-Creating High Performing Teams

Bob Woolverton wrote this paper as an assignment in his graduate degree program.  This paper covers many important aspects of creating high performing teams as well as important leadership concepts.  One very important leadership concept, interpersonal power, is discussed in the section titled, How Individuals in a Team Can Use Power or Influence to Achieve Team Objectives.

Three factors to consider when creating professional teams.

            1. Team, or Workgroup.  The first consideration when creating a professional team is to decide if your objective requires a “team”, or a “workgroup”.  Many people in the business world today do not understand the difference between the two.  Instead they have placed the label of “team” on a workgroup with the belief that bestowing the label of “team” to a collection of people is motivating.  What is the difference between a team and a workgroup?

            The primary difference is individual accountability vs. individual and collective responsibility.  For example a committee, a small public speaking club, even a City Council is not necessarily a team.  They do not qualify as a team because while they may share a similar interest each member is only held accountable for their own participation or contribution, therefore they are a workgroup.  A workgroup can have individual winners, and individual losers, whereas a team cannot.

            A team has individual and collective accountability.  Consider a football team as an example.  A football team has a running back, a quarterback, linemen, and receivers.  Each team member brings a different skill set to the team and is accountable for their individual skills and abilities, but they are also accountable collectively for team results, if one member loses, they all lose.  If one member wins, they all win.  The primary identifying factor is a team is accountable to a common goal.  This example of a football team also holds true in the workplace.

            When you have a collection of people in the workplace who are accountable to a common goal, i.e. the launch of a new product – you have a team.  Whereas a group of people who gather to collaborate on ideas and have no specific shared purpose, like perhaps a Safety Committee in the workplace, the safety committee is not a team, but rather is a committee.  Another identifying factor between a workgroup and work team is the group leadership.

            In a committee, often the leader delegates tasks but does not share in the work.  Whereas in a team setting, while there may be a leader (like the Quarterback of a football team) the leader participates in the work, and additionally, some aspects of leadership may be shared among the team members.

            An initial consideration when creating a team is deciding if you are truly creating a “team” with a shared purpose, or if you are creating a committee where the members are only individually accountable for their participation.

            2.  Defining Team Purpose.   As stated earlier, an identifying factor of a team is having a common purpose.  Now that you have decided to create a team, you must give the team something that helps them identify their purpose.  As the developer of the team you must give them a broad general purpose for the team, the vision of the end goal.  The next step is where the real strength and drive of a high-performing team is evident.  The team will take that broad general purpose and refines it to define a more specific purpose – a common goal the team members will “own”.  This refining process allows the team to craft a goal that will inspire them, the goal will be something they can believe in because they crafted it.

Once the team crafts their purpose, the next step will be for them to develop performance goals as steps toward achieving their newly crafted purpose.  “If a team fails to establish specific performance goals or if those goals do not relate directly to the team’s overall purpose, team members become confused, pull apart, and revert to mediocre performance” (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993, p. 4).  Conversely when a team develops specific performance goals their success rate is increased substantially compared to those who don’t.  Therefore, it is imperative for a team to also create specific benchmark performance goals.  Additionally the performance goals should be challenging for the team members to achieve.  Challenging goals not only help a team achieve its full potential, the goals also provide guidance for the team.  Therefore, when assigning a team, give them directed autonomy to define their own specific and challenging goals.

            3. Team Selection and Development.  The third consideration when creating a team is team selection – i.e. who will be selected to be part of the team and what skills will they bring to the team.  Team selection should try to achieve a balance between job skills, interpersonal skills, and the ability to develop needed skills.  Frequently managers will select team members based upon their ability to get-along and work cohesively.  Over-emphasizing interpersonal skills can be problematic as the members may not have an adequate array of job skills to perform effectively.  Generally team selection should be focused on the mix of job skills needed to address the team’s purpose with a dash of consideration given to interpersonal skills – in the end these different skill-sets will have to be able to work together so interpersonal skills will be a consideration.

Finally, if all the necessary skill-sets are not available for selection do not be too alarmed, look for people who can develop the necessary skills.  Not all successful teams began with the broad variety of skills needed, but they did begin with people who were able to develop the needed skills for success.

            When deciding to assemble a professional team, remember these three criteria:

1.      Determine if your task requires a workgroup or a team.

2.      Then provide a broad general framework to give the team initial direction leading to directed autonomy to craft specific performance measures they can own.

3.      Balance team selection criteria between interpersonal skills, job skills, and the ability to develop the needed skills to accomplish the task.


