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This article was first published in the June 2019 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

What underpins a team’s success? The personalities in it, the team leadership or simple luck?

Some teams certainly gel more quickly and seamlessly than others, and go on to achieve great things. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are high performing – there may be hidden and untapped potential in such teams that, if explored and exploited, could help them accomplish even more.

There are also teams that meet and even exceed financial or other ‘hard’ targets – but only at a high cost to the team members, who may suffer stress, even burnout, as a result. Should teams like these be considered high performing when there are such heavy personal costs at stake as well as the organisational cost of absence and a high level of churn in membership?

Consider, too, those teams that are high achievers despite their lack of collaboration with other teams, divisions or outside companies such as suppliers: they may be causing collateral damage through the organisation in terms of morale, performance and organisational reputation. These types of team may achieve well in the short term, but their success may not be sustainable for the individuals in them or the wider organisation over the longer term.

Diversity squeezed out

Where a team has an ‘achieve at any cost’ culture, recruiting for ‘fit’ can lead to a lack of diversity, which can in turn discourage debate, creativity and change. Teams that don’t take time out to reflect and learn may not be able to respond sufficiently quickly to an external threat or a changing market.

Sustainable high performance can only be built on a strong foundation that starts with all the following (any gaps may prove fatal):

  • The team knows that its work is needed and valued by the wider organisation.
  • The criteria for success are shared, transparent and tangible.
  • Individual team members’ roles and goals are understood and agreed by all team members, with individual goals serving the wider team and the broader organisational goals.
  • Individual team role boundaries are negotiated and agreed.

It’s important to address each point here with the whole team present together so that no one is left to second-guess or make assumptions, or question whether they can rely on their colleagues. Team members need to talk about the interdependence of their roles and how their work fits into the broader organisation; merely to assume that is the case without explicit agreement is not in itself enough to build trust.

Interpersonal dynamics

With all that in place, exploring the interpersonal dynamics within the team may help to release any untapped potential and so help the team achieve high performance.

There is of course an overwhelming array of tools and methodologies for exploring individual styles. Leadership frameworks, behavioural models, personality and personality ‘type’ profiles are just some examples. These models give team members insight into their own and others’ styles, and a shared language to legitimise and normalise ways to address behaviour that might otherwise be uncomfortable. Models like these have a part to play, particularly in the early days of a team working together.

But models and frameworks, no matter how robust or extensively researched, mostly explore the cognitive domain of how people operate. They speak to the intellect, to understanding, to diagnosis and to awareness-raising. But if a team is to be truly high performing, its members need to have authentic and real dialogue about what sits below the intellect in other domains: emotions, beliefs, patterns of behaviour, motivations and fears. Team members need to be able to explore these much more instinctive domains in a safe environment where they feel heard, valued and able to make their full contribution.

Consider the choreography

Furthermore, the team will benefit from shifting the focus away from developing individual dancers and towards investing time in how they can perfect the dance. This means shifting the spotlight off individual team members and onto the dynamics of the team as a whole: the hand-offs, the connections, the timing, the trust, the communication.

Team conversations that can explore the dance rather than the individual dancers can unleash potential for high performance. Topics such as the following are often a good starting point:

  • How do we trip ourselves up at the moment?
  • How effective are we at holding each other to account for delivering our shared goals?
  • How well are we handling conflict and tension? What needs to shift?
  • What is not said in this team?
  • How well are we using our diverse styles and talents to deliver value to the business?
  • What do we need to do to shift in our dynamic of working together?

These questions can help unlock potential, but there are further questions that can help the team sustain its success. These rest more on how the team grows and learns together so it can adapt and change:

  • How do we give time to learning from our experience and building that into our ways of working?
  • How well do we support each other’s growth?
  • What future themes do we know about that might impact how we work together? What else can we imagine?
  • If one thing in how we work together needed to shift, what would that be?

A high-performing team is one that meets its organisational goals, creates sustainable high performance, develops its members as individual leaders, and develops, learns and grows as a team. Sometimes the team simply needs to pause, reflect, learn and integrate that learning before it can go faster again.

Alison Young is a director of Leaders in Change. @Leader_Insights.