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How Leaders Kill Meaning At Work

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High Performance Teams

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Seven Essential Elements of High-Performing Teams

Seven Essential Elements of High-Performing Teams

The nature of our work has changed substantially from bygone days, particularly in the last two-plus years. Technological advances have further accelerated change. This means that work today is done quite differently than it was even a decade ago, let alone a century or more in the past. How we work has changed and continues to do so at an ever-increasing pace. This raises important questions: What does work mean in today’s world? How has the concept of work changed and what challenges does this present for an organization it’s and employees?

The Lone Wolf Never Wins

Although history has celebrated the lone-wolf entrepreneur, building high-performing teams far outweighs the solo game in modern organisational success. As digitalisation has changed the workplace and influenced many industries, building highly efficient teams is essential.

Too Many Teams Don’t Live Up to Their Potential

The experiences we have all had as a team member has no doubt varied widely. At some point in our lives, most of us have worked in a less than desirable team environment where toxic behaviours are the norm. In contrast, joining a high performance team can be rewarding and motivating for team members. Development of high-performance teams through training becomes an essential capability for organisations both small and large. Equally, developing the type of team leader who truly understand what it takes to build high-performing team members that consistently demonstrate outstanding results is paramount. One productive team will always achieve more than an average team. The added benefit of developing teams is that employee development occurs at the same time. Skill gaps are addressed concurrently through focused training and feedback.

Smart Versus Healthy

Many researchers and authors have written about and contrasted performance (or being smart) and organisational health. Partick Lencioni, for example, describes health as when an organisation’s management, operations, strategy, and culture fit together and make sense. Further, any organisation or team that wants to maximise its success must come to embody two basic qualities: it must be smart, and it must be healthy.

However, the focus for most teams is to be smart. Lencioni summarised it well in his book, The Advantage when he said:

“Smart teams are good at those classic fundamentals of business, but being smart is only half the equation, yet somehow occupies almost all the time, energy, and attention of most leaders. The other half of the equation, the one that is largely neglected, is about being healthy.”

– Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage

Successful organisations of tomorrow will be those that can create and sustain high-performing teams. So, what are the key elements of a high-performing team? We break them into two areas: (1) the Foundations and (2) the Seven Elements to build high-performance teams.

The Foundations

In our work with teams, we begin with a rigorous assessment of the foundations and the required key characteristics then turn to the seven critical areas that have been demonstrated to drive teamwork and team performance. While there is some overlap, we find that having an in-depth understanding of the foundational conditions and the seven drivers of high-performance creates a deep understanding of the team and therefore the development focus.

The six conditions of team effectiveness is based on the data science of Harvard scholar-practitioners Drs. Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman who studied over 1,000 teams and includes:

  • Being a Real Team (not in name only);
  • Having the Right People on the team (complementary to each other);
  • Compelling Purpose (knowing why they exist);
  • Having a Sound Structure (e.g. the right team size);
  • Creating a Supportive Context and
  • Having effective Team Coaching readily available and being goal-orientated.

Seven Elements of High-Performing Teams (model below)

Healthy teams:

  1. Know where they’re heading and how to get there;
  2. Lives the values (behaviours are aligned);
  3. Have high levels of trust and can engage in real dialogue (effective communication);
  4. Coach and develop each other (and others around them);
  5. Engage in constructive collaboration;
  6. Have strong capability to innovate in service of their goals; and
  7. Outperform expectations by delivering critical business imperatives.

Seven Elements of High Performance Team Model adapted by The Leadership Sphere from Herb, Leslie and Price 2001

This article will focus on the seven critical elements that drive high performance and health in teams.

1. Shared Sense of Purpose and Direction

High-performing teams have a clear direction, aligned mission and know their measures of success.

Myth: The team’s purpose is the same as the organisation’s purpose.

A team’s mission (or purpose) should never be the same as the organisation’s, yet many teams frame their reason-for-being in this way. A team’s purpose must be an enabling force to achieve the strategy rather than the strategy itself. This is a key difference. The team’s purpose must support the organisation and its employees, not the other way around. A useful way to formulate a team’s mission is to ask ‘What would be missing if we (the team) weren’t here?’