Three Practices That Help Build Trust

            Trust among team members is the foundation of any high performing team.  Without trust members may tend to withhold information, may compete with other team members for recognition, may hesitate to ask for help in order to not appear weak, and many other dysfunctional behaviors that only serve to reduce the effectiveness of the team.  Therefore, as the primary foundation of a highly effective team, the team must establish trust.  The following steps are three ways to build trust.

            1. The first step is to build an environment where each team member believes the intentions of the people on the team are good intentions, that the environment is safe, and they can let their guard down without fear of being taken advantage of.   Each member must feel the other members have their best interest at heart, i.e. if they stumble their teammate will be there to catch them and help them back up.

            One method of achieving this vulnerability-based trust is to engage in a personal history exercise.  This exercise asks members to take turns answering a list of personal-history questions that are not too sensitive in nature.  These questions can include things like where they grew up, number of siblings, hobbies, unique challenges during childhood, favorite vacation, etc.  This allows team members to learn a little more about each other and to begin to relate to each other on a more personal level.  (Lencioni, 2002)

            2. The second step is to conduct a strength and weakness exercise.  In this exercise each member describes what they believe to be their greatest strength that will be an asset to the team.  At the same time they also describe a weakness they must improve upon or eliminate in order to be a strong contributor to the team.  This exercise also allows the members to better know and understand each other.  Additionally it allows members to recognize where they may turn for help, and where they may be able to offer help to their teammate.  (Lencioni, 2002)

            3. The third step, after vulnerability-based trust is established in the first two steps is to conduct a 360-degree feedback assessment.  This should be scheduled after the team has some experience working together.  This exercise helps improve each member’s self-awareness, i.e. the gap that may exist between the view they have of themselves vs. the view their teammates have of them.  This assessment can only come after the initial foundation of trust is established because it is important for each member to look at the feedback or criticism as coming from a desire to help the person improve their abilities.  If vulnerability-based trust is not established prior to the 360-degree feedback assessment, the results could be more detrimental than not doing it at all.  However, if there is a level of trust and belief that the feedback/criticism is coming from good intentions the assessment can be a very strong tool towards improving trust among team members.  (Lencioni, 2002)

            When attempting to build trust in a newly formed team, remember these three steps:

1.      Achieve vulnerability-based trust through a personal history exercise.

2.      Conduct a strength and weakness exercise where each member describes their individual strengths and weaknesses as it relates to the team.

3.      Conduct a 360-degree feedback assessment to improve the self-awareness of each member.


How Team Structure Can Impact Team Effectiveness

            Team structure is comprised of team size, composition of skills and abilities, and whether the team is geographically dispersed across large distances or is co-located in a face-to-face environment.  All of these criteria are management considerations when assigning and assembling a team as the variables of these criteria can impact team effectiveness.  Let’s begin our examination with team size.

            Researchers have found the vast majority of successful teams range in size between two members and fourteen, with teams smaller than ten members being most common.  (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993)  It is possible to have teams of a much larger size but they usually are not effective because the large size creates challenges that impede performance.  The result is almost synonymous with the phrase; too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth.  Initially a large group of 50 people have logistical issues, i.e. finding meeting space.  Then interpersonal complexities of not being able to speak-up or contribute, as well as other crowd behaviors that prevent the sharing of viewpoints needed to perform as a team will ultimately diminish performance.  With a group this large it would be impossible to engage in trust building exercises described earlier in this paper, and without trust any team will only be able to achieve mediocre results at best.  Normally a group of this size (50 people or more) will be broken down into sub-teams to achieve the best performance.  (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993)

            Another consideration is the composition of skills and abilities.  This topic was discussed earlier in section A1, item #3.  The team members must possess the skills necessary to achieve the team goal.  Obviously you would not want a team of attorneys attempting to do a heart transplant, and you don’t want a team of doctors trying a court case in the U.S. Supreme Court.  While each group is highly skilled, the proper skills must be aligned to the task.  However, as mentioned earlier, if the team does not possess all the necessary skills, the ability to develop the necessary skills can be a qualifying factor towards team success.

            The next consideration is proximity of team members; are they co-located or are they geographically dispersed?  Common sense would tend to make one believe that geographically dispersed teams would be confronted with challenges that result in lower performance compared to co-located teams.  Challenges could include the technical limitations of certain communication technologies, scheduling across different time zones, and cultural and language differences.  Even past research studies have supported this belief.  However, a 2009 study indicates geographically dispersed team can be effective as and even more effective than co-located teams if they have the correct team processes in place – processes that help coordinate work and facilitate communication.  (Siebdrat, Hoegl, & Ernst, 2009)

            In addition, geographically dispersed teams lack the opportunity to develop the socio-emotional connection that co-located teams enjoy.  Accordingly, when planning for geographically dispersed teams it can be beneficial to have a co-located launch meeting where members can meet face-to-face, develop the socio-emotional connections, and participate in trust exercises to develop team cohesion.  All of these team structure considerations can adversely impact team performance if not properly considered and addressed.


