAP in German also stood for “Sammelstelle Arbeitsloser Physiker” = “gathering place of unemployed physicists”.
Note that an earlier version of this post first appeared in my personal blog at https://managepeople.wordpress.com/team-development-and-high-performance/.
- DeMarco, T., & Lister, T. (2013). Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 3rd edition. Addison-Wesley.
- Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Miller, M. (2011). The Secret of Teams: What Great Teams Know and Do. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. .
- Murphy, J. J. (2016). Pulling Together: 10 Rules for High-Performance Teamwork. Naperville: Simple Truths