How to create and lead high-performing teams

Debbie Zmorenski

Working in teams is often considered contrary to the American culture. Marvin Weisbord, author and organizational development expert, said, “Teamwork is the quintessential contradiction of a society grounded in individual achievement.”

Yet, building and leading an organizational culture around a successful team concept is considered a critical leadership competency. The challenges are that in any team environment people must work closely together to achieve results. They must work effectively across the organization to accomplish tasks and objectives quickly enough to remain competitive. Additional challenges include team conflicts, obtaining maximum results from virtual teams and managing highly diverse teams – maintaining teamwork mentality while capitalizing on the diversity of talents, skills, knowledge and personalities within the team.

Understanding the Theory Behind Teams
Psychologist Bruce Tuckman first came up with the descriptors “Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing” back in 1965 to describe the growth stages of teams. There is value in reviewing these descriptors and the leader’s role at each stage of the team development in order to understand the complexity of creating and managing high-performing teams.

Forming: Teams initially go through a Forming stage in which members are usually positive and polite. At this point, team members are experiencing a myriad of emotions. Some members may be anxious, not yet knowing exactly what is expected of them. Others may be excited by the prospect of being part of the team.

This stage is typically fairly short, maybe only lasting as long as the first meeting. It is at this stage that team members are introduced to one another, goals and objectives are stated, discussions are held delineating how work will be accomplished within the team and how goals and objectives will be met.

Leader’s responsibilities at the Forming stage:

  • Establish clear objectives and team accountability expectations
  • Remove roadblocks that may prevent the team from accomplishing goals
  • Provide timely feedback on the team’s progress

Storming: At this stage, reality sets in. Team members may jockey for position and seek clarification of their roles. The rules are now defined. Some people are ready to get to the tasks of the team, while others may be feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work to be accomplished. The goal(s) and the worthiness of the team objectives may be questioned.

This stage can be very emotional. Everyone is often on a different page. They may feel frustrated trying to accomplish goals and objectives for which they will be held accountable when they do not feel that they have neither the support of established processes nor the support of fellow team members. This is the stage where many teams fail.

Leader’s responsibilities at the Storming stage:

  • Assist the team in establishing processes and structure
  • Resolve team conflicts
  • Assist the team members in building good working relationships
  • Provide support to individual team members who may be struggling
  • Remove roadblocks that prevent the team from accomplishing goals
  • Provide timely feedback on the team’s progres

Norming: If the team makes it through the Storming stage, eventually they move into the Norming stage. Natural leaders emerge, the team is beginning to work synergistically, relying on one another for advice and help, and they may even be socializing together.

There may be an overlap between the Storming and Norming stage. As new and more challenging tasks arise, the team may lapse back into the Storming stage. With time and as trust builds among the team members, the Storming behaviors eventually cease.

Leader’s responsibilities at the Norming stage:

  • Allow the team to work more independently
  • Provide support in the form of resources, training to develop the skills necessary to perform their jobs, and/or teambuilding events
  • Remove roadblocks that may prevent the team from accomplishing goals
  • Provide timely feedback on the team’s progress

Performing: When the team reaches this stage, the members are working collaboratively toward achieving goals. The processes and structure for accomplishing tasks is securely in place and there tends to be little, if any, destructive conflict.

At this stage, leaders are able to delegate more work to the team and can also focus on developing the team members.

Leader’s responsibilities at the Performing stage:

  • Delegate at much as it is reasonable to do so
  • Allow the team as much autonomy as possible/trust them to work on their own with minimal check-ins from you
  • Remove roadblocks that may prevent the team from accomplishing goals
  • Provide timely feedback on the team’s progress

As a team leader, your overarching goal is to help the team to reach the Performing stage as soon as possible. The following steps will help to ensure that you are doing the right thing at the right time:

  1. Regularly assess the team’s dynamics to identify at which stage of team development your team is operating
  2. Consider what needs to be done to move the team effectively towards the Performing stage
  3. Schedule regular reviews of where the team is in the four-stage development process and adjust your behavior and leadership approach to suit the stage your team has reached

Leading Virtual (Geographically Dispersed) Teams
Teams that are dispersed across large geographic areas, whether nationally, internationally or within regions, pose unique challenges to the leader. Everything that we have discussed about high-performing teams also applies to virtual teams. What changes is the method for leading and communicating with these dispersed teams.

Communication becomes the most obvious challenge among dispersed teams. Interaction for dispersed teams relies on technology which can be both facilitating and limiting. In dispersed teams, technology becomes a critical component for effective and timely sharing of information.