Two Strategies for Clarifying the Purpose of a Team

            Absent a clear purpose a team will usually only be able to develop a vague mission that cannot be refined into specific objectives or responsibilities.  When more than one person shares an unclear responsibility it doesn’t get done – in essence the team will flounder and ultimately fail.  Conversely, with a clear and compelling vision statement providing clarity of purpose, the result will be a high performing team.  There are two steps to get that goal:

1.      Providing clarity of purpose by providing a vision, and

2.      Providing clarity of the incremental results on the way to the vision, i.e. clarity of the plan.

Providing clarity of purpose is achieved through a vision statement.  A vision statement describes what you aspire to become or aspire to achieve.  The vision can have a strategic link, i.e. how does this contribute to the organizational mission.  Or the vision can have a financial link, i.e. how this team will contribute to the financial resources of the organization.

The vision statement tells the team the “why” of why we are doing this.  This is the core statement of what you believe to be possible.  People who see the same vision, who understand the vision, who find the potential of the vision inspiring, are the people to assign to the team.  People who believe the vision to be compelling will give their best discretionary effort, meaning they will voluntarily provide their best efforts.  Anyone who cannot identify with the vision or believes it is not attainable should not be on the team. 

The second step is to provide clarity of the “how”, the measurable key goals that become the mileposts on the roadmap to the vision.  Through this second process you will be describing the results you want the team to accomplish on the road to the vision.  Through this process you are not telling the team how to accomplish each task, you will be asking for results and getting out of the way allowing the team to create solutions.

Providing a vision, and providing clarity of a plan are two strategies for clarifying the purpose of a team.


How Individuals in a Team Can Use Power or Influence to Achieve Team Objectives

            Frequently in a team setting members acquiesce the leadership role to the member with the most confidence, or the most experience, or to who is the most extroverted.  However, a recent series of lab experiments showed teams that acquiesced the leadership role were the worst performing teams compared to teams who used different criteria for actively selecting team leadership.

            “The best [team] performance came from teams that had inventoried their members’ knowledge as a group” (Bonner & Bolinger, 2014).  The teams who assessed the task they were assigned, and then surveyed team members to find skills or experience that was most closely aligned to that task, and then sought guidance from that person – had a far greater success rate compared to teams who allowed extroverts, positional authority, or mere confidence to exert influence on who should be the team leader.  In this case the person with the most applicable skill or experience is placed into a leadership role, which is known as expert power.

            Having expert power (compared to position power) does not always mean your teammates will see you as the expert.  Even with expert power for leadership credentials you must exercise another type of power that is more effective and available to everyone regardless of their possession of expert or position power – and that is interpersonal power.

            Interpersonal power comes from a coaching mindset.  It begins with understanding it is not necessary to always provide the answer, but instead to help teammates develop their skills and knowledge and expand their decision-making criteria to arrive at proper solutions.  “This is a supportive, one-on-one interaction, and people find it highly motivating.  It builds trust, and just as important, the confidence of others that you truly have their interest at heart” (Hicks & McCracken, 2013).  Once you achieve the status of “trust” from your teammates, you have achieved the greatest level of power and influence in your team.  In addition to interpersonal power there are several additional behaviors that will expand your influence on teammates.

            Regardless of position or power, active listening behaviors will expand your level of trust in the group.  Active listening behaviors include asking questions to clarify and then paraphrasing to confirm understanding.  Active listening also shows respect for the person speaking and the message they are attempting to convey.  Also, actively encouraging everyone to participate in team discussions shows respect and understanding to all team members, even the quiet ones.  As a result your level of respect and influence with the team increases.

            Using expert power and interpersonal power coupled with active listening behaviors will ultimately provide an individual with enough trust from the members of the team to effectively influence their behavior towards team objectives.


How the Strengths of Individual Team Members Can Be Capitalized On to Achieve Team Objectives.

            The late Stephen R. Covey PhD., educator, author, businessman, and keynote speaker authored books and educational material on this very topic.  Covey referred to this topic as unleashing your team’s potential.  Covey explained in the industrial age management of people was about control.  But control will no longer be an effective management tool in the age of the knowledge worker; instead a management mindset of release is needed to be an effective leader.  However, this release concept encompasses numerous areas.

