The Secrets to High-Performing Teams

secret to high-performing teams

The biggest secret to high-performing teams is just how high-performing they are. A recent meta-analysis combined research conducted on over 200,000 teams in a variety of industries in order to answer that question. Across 274 dimensions of performance and over half a million individual team members, the researchers found that, in most fields, performance differences of teams followed a power-law in almost—with a small number of high-performing teams achieving most of the results. In other others, high performers didn’t just perform a little better, they performed up to ten times better than normal teams.

And the explanations for it hint at more secrets. High-performing teams don’t get these results because they act a little different. They do several key things totally differently. In this article, we’ll outline four secrets that high-performing teams know that normal teams tend to lack.

Work Out Loud

The first secret of high-performing teams is that they work out loud. This means that everyone on the team knows what everyone else is working on, because the team is constantly communicating with each other about the work. Mediocre teams meet every once in a while, divide up assignments, and then work alone while hoping the pieces fit together later. But high-performing teams give constant updates about milestones, project pivots, and any roadblocks experienced.

One of the best ways any team can work out loud is by using regular “huddles.” Huddles are short meetings conducted in regular bursts (sometimes daily, sometimes weekly) where each team member reports on their answers to a few questions like “What have I completed?” “What am I focused on?” and “Where do I need help?” That way each team member knows how the work is coming along and where they can offer to step in and help.

Understand Differences

The second secret to high-performing teams is that they understand each other’s differences. And in knowing and leveraging those differences they unlock greater performance. This has been true for all of human history. The earliest human cave paintings depict humans banding together to hunt prey, and those humans are depicted with various animal body parts (think head of lion or wings of a bird). Most archeologists believe this was the artists’ way of pointing out the various strengths each human brought to the hunt. Even hundreds of thousands of years ago, teams performed best when they knew and leveraged the different strengths of individuals.

One great tactic to understanding differences on a team is to have each individual write a “manual of me.” This is a simple document or slide deck where team members reflect on and share about themselves through a common framework such as fill in the blank on “I’m at my best when _____,” “I’m at my worst when _____,” “You can count on me to _____,” and “I need you to help by _____.”

Build Trust

The third secret to high-performing teams is that they build trust at a higher level than normal teams. Trust on a team is a prerequisite to honest discussions and productive conflict. Teams need to trust that they can speak up when they disagree and not have the conversation devolve into argument. They need to trust the team to share “crazy” ideas and not be judged for them. And they need trust in order to share about their failures and the lessons learned from failure. Teams with low trust are constantly fighting over who is right and who is to blame for failures, and as a result no one is learning and improving.

To build trust at a high level on a team, leaders first need to show vulnerability. That doesn’t mean they need to share every deep, dark, embarrassing secret. But it does mean they need to admit their role in past failures and confess to the team when they “don’t know” the solution to a problem. Leaders who are willing to get honest about their flaws create followers who trust enough to be honest about their flaws, and that honesty builds trust over time.

Reinforce Purpose

The last secret to high-performing teams is that they reinforce purpose on a regular basis. They don’t need to be motivated by a corporate propaganda campaign, incentive compensation scheme, or single charismatic leader. They have built that habit of reminding each other why they do what they do, and who they’re doing it for. Sometimes this is through mantras repeated often or rituals acted out regularly, and other times it’s because the team leaders created a few moments to meet with beneficiaries or collected some stories to share with the team. In any case, teams that have a “super ordinate” goal or purpose bond together better and keep each other more motivated.

An easy way for leaders to have those purpose stories ready to share is to create a “wins” folder, either as a physical folder or a folder in their email inbox. Every time a customer success story or a thank you note from a colleague gets shared, it gets saved in the folder. That way at every meeting or huddle, there’s a collection of purpose-reinforcing stories to share. And if team members start that collecting practice as well, then the team will never be without a reason to share about why their work matters.

And while purpose gets reinforced on a regular basis, all of these secrets are self-reinforcing. They’re not single actions conducted once and expected to last. Instead, they’re habits performed on a regular basis. As teams continue to act, they continue to improve and even when it seems they’re doing their best work ever—it just gets better.





About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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