High-performance teams are dedicated in their work toward a common goal, and they can be held to a high standard. Over time, the members of a high-performance team will continue to hone their individual skill sets in a way that benefits the group as a whole.
If you have high-performance teams in your company, you can rely on these professionals to get complex, sensitive work done in a quality manner. There are a number of additional benefits to cultivating high-performance teams at work, too—this guide will show you how to get started.
Table of contents: Building high-performance teams
- 6 benefits of a high-performance team
- Common characteristics of high-performing teams
- How to build a high-performing team
- 5 exercises your team can implement to become high performers
Common characteristics of high-performing teams
While every high-performance team will be a little different due to companies’ unique needs, the highest performing teams tend to share several common characteristics:
- High skill levels: Members of high-performance teams are often experts in areas that compliment their colleagues’ skill sets.
- Trust among teammates: For teams to work effectively at a high level, they need to trust each other—and their leaders. Luckily, trust is something that can be cultivated and improved over time.
- Dedication to group goals: A high-performance team is typically focused on achieving the goals of the group over the goals of the individuals. Because they’re powered by a shared vision for team success, high-performance team members can work in sync and collaborate effectively.
- Commitment to results: High-performance teams are also interested in the results of their work. This goes beyond simply reviewing metrics—the most high-performance teams will want to have a deep understanding of how they are performing in pursuit of their teams’ goals as well as individually. Team members are likely to be committed to ongoing improvement in multiple areas.
- Accountability and adaptability: Individual members of high-performance teams are also generally willing to be held accountable for the results of their work—and adaptable if things need to change. If a project doesn’t go quite as planned, a high-performance team will be able to regroup, reassess, and adapt to a new plan for continued peak performance.
6 benefits of a high-performance team
The benefits of building a high-performance team include:
- High productivity
- Strong decision making
- Diverse skill sets
- Innovative solutions
- A strong work ethic
- A commitment to quality
You can build a high-performance team by hiring with specific characteristics in mind, conducting performance-building exercises with your team, and following the eight steps in this article.
How to build a high-performing team
When you really need outstanding results on a project or initiative, you may want to be involved in the hiring process in order to ensure that the people you’re bringing onto your team have the right characteristics. But what if you can’t handpick your team?
If you’re working with a team that’s already formed, there are still steps you can take to help them develop their skills for maximum performance.
- Work to build trust in your team
- Keep lines of communication open
- Support team members’ needs
- Establish clear direction for the team
- Set SMART goals
- Encourage constant teamwork
- Invest in education and training
- Grow your team strategically
1. Work to build trust in your team
The first thing you can do to build a high-performance team is work to build trust among its members. For a team to work together effectively at a high level, they’ll need to trust each other—and you. When your team members have strong bonds of trust, they will be more likely to:
- Respond to your guidance and leadership
- Rely on each others’ capabilities and skill sets
- Support each other in times of high pressure or demand
- Feel more comfortable communicating their concerns and needs to each other and team leaders
If you’re leading a distributed team, you may need to invest additional time and resources to build trust with your remote team members. The same principles and practices that work in the office may not always translate well to a remote environment.
Regardless of where your team works, though, the steps on this list are a great place to start increasing performance.
2. Keep lines of communication open
Clear and open communication is an important part of building trust and high performance.
When leaders of high-performance teams are transparent about company, department, and individual performance, it encourages workers to grow professionally and strengthens dedication to a common cause. To maintain clear communication with your in-office or remote high-performance team, remember to:
- Let team members know that they can come to you with questions, concerns, or for support in the workplace
- Provide constructive feedback to team members about how they can continue to grow individually and as a collective unit
- Streamline communications and make sure everyone understands where to turn for updates, especially when working remotely
- Schedule periodic all-hands team meetings to ensure everyone is kept up-to-date about important company developments and key priorities
- Check in with team members regularly
3. Support team members’ needs
In addition to giving feedback to team members, it’s important that the leaders of high-performing teams are open to receiving it as well. By creating a safe space for your team members to come to you with questions, comments, concerns, and needs, you can further strengthen the bonds of trust.
It’s also a good way to learn how to better support your team members and help them perform at a higher level. This support can take several forms, such as:
- Providing professional guidance
- Helping team members work through roadblocks on project progress
- Advocating for your team with other departments when engaging in cross-functional work
- Supplying your team members with the tools, training, and resources they feel they need to perform their jobs effectively
- Identifying and addressing skills gaps
4. Establish clear direction for the team
Even the best teams need guidance and direction from leaders. When working with a group of high performers, you’ll want to show them how their work supports your company’s overall mission and goals. This creates a shared sense of purpose and gives your team a clear path. Combined, this can help boost productivity.
5. Set SMART goals
High-performing teams also work toward achievable, measurable goals. These goals can be personal or shared—and “achievable” doesn’t have to mean easy! You can create realistic yet complex goals, and even stretch goals, for your teams.
The SMART goals framework can help guide you toward the creation of effective goals. When setting a goal, you’ll want to make sure that it is:
Remember to also link your team members' individual goals back to department and company priorities. This will help to create a sense of purpose and cohesion throughout the team.
6. Encourage constant teamwork
When setting goals and priorities for your team, remember to keep teamwork at the forefront. By giving your high-performing team members continual opportunities to work together, you can continue to strengthen professional bonds and develop team members’ reliance on each other.
If your team is partially remote, be sure to pair distributed and in-office team members on projects. This way, all members of your high-performing team have equal opportunity to collaborate and work together.
