Building high-performance teams in the workplace

by Marie-Claire Ross
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Take two teams. One has team members who are low in trust, while the other is high in trust.

In the low-trust team, people spend most of their time bickering and complaining about other team members behind their backs. Collaboration is slim and team members can’t count on each other to do high-quality work or deliver their work on time.

It is a group of unhappy people trying to make the best of it, but without full support from every team member, deliverables end up being of poor quality and late.

To contrast, let’s look at the high-trust team. Team members can openly discuss issues with each other before they become problems. They also can suggest new ideas or workarounds knowing that what they say will be heard and considered. People don’t want to let others down, so deliverables are on time and people are happy to work extra hours to ensure a high-quality outcome.

Building trust in teams

According to the CEB Corporate Leadership Council, engaged teams grow profits three times faster than disengaged ones.

Engaged teams have individuals who make positive statements, they’re focused on the group rather than on themselves, they ask questions and defend their own views.

In other words, they trust each other to do the right thing.

Trust is essential. Without it, social groups can’t function properly. Without trust, you generate a dysfunctional organisation and teams. There is no meaningful connection between a group of people. It’s just meaningless coordination. It is trust that shifts a group of people into a team.

When employees don’t trust their organisation, leadership or workmates, they’re more likely to focus their energies on survival rather than creation and contribution. It means they get stuck with battling each other, rather than committing to the vision and sharing responsibility for results. This stymies execution and change and makes the organisation vulnerable to competitive threats. The result is underperforming teams.

Building a high-performance team is critical when:

  • the life span of the group is long term
  • the work is critical to the organisation’s future
  • most of the tasks involve interdependence
  • the group meets regularly, and
  • the team is virtual.

In these instances, the time spent building trust between team members is worth the effort. Let’s look at how to do that.

The right composition

Most teams are formed based on the capabilities and skills of individual members and, while that is important, if one team member has a low trust disposition, it will impair the performance of the group.

For most tasks, particularly those that are high stakes and high risk, high trust is needed to get people to work together. This means choosing team members who have a positive disposition, who feel comfortable with risk and who are confident in themselves, but not overly self-interested.

When you can’t select team members you are leading, it’s good practice to assess each person’s disposition to trust. For those that are low, you will need to spend more time explaining the risks to them and ensuring that they understand the meaning behind work and how the team values their contribution.

Have a clear sense of purpose

Just like sports teams, great teams have a clear sense of purpose.

A clear sense of purpose, values and mission connect everyone together through being able to collectively see the meaning of their work. It’s how you get a diverse group of people aligned.

When people know that the work they are doing is more than just about making money, they are more likely to trust that the organisation cares for them. It’s this focus on ‘purpose before profits’ that enables those to be excited by the work that they are doing and that what they are doing has real meaning and impact.

High-performance teams have their own clear sense of purpose or are closely aligned to the company’s purpose. This ensures that each individual is focused on the group’s goals, rather than automatically focusing on their own self-interest.

Focus on the achievement of collective results

In low-trust environments, leaders pit employees against each other under the false belief that competitive pressures will lift performance. Unfortunately, all it does is create an environment where people are out for themselves – hoarding information and not supporting others.

In contrast, trusted leaders share and manage risk throughout a team. They focus on long-term impact, rather than short-term business performance. Instead of individual sales quotas, teams work together as a group to seize market opportunities. This fosters collaboration, innovation and sharing information to bring in new business together.

In other words, high-performance teams share a joint commitment to achieving the highest standards and the best results. A leader’s ability to make the team accountable for success or failure, rather than individual success, increases trust and a sense of unity. A common yardstick of success is that teams win together, not individuals.

Run regular hurdles

Poor communication can ruin trust in a team. That’s why sports teams always have a huddle before a match to align everyone to the strategy and the tactics required based on individual team member strengths.

In the workplace, having regular, short huddles before work gets done centres everyone on the group goal, allows each member to open up about what they’re stuck on and highlight successes.

Huddles naturally build trust and bring people together through sharing recent success stories.

Steve Wynn, chief executive officer of Wynn Resorts, redesigned the daily huddle to bring out stories of caring, which he claims changed his business (and life). He did this to get employees to take ownership and feel motivated to care more about guests.

Team members understand trust

In high-trust teams, people are talking about it. They have a trust framework that forms a common language on the dimensions of trust. This helps individuals and teams understand, discuss and practise trust with one another. It means employees have the language to call people out on behaviours that are destroying trust.

They also have leaders who are trustworthy and who have a concept of what it means to act with trust. Leaders expect trustworthy behaviour from others, ensuring that trust cascades throughout the team. Over time, it eventually becomes embedded within the company.

Improving team performance

Of course, teams that get along well together have fun outside work together. Never underestimate the importance of socialising outside of work hours (or inside). If the only communication team members have with each other is task related, it reduces the ability for team members to be resilient during conflict. As social beings, we love making emotional connections with others and being seen for who we are rather than just an agent performing a role.

The world is changing at a rapid rate. Organisations are confronted with complex problems that can only be solved through teams with a diverse range of skills and capabilities.

To achieve superior performance, team leaders and members need to understand trust – how to judge it, build it and rely on it, to work effectively with people from diverse backgrounds and abilities. Those who lead with trust manage to more easily bring people together to advance the company.

This article also appears in the October/November 2016 edition of Facility Management magazine.

Marie-Claire Ross is the chief corporate catalyst at Trustologie.  She is a workplace sociologist, author and consultant focused on helping team leaders build trust to produce high performing teams. Click here: to get more resources on creating high performance teams »

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