HR practitioners can enhance team effectiveness by learning lessons from elite teams in other high-performance fields such as the military, emergency medicine and international sport.

The problem with performance is that it often gets equated with profitability or return on equity. In other words, the focus is on the outcomes, not the process. This creates a ‘results-driven’ culture, where teams become overly-focused on short-term gains.

Another challenge in achieving high-performance is that many organisations actually undermine people’s ability to work well together, by the way they structure and reward teams. Often, corporate teams are effectively ‘groups’ of individuals whose roles are functionally-related. They’re not really a ‘team’. Indeed, in some virtual teams, the team members don’t even know each other. Organisations also say they value teamwork but then they reward people individually. Bonuses, for example, are largely based on individual performance. Instead of encouraging collaboration, this rewards individualism and sometimes leads to manipulative behaviour, interpersonal conflict and political manoeuvring – none of which are conducive to effective working.

Ten-Step Plan for Success

So what can be done to encourage high-performance? HR practitioners should work with team leaders on a ten-step action plan to help them:

  1. Establish the goal. Every team needs to clearly articulate what it is trying to achieve and all members of the team must agree on this. Each person should understand their role and their responsibility in achieving the goal. For example, in an emergency medical team, each individual will have a clear responsibility and they’ll work together to achieve the end goal of helping the patient to survive and recover. If one member of the team doesn’t deliver, the patient will die – no matter how well the other members of the team perform.

  2. Create a specific team charter. Team Sky, the British professional cycling team, and the New Zealand men’s rugby union team (the All Blacks) are good examples of high-performing teams. Each has their own team charter, outlining how the team members will behave and exactly what’s expected of them. Their team charters will be completely congruent with their definition of high-performance and they’ll act as a guide to ensure that every action and decision made by the team will take them closer to their ultimate goal. Corporate teams should work together to create their own team charter (with their own priority behaviours such as punctuality, best effort, helping others or customer-focus). The points in the charter should be specific. For example, what does ‘good communication’ mean in the team and how will this be apparent? All members must buy into a shared vision of how the team will operate.

  3. Hold each other to account. If a team agrees a charter, then team members can challenge anyone who breaches the agreed behaviour. The team then becomes self-managing, as everyone has consented to work together in a certain way towards the common goal.

  4. Reward the right attitudes and behaviour. True high-performance can only be achieved and maintained when the members of a team display the right attitude and behaviour. The team charter should make very clear what it means to behave excellently. The team leader can then ensure that the right behaviour is publicly acknowledged and appropriately rewarded.

  5. Create a culture of trust and effective feedback. The members of a military special forces team will trust each other implicitly and they’ll regularly have debriefing sessions where they’ll critique each other’s performance. However in organisations, people are sometimes sceptical about the motivations of those who give them feedback. A natural reaction is to become defensive. But a characteristic of high-performing teams is that they’ll strive for continual improvement. They’ll look to make small improvements wherever they can. This requires effective feedback. The team leader should therefore strive to create a culture of trust, in which it is acknowledged that appropriate feedback will be given (and received) in order to enhance the team’s performance. Part of this involves exploring good performance in the team and examining what went well and how it can be replicated. The team culture should also reflect its values. For example, Sir Alex Ferguson, the former football manager, excelled at creating a motivational culture by establishing very high standards and by instilling self belief in his teams.

  6. Share the ownership and responsibilities. In a high-performing team, leadership is much less about hierarchy. Different people may be required to ‘take the lead’ in different situations. For example, the New Zealand All Blacks will have a captain on the pitch. Of course, each member of the team will be highly competent in their own position. However, each player will also be proactive in making decisions in their area and voicing opinions, if the situation demands it. They’ll hold others to account and won’t defer to somebody else to police the team. They all share ownership of their team’s performance. In other words, they each display leadership qualities and they’re all empowered to make decisions. The corporate lesson here is that leadership is a joint responsibility and it is more about behaviour than status.
  7. Manage the pressures. To perform well under pressure, teams in the armed forces, emergency medicine and professional sport will practise and train to undertake their tasks effectively in demanding circumstances. Special forces teams, for example, will train with live ammunition. This isn’t easy to replicate in the corporate world! But the ability to work well under difficult conditions will help the team to foster self-belief. Pressure – which relates to how much importance we place on accomplishing a certain task – can help to motivate people. How we appraise certain situations determines how much pressure we feel. Team leaders should recognise that pressure to one person may not be pressure to another.

  8. Minimise stress. Stress, on the other hand, negatively impacts on performance. Pressure becomes stress when people feel they don’t have the resources to cope with the demands being put on them. Under stress, individuals can become myopic in their focus and more susceptible to certain biases. They may look for information that supports their position and, in this state, they can make poor decisions. To minimise the impact of stress, team leaders should endeavour to ensure that the team members have the resources to meet the demands placed on them, including the skills, the equipment and the mental resources required, such as self-belief and resilience. A team with a strong charter of openness, trust and support should quickly be able to recognise the warning signs of stress and implement coping mechanisms accordingly.

  9. Vary the leadership style. Different people have different styles of leadership, such as directive, consultative or charismatic. Team leaders should understand that their style of leadership is less important than the realisation that they’ll need to flex their approach depending on the circumstances. For example, the leader of a team under intense pressure may become more authoritarian because decision-making will become more important. The team leader must be aware of the impact of his or her leadership style on the team and the group dynamic. Leaders need to understand how their leadership style impacts group behaviours under different conditions. Teams need to learn how to cope with pressure in order to make good decisions and ‘think through’ dynamic situations.

  10. Recruit the right team members. HR practitioners can help team leaders to create a list of the key competencies, attitudes and behaviours that relate to high-performance in teams. This involves much more than individual technical competence. When new positions become available in the team, potential candidates can then be assessed against these criteria.

High-performance isn’t easy to achieve. But if HR practitioners can help team leaders to learn from good examples and follow these fundamental steps, they can significantly enhance performance in their organisations.

Paul Berry
Performance Psychologist
Human Performance Science