Running up the steep hill

As discussed in our previous thesis, it is key for managers to arm themselves with the knowledge of the team performance-team maturity relationship. In doing so, they are able to identify the nature of groups they are currently working with, as well as the team ‘archetype’ they should be aiming at, in order to achieve superior business results. In this vein, ideal performance gains are achieved at what is described as the final stage of a team’s maturity; the stage of a ‘high performance team’ (HPT). The HPT stage is graphically depicted as the steepest portion of the team learning curve (see Figure on previous post).

On a relevant note, HPTs might also be perceived as more generic concepts referring to a variety of organizational entities e.g. we can encounter high performance virtual groups or even high performance firms. Regardless, the overarching key characteristic of any high performing organizational entity is that it achieves superior business results by outperforming all other teams as well as expectations (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).

The anatomy of High Performance Teams

It is essential to form a clear concept of the traits and attributes of HPTs before encouraging managers to work towards building something they do not fully grasp (Warrick, 2014). After all, how can leaders build –or even be interesting in building- HPTs if they have no idea what one looks like? The good news is that there seems to exist an abundance of approaches out there: some are theory-based (e.g. Katzenbach & Smith, 1993; Hellriegel & Slocum, 2011; Levi, 2011) others emerge as ‘distilled wisdom’ out of practitioners’ and firms’ experience. Hence, following Warrick’s (2014) rationale we highlight that in order ‘to promote a common understanding of the characteristics of high performance teams, it is important to either adopt an existing model for use by leaders or to help the leaders create their own model which can be a valuable learning experience’. 

Under this light, we aim at contributing to any existing knowledge and taxonomies on HPTs’ characteristics by formulating an original integrated model. For this purpose, we accumulated various literature and practice insights and traced the most common and most prevalent themes on what constitutes a fully formed, well-functioning HPT. Our lens could serve as a comprehensive roadmap for managers, practitioners and leaders, pointing at which milestones they need to aim towards when embarking on their team-building venture.

HPT characteristics can be grouped into three high-order clusters, common to any team-like unit: culture/structure/processes. What is interesting though in the case of HPTs, is that these three levels of analysis are highly interconnected, forming a subtle ‘hierarchy’, such that each cluster acts as a prerequisite for the successful formation and functioning of the next one. Let’s make it simple, shall we? We can conceptualize these three levels (alongside their sub-dimensions) of HPT characteristics as circles nested within each other (Figure). A particular team culture gives rise to a specific team structure (s), which in turn dictates and is reinforced by a set of strategic team processes; the latter, again could have never flourished successfully, outside the particular culture and so on.

Figure. An integrated nested model of High Performance Teams

Why start with culture? Katzenbach and Smith, in their ‘Wisdom of Teams’ work (1993) have very eloquently addressed this point. According to them, the distinctive culture (that of high interpersonal commitment), existent inside a HPT serves as the building block of any team that wants to identify as a ‘real HPT’. Subsequently, culture is also the very first target of any HPT team building initiative (Moscovici, 2003). It is the element that when in place, it amplifies and transforms all other typical team characteristics. Indeed, ‘deeply personal commitments of each one to the growth and the success of the others is what distinguish high performance teams […] Energized by this extra sense of commitment, the high performance team typically reflects a vigorous amplification of the fundamental team characteristics’ (extracted from Dutra, Prikladnicki & França, 2015). Let’s attempt a closer look at our HPT themes.

Team Culture. Team culture has been described as the beliefs, ideals, norms and expectations present within the team. A reflection of team culture -at the level of the individual- is what organizational theorists refer to as ‘climate’. There are various team climates all describing the distinct ways, in which team members interpret the group’s purpose, culture and function (James et al., 2008, Barbera, 2014). It is apparent, that both concepts are connected. Now, the case for HPTs, as noted previously, is that they are formed around a very particular ‘belief system’: that of deep interpersonal commitment, commitment to the success and growth of each member. Such a mindset can be boiled down to four distinctive elements:

