Developing high performance teams

Studies of high performing teams, typically identify characteristics such as:

  1. A unity of purpose and well-defined goals
  2. A commitment to understanding the process – how the group works
  3. An informal atmosphere and lots of discussion
  4. People discuss their feelings as well as their ideas
  5. Disagreements are welcomed and the team is not afraid of conflict
  6. Everyone pulls their weight
  7. The leadership of the group is shared. 1

When working with a team, as part of the early climate setting activities, I often invite the team to reflect on these characteristics and rate themselves against each item.  I’ve found this always generates an energetic discussion and provides the team with a “quick and dirty” profile on how they are performing as a team and where they could do better.  The task continues on to what they want to commit to doing to develop their collective skills in those areas where they have identified they could do better.

What sort of team do you want to be?

The above exercise dovetails nicely into a discussion of ground-rules. Characteristic # 2 on the list makes the link explicit. High performing teams are “self-conscious” of their process; they want to know how the group works and how it can be more effective. This commitment includes a commitment to their ground rules – the set of rules, or norms of behaviour, that the team agrees to observe in order to be effective in the session – to make better decisions, to achieve their goals for the session, and to enjoy the work.

So, if your discussion of ground rules with a team follows the review of high performing teams you can frame the question accordingly:

“Given our discussion of the characteristics of high performing teams, and your plan to work on developing your skills in order to be a more effective team, what ground rules do you think will be helpful for today’s session?

Contextualising the discussion of ground rules this way adds weight to the identification of those basic ground rules that all teams need to observe to be productive – things like “one person speaks at a time” and “respecting different views within the group” (and even “returning from breaks on time”!).

And importantly for you, as the facilitator, there is a broader issue of shared leadership and accountability here – through this simple exercise you are heightening awareness and encouraging all members of the team to recognise their individual and collective responsibility for the performance of the team.


1 For more information on these characteristics go to this Stanford University page which provides a summary from the work of Douglas McGregor and Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith: http://e140.stanford.edu/characteristics-effective-teams/

Leadership for change

Rosabeth Moss Kanter from Harvard University gave a TED Talk in 2013 in which she described a handy set of “Six Keys to Leading Positive Change”. Her six keys are: show up, speak up, look up, team up, never give up, and lift others up.

I have summarised each below, along with a few additional thoughts –

1. Show Up

Her first point is the universal lesson of life – show up. If you don’t show up, nothing really happens. The very fact of showing up, of making oneself available, of deciding that your presence makes a difference, is the first key of leadership.

This seems to me to be part of the broader Buddhist concept of “showing up for your life”.  Which is about mindfulness, about fully inhabiting the present moment, and by so doing, being more aware of self, less anxious, and more effective. (It also reminded me of the Woody Allen quote – “80 percent of life is showing up”!)

2. Speak Up

Being there makes a difference but that’s only the starting point – no one knows what we’re thinking if we don’t express it. So this second point is about speaking up, declaring yourself. But Kanter is talking about more than just words, she is talking about leadership through shaping the agenda, framing the issues for other people and helping people think about things in a different way.

This one reminds me of a ground rule I often suggest for new groups and participants in training workshops, and that is that we will all “help each other learn”.  This ground rule encourages group members to take responsibility for the work of the group – to listen carefully to what each other are saying, and, where helpful, ask questions to check their meaning and help them clarify what they are trying to say.

3. Look Up

Her third point is to look up – at some higher principle, bigger issue, or value.  Without vision and values leadership is hollow.  It’s important for any leader to know what they stand for and to be able to elevate people’s eyes from the everyday problems which bog us down – to get above this and gain a sense of hope by remembering what’s truly fundamental to our values.  To be regularly reminded of our nobler purpose, of what we stand for, lifts the spirits like nothing else.

4. Team Up

Nearly anything worth doing is difficult to do alone – everything goes better with partners. Kanter’s third point is to team up. The best ventures, she says, are where there’s a sense of partnership from the beginning.  Leaders should bring people together, taking lots of separate efforts and aligning them in one big team.  And values are important here too, finding partners who share the same values is essential.

I would add that, as well as strategic alliances, with funding pressures on NGOs in particular, opportunities to establish partnerships to achieve economies of scale are worth exploring in areas such as office accommodation, financial management, payroll, membership/database management and professional development.

5. Never Give Up

“Kanter’s Law”, as she calls it, states that everything can look like a failure in the middle.  Middles are difficult. Almost nothing we start that doesn’t hit an obstacle, a roadblock, things takes longer than we imagine with new projects or ventures, because we’ve never done it before. That ability to hang in there and not give up is the hallmark of leaders. If you give up, by definition it’s a failure.

6. Lift Others Up

Her final point is to lift others up. Share success and give back, build support rather than lose support.  Make sure other people feel elevated.

Finally, this one reminds me of the Tom Peters’ adage – it is a leader’s job to create more leaders!