At a glance
“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships,” said Michael Jordan, one of the world’s greatest basketball players, who played in some of the world’s most successful sporting teams.
The challenge for leaders is how to harness the strengths of a team – both individual and collective – to improve performance and drive growth.
Establish a shared vision
“The foundation of every great team is a direction that energises, orients, and engages its members,” write Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen in HBR article The Secrets of Great Teamwork.
“Teams cannot be inspired if they don’t know what they’re working toward.”
A vision that makes clear the team’s purpose and direction, and individuals’ roles and responsibilities within it, is a prerequisite of any high-performance team, says Stacey Ashley FCPA, author of The New Leader. A shared vision helps create a group whose members have “the same overarching agenda” and provides a path forward when navigating competing priorities.
Foster psychological safety
Psychological safety is “the first step in getting the team on the track to high performance,” says executive coach, Karen Morley. “There has to be a sense that it is safe for me to show up as my real self to this relationship, make suggestions, contribute different ideas, to question things and talk about mistakes.”
Leaders should make explicit their desire that team members take risks, raise mistakes and question things they don’t understand, says Morley. Provide a space for people to speak openly, let others lead the conversation and respond positively when people share their thoughts and observations, she advises.
Adopt the right leadership style
In her book Lead Like A Coach, Morley identifies two dominant models of leadership: command-and-control and coaching. Leaders who coach are happy to consult, collaborate and delegate, which engenders trust – necessary to any high-functioning team.
“Coaching, not controlling, is a compelling way for leaders to improve team performance,” she writes. “Leaders who coach create and grow trust. When trust is high, people are engaged and energised. They work harder, for longer and are more productive.”
Coaching requires leaders to “ask and answer” rather than tell, which can be challenging for those who are accustomed to fulfilling the role of expert.
“A coaching approach doesn’t have a leader knowing all of the answers and knowing what needs to be done, it’s about opening up opportunities for everybody else to contribute,” she says.
Deliver positive feedback
Feedback is a tool that can generate valuable opportunities for learning and growth within a team – if it is delivered in an appropriate way. It’s “the gift of information,” says Ashley, who warns against venting frustration under the guise of feedback, as it is “not very effective as a way of helping someone make a better choice in the future.”
A better approach is to frame the feedback in a positive way, instead of offering a critique of what didn’t work.
“That’s going to change the whole tone of the conversation,” says Ashley, who has developed a simple script to deliver constructive feedback.
“The first question to ask is: ‘What went well?’,” she says. “It could be ‘I turned up to the meeting on time’ – maybe that’s the only thing, but that’s OK as a positive starting point to the feedback conversation.” The goal, she says, is to encourage a positive and resourceful mindset.
Next, instead of asking ‘what didn’t go well?’ – which pushes the discussion into negative territory – ask the team member to finish the sentence: ‘it would have even better if…’. The person offering feedback can share insights using the same format. Follow up by asking how they can use the feedback to improve performance in the future.
“Appreciation is like pumping oxygen into the system,” says Morley. “People feel great when they are recognised. It doesn’t have to be something that’s massive – in fact, it’s better if it’s something that’s smaller and more regular.”
A common source of motivation is the sense of progress, she says. When a boss recognises progress – whether finalising a decision or the completion of a task – “there is a huge boost to performance the next day.”
Developing team members’ skills and potential so that they are more capable, engaged and self-reliant – an inherent part of coaching – is crucial to improving performance.
“More work gets done, but people enjoy that because they can be more self-directed,” says Morley. “They can own their work.”
A commitment to development contributes to the culture of continuous learning that characterises high-performance teams. High performing teams evolve, they don’t plateau,” says Ashley. There’s a collective sense that “we’re always striving,” she says.