  1. Trust: Such a climate calls for high levels of mutual trust between team members, as well as trust between team members and their leader. In groups whereby trust shines through, a supportive and uplifting working relationship exists among people (Warrick, 2014).
  2. Transparency: A climate of transparency promotes openness and inclusion to rewards, information, resources, methodologies and goal-setting decisions.
  3. Diversity: Strategic team diversity, refers to diversity of experience and background among teammates. Diversity is known to lead to better decision making, innovation initiatives and more out-of-the-box solutions.
  4. Conflict Management: Conflict in HPTs is not avoided –alas when diversity is present, clash of opinions is and should be viewed as commonplace (Sharp et al., 2000). Instead of collapsing however, a HPT feeds off constructive conflict as new working methods emerge and divergent goals are explored. Effective conflict management could overall be described as ‘dealing with conflict openly and transparently and not allowing grudges to build up and destroy team morale’ (Warrick, 2014)

Team structures. Organizational scholars have defined team structures as the configuration of team relationships that concern the allocation of tasks, team member roles, responsibilities and authority (Greenberg & Baron, 1997; Stewart & Barrick, 2000). The case for HPTs is that they are formed around landing high quality performance and business goals. This particular orientation alongside a culture of interpersonal commitment generates and continuously nurtures structures that are characterized by:

  1. Shared meaning: Shared meaning and purpose describes the state in which all team members are aligned with the goals, vision and mission of the team.
  2. Accountability: Mutual accountability is a very characteristic trait of HPTs (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993; Chiavenato, 2008). Members of HPTs take ownership of all the team’s tasks, hits and misses. It is not ‘our team has these five things to do and this is my piece and I only worry about that one piece’. (Wolff, 1993).
  3. Clarity: Clarity in HPTs describes the existence of defined, clear goals of personal resonance for each member. At the same time clarity expands towards roles and responsibilities. In HPTs each individual has a critical position to serve, a particular role to play. Each member understands what they must do, why they need to do it and how, in order to achieve team success.
  4. Participation & Leadership: Leadership in HPTs is defined as one of high trust and participation. HPT leaders act as role models, while decision-making and initiative-taking responsibilities are distributed among all team members (Chiavento, 2008). As such, HPTs frequently work outside traditional hierarchical structures, operating as self-directed organizational units.

Team Processes. Marks, Mathieu & Zaccaro (2001) define team process ‘as members’ interdependent acts that convert inputs to outcomes through cognitive, verbal, and behavioral activities directed toward organizing task work to achieve collective goals’. Centrally, team process are the ways in which team members work with each other making the most out of their various resources, such as expertise and money. Their end goal is to produce meaningful outcomes (e.g., product development). Organizational Learning and Development literature and research has delineated that HPTs exercise a particular set of processes and methods:

  1. Cognitive flexibility: Flexibility (Chiavenato, 2008) is of exceptional value when striving for optimal decision-making in teams. It refers to the ability of the individual (as well as the team as a collective mind) to effortlessly switch from rational to more intuitive thinking, in response to the task at hand. Flexible teams can work beyond established rules and working routines overcoming responses or thinking that have become habitual. As such cognitively flexible teams are highly agile and capable of sustaining a self-learning profile (Miyake et al., 2000; Deak, 2003).
  2. Reflection: HPTs learn faster and continuously. How? An important facet of team learning processes is high capacity for reflection. By engaging in reflection activities team members collectively reflect on and discuss the team’s objectives, actions, errors and strategies, which helps them identify potential shortcomings and improve their working for future performance episodes (Schippers et al., 2013; Schippers et al. 2008).
  3. Communication: Information sharing is of focal importance in HPTs. Open and clear communication channels ensure that everyone has access to resources, information, assistance and feedback. Coordination is another aspect of effective communication. Coordinative actions (e.g. anticipating and knowing each other’s needs) contributes significantly to the teams’ sustained high performance especially during turbulent times (Entin & Serfaty, 1999)
  4. Readiness for change: Organizational –and team- readiness for change refers to members’ shared commitment to implement a change (change commitment) and shared belief in their capability to effectively do so (change efficacy). When readiness for change is high, members are more likely to initiate change, exhibit greater persistence, and display more cooperative behavior (Weiner, 2009).


Key takeaway: ‘Become a strategic builder’

You now have a blueprint of which milestones your team needs to hit. Keep in mind, that successful team building is a gradual process. Work strategically building your team from the inside-out; you may start from the ‘core’ team traits all the way to the outer layers. Next step: How to tackle each trait? Keep up with our upcoming theses.