Building High Performance Teams

Team Building


When thinking of high performance teams, the tendency is to focus on specific project teams or so called ‘tiger’ teams, often with a clear remit and a defined conclusion. I prefer to think that high performance teams extend all the way to senior management.

“Building a team” is certainly not the same as “team building”. While there is clearly value in team building sessions, that purpose should be clearly understood to be about breaking down personal barriers, realizing the importance of clear communication and showing that the a group can often achieve better results than an individual.

So how do we define a high performance team? Most people’s definition would be something like ‘a group of individuals who have a clear vision of where the group is headed and are committed to make it happen.’ But it is more useful to think about what is necessary to build a high performing team. There are four clear characteristics.

  • Goal
  • Process
  • Communication
  • People

The goal may be clear with small, specific teams, but with regard to, say, senior management teams, while we may assume that everyone understands and has bought into the team’s goals, very often this is not the case, and there is a clear leadership imperative to build and communicate a vision, and engage the team to achieve these goals.

The same is true for processes. With these smaller teams, the processes tend to based around project management procedures, but where things become more ‘messy’, for example, in international teams, culturally-based assumptions about accountability, timelines and so on, can cause frustration and lead to under-performance.

Communication is a key factor no matter what kind of team it is, or whether there is a clear leadership element or whether the team collaborates fully. There are clear skills required, such as effective facilitation and active listening, but to build the right culture, and so encourage trust, create energy, and champion success, there needs to be the right mindset and language.

Potential problems in these three areas can be addressed using external consultants for different kinds of training, awareness building, even if necessary more serious intervention. Results can come quickly depending on how deeply ingrained the issues are within the team.

However, the area that is most often overlooked is the ‘People’ element. The need to get the right people in the team is obvious, but very often that means looking only at the technical aspects, or because it is expected that someone be a member, as in the case of a senior management team, for example. What is often forgotten is the ‘role’ that people take on within a team. By role, I am not talking about who notes down the action points or who facilitates the next meeting, but rather the natural or preferred roles that people take on when in a group. Probably the most well-known example is ‘Belbin’s Team Roles’, with role names such as ‘resource investigator’ or ‘implementer’. These roles indicate what an individual within a team will tend to do, or want to do, and what they will try to avoid.

Let me show you what I mean. Take a look a the following chart.
(charts are produced from Saville Consulting’s psychometric assessment tools)

These are the preferred roles of the 15-person senior management team in a company in Japan.

Do you notice anything?

If we add in the secondary roles, things do not change much.
There are clear weaknesses in the team in 2 areas, possibly 4 areas, that need to be addressed. (In addition, team members also actively avoid roles but I have not included them here)



It is fortunate for this company that this came to light. They now understand that there is an issue and that a potential cause for team under-performance has been identified. This company can now start to put in place a strategy to overcome the team’s structural weakness:

  • by recruiting people who naturally take on Striver or Assertor roles;
  • by changing the processes within the team to make sure that
  • by making sure that the Finisher and Innovator have clear voices within the team;
  • by coaching some of the existing team into taking on the lacking roles.

Building a high performance team requires all four characteristics as outlined above. Neglecting one of them, as so often happens, can hinder that process. The People element, because it seems ‘messy’ to be able to get clear results, is often neglected. But there are tools that can be used, and there are clear solutions.

J. Hollingworth

This post is also available in: Japanese