The Ingredients Of A High Performing Team

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We are often brought in to try and help teams function better; work effectively together; become more productive; and ultimately achieve better results.  Do we wave a magic wand? No. But there are some key ingredients that can hugely increase the performance of a team. 

These are summarised below, and have been drawn from decades of academic research; insight from how high performing teams have applied the key principles; and our own observations working across sport, business and education.  Throughout this blog we make reference to a timely article that came out today, looking at the success at Saracens RUFC. 


1. Common Purpose and Clear Direction

Nothing bonds a team like a shared mission.  Two great illustrations of this:

  • JFK’s visit to the NASA space center in 1962; when he noticed a janitor carrying a broom, JFK walked over and said “Hi, I’m John Kennedy, What are you doing?” The janitor responded “Well Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
  • The mantra of the successful GB Women’s Hockey Team at Rio: “Be the difference, create history, inspire the future.” 

Then you need a clear direction to get there.

2. Know your team

Within the team, each individual must have self-awareness and understanding of how they operate and what their strengths are.  And the team as a whole must understand this about each other. 

Allocate roles and tasks accordingly (shifting the balance towards leveraging people’s strengths)

3. Get the environment and culture right

  • It has to be set and demonstrated from the top, but equally team members need to be involved in setting and driving it in order to ensure buy-in.
  • Aim for ‘psychological safety’ – a group culture defined as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.  Another way of putting this is a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

How can you do this?

Get the right approach: embed a growth mindset approach, which at its core is a belief that our talents and abilities can be cultivated and developed through hard work, persistence, effort, determination and good teaching/training.  A growth mindset drives a positive response to effort, challenges, mistakes and feedback, all leading towards development and improvement.  Embedding this requires more than just training on what it means, and will include areas such as: use of language; a relentless focus on improvement, development and learning; and systems, processes and reward based on this. 

Make sure you apply the concept in an intelligent and focused way. Ultimately it comes down to a focus on improvement. Listen to this from one of the three assistant coaches at Saracens, Alex Sanderson, talking about their recent successes: “I realised that the process of getting better and of seeing improvements every day in guys like Jamie George and Owen Farrell was a bigger buzz than winning the ultimate prizes, that many people see as your defining achievements as a coach.”

Take the right attitude towards conflict: for example, approach conflict as collaborators, not as adversaries, and replace blame with curiosity.  And remember you are dealing human to human. The Saracens coaches have this year changed the focus of the team’s play.  The coaches talked about the process they went through on this: they spend hours every week, talking, agreeing, disagreeing and arguing, all with the aim of generating ideas.”

Agree a set of Values, Attitudes and Behaviours that will govern the way you operate.  Support team members to live by them, but if they can’t, remove them from your team. 


Saracens and beyond

Josh Shaw, another of the Saracens coaches, has just finished his Masters degree in coaching science.  His thesis was on the influence of a good culture on high performance.  He said this: “I wanted to look if there is a connection between culture, caring for people, looking after the individual, or whether we are doing something here that is a load of nonsense and if you have a load of good players, just go out and get on with it. It turns out we are on the right lines.”

And the final word will go to Alex Sanderson: “We don’t mind copying but we are creative in what we do.  It is about understanding how to get better. Is there a fresh way of doing things? Is there a different angle we can put on the things we are good at? You have to be aware of getting better. If you are not you will plateau and your fire has gone.”