A high performing team requires a clear sense of direction and common goals. If it is the top team, then this may include the overall vision for the company. If, on the other hand, the team is responsible for a business unit, division or site, then the vision and direction would pertain to it at that level. This might sound obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Purposeful teams also celebrate success.

In our consulting, we always ask the following question of teams, ‘Which is your first team?’. This question is always met with puzzled looks and a myriad of responses. The correct answer is ‘this one‘, not the team they manage (or their functional team). If a team is to truly lead the organisation (or division or business unit, etc.), then it needs to be the team they are a part of, not the team they lead. Leaders must therefore be able to understand and separate the different approaches required in leading their functional areas versus the role and function of the leadership team. A common business goal, and being goal-orientated, must be agreed upon with such clarity that there is zero chance of misunderstanding.

2. Live the Values

High-performing teams have a clear set of values and behaviours which are agreed to, referenced and lived.

Myth: The organisation’s values can serve as a team’s values.

Virtually every team we work with – at least initially – believes that because there are organisational values they need team values. Team values and norms of behaviour become the ‘normal way of behaving’ by providing clear behavioural anchors regarding what is okay and what is not. Values are the beliefs that guide our behaviour, while norms are the expectations of each other’s behaviour.

Team norms should be focused and specific to the present day and what will be important in the next 12 months. Organisational values on the hand, aim to guide the entire organisation in a more general sense. Values and norms can change over time as the team evolves and as the members of the team change and usually reflects the results of the DiagnosticConnect feedback methodology.

Formulating an agreed set of values and behaviours makes it much more likely that the team is aligned and pushing together rather than against each other. This creates a sense of trust and mutual respect within the team, and enhances teamwork which is essential for effective collaboration. Everyone doesn’t need to share the same values but must be constructive and aligned in serving the team’s purpose.

3. Trust and Real Dialogue

High-performance teams trust each other, accept different views and engage in constructive, robust dialogue.

Myth: We don’t experience major ‘blow-ups’ or conflict because we have high trust.

Teams often attribute a ‘lack of conflict’ to high levels of trust, whereas it’s usually the exact opposite. Issues and challenges, including between team members, are usually suppressed and simply not addressed or at least not addressed fully. A lack of conflict is usually a symptom of a lack of trust and therefore candour. High-performing teams have the confidence and capability to communicate effectively by engaging in robust discussions without making it personal.

Trust is essential to feel connected, enabling team members to share ideas and information openly and provide feedback early and often. Without trust, team members will be reluctant to demonstrate vulnerability and engage openly, stifling communication, creativity and innovation. To use Brené Brown’s definition (TLS is certified by Brené Brown to deliver the Dare to Lead™ program), vulnerability is the emotion we experience during times of uncertainty, risk or emotional exposure.

It’s not about inappropriate disclosure. Being able to communicate openly means that people feel free to openly express their ideas and opinions without fear of judgement or reprisal. This open exchange of ideas is essential for generating creative solutions to problems.

4. Coach and develop people

The fourth element in creating and sustaining team performance is for leadership teams to coach and develop each other and those around them.

Myth: Developing ‘talent’ means developing your best people.

The ‘talent myth’ is alive and well in organisational life. There is very little evidence to suggest that developing employees who appear to be ‘talented’ or high performers will translate to a better return on investment than a more broad-based approach where everyone benefits from an uplift in capability, particularly in teams. In our High-Performance Team Framework, talent development means the creation of a context that allows everyone to shine in your team or organisation by leveraging strengths and building capability. It makes little sense to invest in the top 5% of employees for example while the other 95% also need to perform and make up a clear majority. There is power in a shared approach, language and baseline capability development.

Leadership teams must therefore be enablers of talent horizontally and vertically. Leveraging the work of Ken Wilbur, enabling strategies occur in four dimensions:

  1. Mindsets;
  2. Behaviours;
  3. Culture; and
  4. Systems, Structure and Processes.

Integral Model Adapted by The Leadership Sphere from the work of Ken Wilber

If the Integral Model is the ‘what’, coaching is the ‘how’. Coaching is much more than asking open questions or the GROW Model. It is a leadership philosophy that goes beyond techniques. High-performing teams coaching each other and value peer-to-peer accountability above top-down accountability from managers. Managers also need to play an important role and be available when needed to support their charges.