            The first step in the release mindset is to treat employees as people rather than things.  This concept is about recognizing and considering the whole person, embracing not only their mind, but also their heart, body, and spirit.  It is about guided autonomy – setting clear expectations and allowing the knowledge age worker to use all of their ability to create a solution.  However, for them to be able to do that clear expectations must be provided.

            Clarifying expectations and accountability provides focus on the end result; it becomes clear to the team member what they need to accomplish.  As the team member starts toward their goal it is important to affirm their talents and contributions to the team.  This feedback affirms to the team member they are on the right path and their efforts are appreciated.  To provide this type of feedback the leader needs to be fully engaged in the process.

            Remember, one of the differences between a workgroup and a team is the team leader also does work and is fully engaged in the team process.  Being engaged allows the leader to be a source of help to the team members – working in a coaching capacity.  In the engaged and coaching capacity the team leader can also help ignite the passion, or stoke the fire of the passion the team member had for the vision at the beginning of the project.

            In summary, according to Stephen R. Covey PhD., the following four steps can help unleash the talent of your team:

1.      Change the control paradigm to a mindset of release, i.e. directed autonomy

2.      Clarify expectations and accountability

3.      Affirm the worth, potential, talents, and contributions of the team

4.      Be fully engaged and ignite the passion of others


Three Ways in Which Technology Affects Communication in Virtual Teams

            Large multi-national companies are not likely to have all of their top talent located in one central place.  When a project needs an organization’s best talent the choice for team design comes down to using the talent available at a particular location, or assembling the best talent that may reside at a number of remote locations, i.e. creating a virtual team.

            Advancements in technology has greatly facilitated the ability to assemble a virtual team, however, using technology to create virtual teams can create management challenges that must be understood and mitigated in order for a virtual team to also be a high-performing team.  Those challenges include difficulties in communication and coordination, reduced trust, an increased inability to establish common ground, cultural issues across countries and time zones, as well as team identification and cohesion.  Here we will describe three of these issues that must be understood and mitigated.

            1.  Long distances can create difficulties in communication and coordination.  Normally with a co-located team, team meetings can be easily scheduled because there is a pre-existing knowledge everyone is available at the same time.  However, virtual teams require an additional step prior to a meeting – confirming everyone’s availability at a schedule time.  If a meeting time is not already determined during a previous group session, i.e. face-to-face meeting, or video conference, the process to confirm a new meeting time via e-mail can add days to the process of merely scheduling a video conference.

            2.  As mentioned earlier a team leader can increase trust and team efficiency by assuming a coaching mindset.  However, providing coaching to team members in a virtual environment is much more difficult.  “This highlights the need for people to be more self-sufficient in how they manage their own work because the team leader is less in a position to help” (Siebdrat, Hoegl, & Ernst, 2009).  Correspondingly, managers must recognize when recruiting members for a geographically dispersed team they are not recruiting for skills alone, they are also recruiting for skills of self-sufficiency.

            3.  As stated earlier trust is the foundation of any high-performing team.  Establishing trust among members of a virtual team can provide an additional challenge.  During a video conference often you can only see the head and shoulders of a team member.  In their video display they may be wearing a shirt and tie, but what you don’t know is they may also be wearing golf shorts and sandals.  Do you trust, or can you trust, they are the same person off camera as the person you see on camera during a video conference?  Additionally, great distances can lead to cultural differences that may be misunderstood, or even offensive in a video conference setting, further complicating team identification, and cohesion.  To overcome trust challenges in these distant settings it can be very beneficial to go to the added expense to have a co-located launch meeting where all team members can meet face-to-face and go through some trust building exercises to build the initial team cohesion.  “Companies should also remember that informal interactions can be just as important as formal ones – if not more so” (Siebdrat, Hoegl, & Ernst, 2009).  In a study conducted about team performance involving more than 300 managers one experienced team leader in the study asserted all team projects should begin with one essential initial step:  “to go out for a beer with all team members in order to establish a common ground before starting collaboration.” (Siebdrat, Hoegl, & Ernst, 2009)

            While modern technology has made the meeting process of virtual teams easier than ever, the following considerations must be built into the planning process of building a virtual team:

1.      Difficulties in long distance coordination.

2.      Recruiting for self-sufficiency skills.

3.      Planning for methods to build initial team cohesion.




Bonner, B. L., & Bolinger, A. R. (2014). Bring out the best in your team. Harvard Business Review, 92(9), 26.

Hicks, R., & McCracken, J. (2013). Creating interpersonal power. Physician Executive, 39(5), 82-84.

Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (1993). The discipline of teams. Harvard Business Review, 1-10.

Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Siebdrat, F., Hoegl, M., & Ernst, H. (2009, Summer). How to manage virtual teams. MITSloan Management Review, 50(4), 63-68.