The Foundation of High-Performing Teams

The Foundation of High-Performing Teams

High-performing teams are often perceived as having extraordinary talents and capabilities, but they are not that different from regular teams—at least in terms of composition. Research indicates that high-performing teams are not just about having exceptionally talented individuals. Instead, they excel in understanding how to collaborate effectively and harness the diverse talents within the team.

In other words, talent doesn’t make the team. The team makes the talent.

The foundational quality that turns everyday people into members of a high-performing team is common understanding, sometimes called shared understanding or collective intelligence. Common understanding encompasses a shared grasp of the team’s collective expertise, assigned tasks, personality differences, work preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. This understanding can be broken down into two crucial aspects for leaders: clarity and empathy.

In this article, we’ll outline the importance of common understanding and provide practical ways to build clarity and empathy on any team.


Clarity within a team is about ensuring that every member comprehends their roles and responsibilities, tasks, and deadlines. When team members have a clear understanding of what is expected of them and their teammates, they are more engaged, more productive, and even more collaborative. Clarity also allows individuals to operate within their sweet spot of capabilities, avoiding boredom or feeling overwhelmed.

One activity that can establish and maintain clarity on a team is the regular huddle. A huddle is a short, sync-up session where team members answer questions like, “What did I just complete? What am I focused on next? What’s blocking my progress?” These questions help everyone stay aligned, distribute tasks, set deadlines, and offer support when needed. Huddles promote transparency and keep everyone accountable, making it easier to identify issues and slackers without micromanaging.


Empathy within a team means understanding the perspectives, strengths, weaknesses, work preferences, and factors that influence each team member’s behavior. This deeper understanding leads to reduced conflicts and enhanced collaboration. Team members who empathize with one another can tailor their communication and actions to suit the needs and preferences of their colleagues.

A powerful tool for building empathy in a team is creating “Manuals of Me.” In this activity, each team member provides insights into themselves by answering four fill-in-the-blank questions: “I’m at my best when_____. I’m at my worst when_____. You can count on me to_____. What I need from you is_____.” These manuals shed light on individual characteristics, strengths, and preferences, helping team members understand each other better.

The Manuals of Me exercise is an invaluable tool for addressing conflicts and onboarding new team members. By sharing these manuals with the entire team and discussing how they can adapt their behavior based on the information, a team can build empathy and trust.

Building common understanding through clarity and empathy is the foundation of high-performing teams. It fosters a sense of unity and shared purpose, helping team members leverage each other’s unique skills and talents to achieve common goals. By fostering clarity and empathy in your team, you can build a strong common understanding that drives collaboration, reduces conflict, and helps everyone do their best work ever.




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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