High-performance teams within an organization are invaluable to business growth, cultural strength, and empowered individual contributors. It makes sense: working within a group of people who have complementary skills and are able to collectively deliver on goals is motivating and productive. 

High-performance teams, however, don’t just appear. They must be created within the right conditions and are only repeatable when leaders understand the characteristics unique to these teams that allow them to thrive. 

So what distinguishes a high performing team and how are they nurtured by leadership?

The makeup of high-performance teams

Team structure. The headcount of a team is more important than you may realize. A team that’s too small often doesn’t have the right depth of skill and therefore may not have the bandwidth to maximize their productivity. Having too many people on a team, on the other hand, can hamper flexibility, resulting in unproductive meetings, the formation of sub-teams, and ultimately, missed communication. A team of approximately 6 people, plus or minus 2, generally hits a sweet spot. Of course there are other factors to take into consideration, like scope of work and specific skill demands that can and should inform team structure.

Skillsets. High-performance teams aren’t simply composed of your top-performing individuals. Just like winning sports teams, a team within your organization needs to have diversity in expertise and perspective. This variety lends itself to not only a range of ideas, innovative thinking, and creative problem solving, it also helps deepen the dynamic of a team. Individuals want to work in an environment where they’re utilizing their strengths. 

What high-performance teams need

Teamwork requires a few foundational elements in order to be successful. Virtually all high-performance teams have the following elements that allow members of the team to offer new ideas, execute on strategy, and ultimately meet goals with little management oversight. 

  • Purpose. Aligning direction is critical for teams to become high-performing. Similar to a company crafting a mission statement to share with their entire organizations, clearly stating a shared purpose allows team members to understand, visualize, and start their journey together. An inspiring purpose statement sets the stage for the team to take risks, innovate, and learn.
  • Goals. Goal setting gives teams a clear plan of action to achieve their purpose. Often shorter in range than the purpose, goals help to move the team forward and galvanize them on their shared purpose. High-performance teams often agree to set goals that may not be attainable, but that’s acceptable. “Stretch goals” are motivating because they’re interesting and serve to push the team to explore bigger ideas.
  • Accountability and transparency. After finalizing purpose and goals, high-performance teams write down the committed actions of each individual. This creates a sense of personal ownership and a commitment to make progress on and accomplish work week-over-week. Making individual accountabilities explicit also helps teams achieve transparency—everyone knows who is working on what. This level of transparency also helps to mitigate fear as people are more willing to talk about roadblocks, failures, or alternative routes that have come up in their work.
  • Communication and trust. The elements listed above are relatively straight-forward, as they’re built before the work begins. As teams dive into their goals and start executing on their purpose, interpersonal issues, red tape, and decision-making start to come into play. High-performance teams need to establish open communication and trust. Working on a regular cadence (e.g. a weekly team meeting) and frequent, informal feedback enables the team to move quickly, ask questions without fear, and focus on their achievement. Mutual respect within a team is a huge factor in the success of high-performance teams.

The best teams are those with varying skills, points-of-view, and strengths. Creating an environment for high-performance teams to thrive takes time and energy, but the end result is a group of motivated, engaged, and productive individuals who are executing their work with thoughtfulness and creativity. Investing in aligning on purpose, goals, and structure yields a workforce of dynamic individuals and thus, dynamic teams.