Because of the increased opportunities for miscommunication, it is critically important that the right technology for the team be utilized. In the case of dispersed teams that must relying on technology for communication: Role clarity, clarity of purpose, vision and goal setting become critically important to the team.

Dispersed teams have an especially challenging time in the Forming and Storming stages of team development since face-to-face interaction may be limited or even impossible.

Leaders can mitigate the challenges for virtual teams by doing the following:

  • Ensure that the technology chosen for communication meets the needs of the group and promotes ease of access to team members and other information
  • As with traditional teams yet even more so, clearly communicate the vision for accomplishing goals and objectives and clearly describe expectations for team members’ results and behaviors
  • Make scheduled and conscious connections: Whenever possible, get the team together face-to-face for social and business interaction

Resolving Team Conflicts
The key advantage that teams have over individuals is the diversity of resources, talents, knowledge, and ideas. Yet the very attribute of diversity is also the driving force behind team conflicts. Differences in terms of power, attitudes, values and social factors can all contribute to team conflicts. In this case, we are talking about destructive conflict – the type of conflict that erodes trust, breaks down relationships, and inhibits productivity. The following are key steps for effective team conflict resolution:

1) Do not ignore the conflict hoping it will go away. The best approach is the direct approach to eliminate the conflict before irreparable damage is done to the team. When a conflict is ignored, team members have a chance to choose sides and create cliques. As soon as the leader becomes aware of conflict within the team, it must be addressed immediately.

2) Provide objective guidance and support to resolve the conflict. The leader cannot effectively resolve the conflict if he or she takes sides or has a preformed opinion of who is to blame.While it may seem logical, never tell the team to work it out among themselves. If they could have worked it out without your help, they would have done so. What they need from the leader is guidance to talk it through and arrive at a solution.

3) Ensure that each person has a chance to talk and tell their side of the story. Have each person speak directly to the other person with the leader as mediator.

4) Encourage brainstorming and collaboratively determine a solution. Develop an action plan with defined steps to success.

5) Hold the involved team members accountable for living up to their end of the resolution and for delivering on all steps in the action plan.

Measuring Team Performance
So, how do you know when your team has reached the Performing stage? High-performing teams display certain characteristics. When seeking ways to measure team performance, it is beneficial to assess how well the team is demonstrating the following:

  • Trust and respect: Trust for high-performing teams means trusting each member of the team to do his or her part to contribute to the overall success of the daily operation or project. Referred to as “behavioral integration,” trust is the process of working together closely, sharing information openly, making decisions collaboratively, and sharing risks and rewards collectively. As trust grows, teams are able to address and solve challenges, differences, and disagreements from within the team. Team members demonstrate respect for other team members’ ideas, opinions, skills, and talents.
  • Communication: Communication within high-performing teams is clear, honest, meets everyone’s needs, and drives successful achievement of the goals and objectives. Open and honest communication is fostered in an environment of trust, where people feel safe in expressing their ideas. The more trusting the environment, the more effectively the organization will communicate. It is the leader’s responsibility to cultivate the environment of trust by acting as a role model and delivering on the leader’s responsibilities as stated above in each stage of team development.
  • Business results: While camaraderie for the team is important, the non-negotiable is achievement of business results. The team must be delivering on at least the minimum standard of expectations. The leader must analyze and assess how well the team is meeting goals and objectives and delivering to the bottom line results. It is the leader’s responsibility to report measurable activity to the team, informing them as to whether or not they are delivering results effectively – in a productive and timely manner – and holding them accountable for deliverables.

Celebrate Success
As a leader, it is imperative that you remember to celebrate the team’s successes to include but not limited to:

  • Achievement of milestones
  • Individual’s successes
  • Specific team successes

Celebration takes many forms, falling into two categories: formal and informal. Formal celebrations are planned and are often more costly forms of celebration (i.e., programs involving awards, prizes and planned events). Informal celebrations typically cost little, happen frequently and tend to be more personal. Examples may be something as simple as a “thank you” from a leader or an article detailing an individual or team’s accomplishment in the company newsletter.

I could think of no better way to wrap up this article than with this quote from Patrick Lencioni, who wrote The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.” If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”

I would be very interested in any ideas that you have for future topics. Please feel free to contactme by commenting here, sending an e-mail to debbiez@lsapartners.com, or calling me at 407-497-0075. You may also want to visit our Web site at http://www.lsapartners.comfor the latest and greatest on leadership and workforce development, operational effectiveness, and other topics.

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About the Author

Deborah K. Zmorenski, MBA, is the co-owner and senior partner of Leader’s Strategic Advantage Inc., an Orlando, Fla.-based consulting firm. During her 34-year career with the Walt Disney W...