What I’ve learnt about building high performing teams

I’ve spoken a lot about high performance teams and how to create them. I’ve shared tips and research results and lots of advice.

Today I want to go further and talk about the things I’ve learnt while I’ve worked with my clients and their organisations. Why? Because not everything I’ve learnt will show up in those research papers!

Building high performance teams isn’t as easy as following a model

I once worked with an organisation going through a lot of change. It had a new CEO, new systems, had lost people and had gained new recruits. Everything was in turmoil, as you’d expect.

When you have a new CEO, he or she often wants to make an impact straight away and that’s what happened here. The CEO decided to increase targets and create new teams to meet them. He looked for the best of the best to create a high-performing team and put them to work on a new project.

It was a disaster.

On paper it looked good. The team had a good balance of skills and experience. It was diverse and it included people with the specific talents required for the project.  The project was mapped out, targets set, and the reporting process agreed on.

What happened? The team never really melded, and it wasn’t long before the members seemed to be pulling in different directions.

If there’s one thing I’ve learn about building high-performing teams, it’s that people are people.

We humans come with a set of baggage and it doesn’t disappear just because we’re put together with clever people. We make assumptions about people and their motivations and those influence the actions we take.

The team members didn’t trust each other, and you can’t force trust.

Picture it like this.

You want to build one big beautiful candle using the candles you have handy. But each candle is a lump of hot wax so it’s difficult to put them all together to create the shape you want. They change shape, they squash when they should expand, and their colours run.

People are just like that. They need to find where they fit in the team and assess what they can contribute. They need to get a feel for the shape of the others and what they can bring. Most of all, they need to know everyone is playing their part and working towards the same goal.

It all comes down to trust. Without trust, you will never have a high-performing team.

When the CEO put the team together, he didn’t allow any time for the members to get to know each other. The plan called for deliverables very early in the project. Too soon.

Remember, he was new, and he didn’t know the culture but, more importantly, the people didn’t know him. He hadn’t yet earned their trust.

The team was made up of old hands and new arrivals, an unequal footing that means you must work harder to get to know each other and gain trust. They hadn’t worked as a team before so there were no established team roles to fall back on.

The biggest thing I’ve learnt about building high-performing teams is that, for the members, joining the team means taking a risk. The risk of new relationships. The risk of new challenges. The risk of new roles. The risk of failure.

If you’re hoping to create a high-performing team, don’t expect instant success in terms of output. Give them time to get to know each other. Let the trust develop. It’s an investment in your future success. Only once there’s trust within the team and between your team and you will you be able to start shaping up as a high-performing team.

Do you agree with me? Has this been your experience, too? I’d love to hear what you have to say so please leave me a comment below and share your experiences.

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