7. Invest in education and training
By investing in continuing education and professional development training, you can help your high-performance teams (and their output!) grow. This can take many different forms. Depending on your unique team needs, purpose, and goals, you may decide to:
- Provide individual team members with access to skill development courses
- Run group training webinars for your team to learn from together
- Send your team to relevant industry conferences and seminars
- Provide an optional continuing education benefit, such as tuition reimbursement
If you’re planning training sessions for your team, focus on both hard and soft skill development.
- Hard skills are typically job-related and technical, such as using specific software programs, understanding complex equations, and preparing or delivering effective presentations.
- Soft skills are often considered personality traits (but can be learned). They include things like customer service acumen, being a good listener, having a strong work ethic, managing your emotions, and giving or receiving feedback.
Ongoing improvement in both hard and soft skills can help your team continue to level up its performance.
8. Grow your team strategically
The most effective teams are often fairly small. Large teams can make it difficult for everyone to participate, provide input, and feel heard. According to McKinsey & Company, large teams may also separate into smaller “sub teams” that are not fully aligned on common group goals and initiatives. By keeping team size small, you can create better cohesion among team members and improve performance.
That said, there is still a time and a place for larger teams. In some situations, such as building a corporate leadership team, it can be beneficial to have the diverse array of experiences and opinions that you get from a larger team. When it’s time to grow your team, a management consultant can help you build the best organizational structure for your company.
5 exercises your team can implement to become high performers
- Brainstorming exercises
- Storytelling exercises
- Emotional intelligence assessments
- Mission and vision exercises
- Personality trait assessments
You can also lead your team through these five types of exercises to boost their performance:
1. Brainstorming exercises
You can conduct brainstorming exercises any time your team has a new project or goal to work on. This activity is best done synchronously, either in person or over a video call. Introduce a topic to the team, explain the problem or goal, and give everyone a set time frame to think about solutions.
Jot everyone’s answers down in a shared document and review them as a group. This exercise helps build high-performing teams thanks to its collaborative nature—everyone gets a say and can recognize their colleagues’ input.
2. Storytelling exercises
Storytelling exercises are a way for your team members to get to know each other better and improve team dynamics. This is a great team exercise to do when you first form a group, or when adding new members to your team.
Storytelling exercises can take several forms, including:
- Having team members fill out a mad-libs style document about themselves (remember to keep it professional!)
- Giving each team member the chance to tell a story about a time they changed their viewpoint on something, and why
- Asking team members to interview each other and tell a short biographical story about the colleague they interviewed
3. Emotional intelligence assessments
Emotional intelligence (sometimes called emotional quotient) is a soft skill that can help to strengthen team performance. When team members have high emotional intelligence, they can modulate their emotions in stressful settings and be attuned to the emotions of those around them.
To help your team members improve their emotional intelligence, you can lead them through targeted exercises like:
- Selecting their top three strongest and weakest professional traits off a list and discussing how they can support and be supported by others with different skills
- Practicing listing traits they’ve noticed about each of their colleagues or other important people in their lives
4. Mission and vision exercises
Because high-performing teams are focused on a common goal, it can be useful to have your team engage in collaborative mission and vision exercises like:
- Brainstorming what the mission statement and guiding vision is for a newly created team
- Examining an existing mission or vision statement and identifying their personal mission and vision that will guide their contributions toward a shared goal
5. Personality trait assessments
Finally, you can turn to existing personality assessments to help your high-performing teams better understand each others’ communication and work styles. There are a variety of these assessments commonly used in workplaces, such as Myers-Briggs and CliftonStrengths.
While these tests aren’t a definitive explanation of someone’s personality and preferences, they can be a great jumping off point for discussion about how each team member prefers to work. Team members can discuss what does and does not feel accurate to them about the test results, and learn more about qualities they may not have previously realized to be strengths.
Understanding each others' personality traits can help your team:
- Develop and strengthen complementary skills
- Maintain open communication
- Improve problem-solving abilities
- Establish a culture of mutual respect
Gathering everyone together for an off-site event once or twice a year can also be useful—especially if your team is partially or fully remote. Off-sites give your team a chance to connect, work through exercises, undergo training sessions, and get to know each other better.
Examples of high-performing teams
You can find high-performing teams across all industries, including at both for-profit and nonprofit companies. Many of the products and services you use on a daily basis are the result of high-performing team members working together! A few notable examples of high-performing teams include:
- The New Zealand All Blacks are the most successful men’s rugby team of all time, with over a 77% win rate. They’ve also held the number one spot on the World Rugby rankings scale for about 15 of the past 19 years. Every member of the All Blacks is dedicated to peak performance and positively representing their country on a global scale.
- The Apollo 13 mission involved coordination between two high-performance teams: one in space and one on the ground in Texas. The team contained both spaceflight veterans and an astronaut on his first voyage out of the Earth’s atmosphere. When a crisis-level oxygen problem developed, all team members worked together to bring the flight crew back to Earth safely.
- The Going-to-the-Sun Road, which cuts through Glacier National Park in Montana, is quite the engineering feat—especially when you consider that it was built in the 1930s after two decades of planning. Before construction began, a team of 32 men surveyed the land. This task required walking 3,000 feet every morning and taking measurements while dangling from ropes. The road project team’s immense coordination and focus made it possible to safely survey the land and, in turn, build a safe road for drivers.
- Surgical teams throughout the world are high-performing. They have to be, in order to keep patients safe during complex medical procedures! If you or a loved one has ever had a lifesaving medical procedure, you have a high-performing surgical team to thank for it.
Start building your top-notch team
Building your own high-performance teams can help your company reach new levels of growth and success. Upwork’s work marketplace is the place to go to hire independent business and management professionals who can help you build strong, high-performing teams.
Whether you’re looking for a business consultant to work with you in building a high-performing team or you’re a skilled management consultant looking for clients, you can find just the right fit by applying for or posting a job on Upwork today.
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