How to create exceptional team performance from a group of individuals

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

All of the tools necessary to balance the right people, right environment and right culture for top performance.

How do we generate the highest possible performance from a team of individuals? As a team member, we typically don’t choose our team mates, and as a manager we don’t tend to hire based on the piecing together the individual elements of a team, but rather focus on individual suitability for the role and environment. Yet some (myself included) would say that the ability of a team to come together and perform as a unit can make or break business success.

The key to creating a highly engaged, bought in, and exceptionally high performing team is found in not only identifying the right people, but crucially,  creating the right environment for individuals to exercise behaviours essential for team building and success. These essential qualities are authenticity, competence, and vulnerability.

The following is a step by step methodology for organisations and managers to identify the right people, create the right environment and foster the right culture to achieve exceptional team performance.

Celebrate individuality

A TED talk by Margaret Hefferman found a very unique way to demonstrate the importance of individuality in teams. Margaret’s team conducted an experiment with two groups of chickens, the first were a normal flock of chickens, while the second were a superflock, where the most productive chickens were bred over 6 generations. Highest productivity was in fact seen from the normal flock of chickens despite expectations, owing to the fact that the superflock of chickens pecked each other to death!

Whilst we hope that this experiment would not mirror a human working environment, the underlying point is profound; that a team should not be made up of a group of super-performing leaders and would in fact demonstrate better productivity when made up from a broad range of individual skills and qualities, which complement, rather than conflict with one another.  

In order to achieve this balance of individuals, we must enhance our awareness of building varied teams during recruitment. A good question to ask in the interview process is ‘Within a team it is necessary to have a range of roles, what role do you typically play in teams?’. In my experience, this question has returned some enlightening answers; the diplomat, the negotiator, the administrator, the follow-through champion, the leader, the entrepreneur, the risk assessor. A collection of these individuals would create an exceptional team, your team does not require two leaders.

Once we have the team in place, how do we foster trust amongst them?

Building trust amongst individuals

Whilst a group of individuals have the potential to be an awesome team, they will only reach their potential if they trust one another. As a manager, it is imperative to create an environment for trust from the outset.

Frances Frei from Harvard Business School talks about trust being made up from 3 key components; authenticity, logic and empathy. Put another way, if people feel we are being our true selves, we are competent in our reasoning and we have regard for others, then usually, they will trust us.

These are qualities that managers will likely look for in the recruitment process, however the onus is not only on the individual to demonstrate these qualities, but the manager and the organisation to create the right environment for these qualities to be exercised:

  • In order for an individual to feel comfortable being their true self, an organisation and a manager need to celebrate that individuality and create a safe environment for the person to freely be their authentic self, without judgment or pigeon-holing.

  • In order for an individual to demonstrate competence, and organisation and a manager needs to create a safe, blame-free environment for decision-making and idea generation.

  • In order for an individual to demonstrate empathy, an organisation and a manager need to create an environment where team mates can communicate and actively listen to one another without feeling siloed, or in competition.

Organisations need to create ample opportunity for teammates to meet one another and engage in open and honest dialogue driven from the top down. Additionally, in order to remove negative competition (competition can be positive) between employees, managers need to  demonstrate long-term purpose and opportunities for all individuals within the organisation. This sense of purpose will remove any fear or doubt about individual value/contribution.

Once the environment and culture are in place, how do we play to everybody’s strengths?

Getting the most from your team

Once trust is built and individuals feel comfortable and confident of their role within the team, there are some very practical steps managers can take to generate the highest levels of performance.

Amy Edmonson, in her TED talk,  described results of her team’s research into how teaming can be successful. Teaming is when a group of strangers have to come together to solve a problem. A high profile example of teaming was seen when the Chilean miners were trapped underground. In this situation different groups of total strangers had to work together to a common objective, under an enormous amount of time and public pressure, and they were successful against all odds.

So how did they do it? Edmonson’s team describe the key as a combination of situational humility, curiosity and psychological safety. Each group knows that they are being brought together for a different reason, to contribute from different experiences/skills and that they have value to add to solve the problem. They also know that no one person has the answer to the problem. This means they can comfortably ask the questions ‘what can you do’ and answer the question ‘what can I do?’.

Within team environments, we can use this research to create the same psychological safety as appears in teaming. If we create a safe environment where no individual is expected to have the answer, but instead can add value towards the answer, then individuals may be more comfortable saying an enormously important sentence;  ‘I cannot solve this problem, here is what I can contribute, what can you do?’. This sentence begins a dialogue which is open, honest, shows competence, understanding, collaboration and teamwork.

This approach celebrates strengths, a fundamental management focus often neglected for a focus on highlighting and developing weaknesses. You can read more about this management approach in the blog: Here’s why it’s time to start playing to your team’s strengths.

At this point our team will be working well with one another, however there is still one more step we can take to push our teams to exceptional performance.  

Achieving the highest level  performance from teams

It is critical to achieve the environment we have laid out above before moving onto this step, as to move from good performance to exceptional performance, our teams need to truly trust one another.

Once your team are at this level of synergy and trust, it’s time to elevate using a Marshall Goldsmith process called Feed Forward (from his audio book Take it to the next level). Feed Forward (as opposed to feedback) seeks to improve performance and behaviours based on the best for future of the team rather than past experiences. This positive, forward-focussed exercise removes emotional blocks caused by dwelling on previous performance issues.

In order to enact feed forward, bring the team together to answer the following questions:

  1. What behaviour as a team do we need to improve to reach peak performance (behaviour 1)

  2. What behaviour as an individual do I need to improve to reach peak performance (behaviour 2).

As a team you determine the answer to both of these questions without any reference to the past at all. This is a concise, no feedback process. Once the answer to both questions have been answered, each team member speaks to each other team member and asks for an idea to enhance behaviour 1 and an idea to enhance behaviour 2. Ideas are received with a ‘thank you’ and no more (no questions, no response). Once all ideas are collected, each team member commits to one idea to improve behaviour 1 and another for behaviour 2. The team discuss progress monthly, and share another round of ideas.

By the end of this process you will have recruited a group of individuals whose contributions to a team complement one another, created an environment which fosters trust building amongst the team, capitalised on your team’s individual strengths and created awareness of the strengths of others, and received commitments towards elevating both individual performance, together with the key team behaviour considered most crucial to success.

SGH Coaching helps businesses to achieve growth through developing strong commercial strategy and training high-performance, highly-engaged teams. SGH Coaching works with all business sectors and sizes, but only when those businesses truly appreciate the value of their team. If you would like to learn more about how SGH Coaching can support your business through training, strategy, or both, contact Steph at and simply say hello, let Steph do the rest.

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