What makes a high performing team? By Susanne Madsen

What makes a high performing team? By Susanne Madsen

Consider the most successful team you have been part of or that you know of, and what the characteristics were of that team. How many members did it have? How did the team members communicate with one another? How did they make decisions, and what was the feeling you had when you interacted with the team? 
Many of us know instinctively what it feels like to be part of a great team. We feel accepted and trusted and communication seems easy. And when conflict arises it doesn't cause a breakdown. The team is able to openly discuss differences in opinion and agree a way forward.

But even if we deep down know what a great team looks and feels like, the steps we need to take to create such a team aren’t always obvious.

Performance depends on the team’s communication patterns

Several studies have been carried out with the aim of identifying the factors that contribute to a team’s performance. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Google for instance have gone to great lengths to study teams and analysed if it made a difference to performance that team members socialised outside of work, had flexible working hours or that they had a high level of cognitive intelligence. But their studies didn’t show any correlation between the factors they studied and team performance. What they did show however was that high performance is closely correlated to a team’s communication patterns and whether all team members actively contribute to making decisions and moving the project forward. 
On the topic of communication patterns, the researchers found that high performing teams seemed to spend a lot of time communicating face-to-face or via videoconference. Emailing, texting and speaking on large conference calls were found to be a lot less effective and led to poorer performance. In the same vein, videoconference proved to loose its effectiveness the more people attended the call. What this shows is that for high performance to take place, it’s the quality of the communication exchange that matters, and that quality tends to be higher when people interact face-to-face. On remote teams, of course, it isn’t practical to meet face-to-face, but at least we can encourage people to connect individually and to activate their webcam.
Everyone speaks roughly the same amount

The researchers also found that in high performing teams the communication exchanges were distributed evenly among the team members. In other words, everybody on the team was actively communicating with each other and at the end of the day everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. Team members didn’t just communicate through the team leader and there weren’t pockets of people who weren’t involved. What this means is that if you are leading a team where only four of the team’s seven members are interacting frequently with each other and are actively contributing to making decisions and influencing the project’s direction, then it’s important that you spend time engaging the last three people. 
Regarding the size of the team, it’s been found that high performing teams tend to consist of less than ten team members – presumably, because it’s a lot easier to communicate effectively and engage a small team than a large one. Don't let your team's size be an excuse however to creating a productive team. If you lead a large team, split it into sub-teams and focus on creating high engagement within each of these smaller units. 

The interesting thing about Google’s research, isn’t just the conclusions that communication and contribution are the most important factors for high performing teams, but also how such an environment can be created. This is where the role of the team leader or project leader becomes vital. 
The studies show that equal communication and contribution happens when the project leader is able to create an environment where team members feel safe enough to contribute. In teams where a few members are allowed to dominate discussions or where the team leader is too controlling or judging, many members simply don’t come forward with their views and ideas out of fear of being dismissed. 

​Project Leaders need to have a high level of social sensitivity

For you as a project leader this means that you need to take on the role of a facilitator and that you must moderate the team’s discussions in such a way that the members feel that it’s ok and safe to come forward and share what’s on their mind - be it concerns or new ideas. You can do that by explicitly asking the more reserved team members what their views are and by recognizing their contributions during meetings. At the end of a meeting for instance, you can let each person summarise their reflections and take away's to make sure that everyone has contributed.

Team leaders need to have a high level of social sensitivity and emotional intelligence to do this, as moderating a conversation and making people feel safe is all about reading people, listening, empathising and knowing how to make people feel that they belong in the group.  
First, examine what you feel your own role is within the team. Do you feel that it’s your job to come up with great ideas and to show the way - like the perfect superhero? Or do you feel that your primary role is to encourage the team members to contribute and to bring forth ideas? Those leaders who perceive themselves as strong, decisive and fast moving don’t always realise that they cut off the team in the process because they are not sufficiently inclusive. What we have just seen from the research is that high performance happens when all team members play along. This requires the team leader to sometimes slow down and take the council of all members of the team instead of rushing to fix a problem or implement a decision, which only a few contributed to. 

Show your vulnerability and create psychological safety

As time is of essence on most projects it can be tempting to jump in like a superhero, force a decision and to ignore the quieter team members. But Google’s research shows that you must be sensitive to everyone within the group and encourage people to be sensitive to each other.

What you want to avoid is a group of bright individualists where people are only thinking about themselves. Instead, help people to be mindful of each other and to share personal stories and emotions. Begin by setting a good example yourself. Become an advocate for trust and respect by sharing something personal that has some weight and that shows your vulnerability. This could be a time in the past when you made a wrong decision, failed at implementing a project or made a faux pas with the client. Or you could share something entirely personal about a health issue or a family conflict. What you will find is that you begin to create what psychologists refer to as psychological safety – a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up or for sharing something sensitive.
When psychological safety is present, people feel free enough to share what’s on their mind – whether it’s a bright new idea or a tough personal challenge. They are able to talk about what is messy and have difficult conversations with colleagues who have different opinions. And this is when high performance can occur. Because when people feel psychologically safe, they bring their entire personality to work where they contribute with all that they have without fear that they will be judged or criticized.

​So dear project managers and leaders, be mindful of how you come across to the team and the extent to which you like to be the superhero. Reduce your levels of control and judgment, and replace it with humility, empathy and sensitivity.

About the author

Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and facilitator. She is the author of The Power of Project Leadership (now in 2nd edition) and The Project Management Coaching Workbook. You can read more about Susanne's coaching, training and consulting services on www.susannemadsen.com

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