Coaching allows the development of skills, knowledge and abilities in a safe and supportive environment – while addressing key priorities. The team culture, therefore, becomes one of support and collegiality where communication issues are addressed, emotional intelligence is valued and psychological safety is deepened. Coaching fosters being goal-orientated with clear objectives and utilising complementary skills already present in the team. Continuous learning becomes the norm.

5. Engage in Constructive Collaboration

The fifth element is that healthy teams act as one, enabled by collective work goals to create meaningful, constructive collaboration.

Myth: Teams must collaborate to achieve the objectives of individual silos.

While it is true that high-performance teams should be helping each other achieve individual objectives, it’s not enough. Real teams do real work together centered on a common goal. This means that individual goals must be subservient to common business goals. Common team goals foster collaboration and set the team up for success, ultimately creating superior results.

True collaboration links back to the ‘first team’ principle. If team members truly see the team they are a part of, rather than the one they lead, as their first team, it is highly likely they will act for the common good across the team rather than downwards. Leaders must focus primarily on their peers not downward to their own teams.

This reduces turf protection behaviour and frees teams up to be much more agile and responsive to each other’s needs. This kind of collaboration can be difficult, as it requires individuals to set aside their egos and work towards a greater goal. However, the rewards are well worth the effort. Collaboration allows team members to draw on a wider range of skills and knowledge, leading to more innovative solutions. In addition, those who engage in constructive collaboration develop deeper relationships with each other, resulting in a more cohesive team. When done right, collaboration can be an immensely powerful tool for achieving success.

6. Foster Innovation

Team members challenge current approaches while encouraging and supporting each other to foster innovation.

Myth: Innovation only comes from creative genius or big picture thinkers.

Innovation does not always have to be a revolutionary product or service; it can also refer to incremental changes that improve existing products or processes. In reality, innovation often happens when people take a fresh look at existing products, services, or processes and find ways to improve them. Finally, some believe innovation always requires big risks and massive investments. While this may be true in some cases, there are also many examples of innovations developed with little investment and risk. When done right, innovation can be an immensely powerful tool for success.

The key here is that communication is open and new ideas are not quashed before they’ve had a chance to breathe. Teams must avoid the one question that is fatal to innovation, ‘Yes but how would you do that?’ This immediately shifts the mindset from creation to logistics – a real brainstorming killer. Each person needs to encourage real learning by reflecting on their own and the team’s performance and looking for ways to improve.

7. Deliver Performance

The team meets or exceeds its goals and is a role model for getting things done.

Myth: We need to focus on performance to improve performance.

This myth is perpetuated across organisations all over the world. Teams believe they need to be smarter rather than healthier and focus on performance more than the soft stuff. There is simply no evidence to support this approach. Yes, you read (or heard) correctly. There is no evidence to support the notion that the vehicle to improving performance is through traditional methods of management – finance, marketing, strategy or technology. There needs to be a very solid ‘and’. I wrote about this over 10 years ago when reviewing the data and research from some of the most robust research available.

Since then, other authors have also put a line in the sand and made similar assertions. For example, Lencioni in his book The Advantage, makes a solid case for why teams need to focus on health more than performance. Again, not instead of….as well as.

In Tom Peters’ final book (according to the author of 18 books), the management guru says that all throughout his career he has been asked numerous times, ‘Tom, why have you focussed so heavily on the people side of business?’ to which he answers, ‘What else is there?’. I love his response.

While you can focus on the seventh element of performance all you like, it’s the other six elements in our High-Performance Team framework that will deliver performance. You can read more about how and why performance and health matter equally here.

The seventh and final element in our framework, then, is that healthy teams consistently outperform expectations.

Gaining Clarity

When all of these elements are present, the result is a high-performing team that is able to achieve amazing results over time. If you want your team to be successful, creating a healthy working environment is essential.

By focussing on these seven areas, teams can get clarity on:

  1. Strengths and capabilities that can be harnessed more fully by the team.
  2. Underlying issues and blockers, both personal and systemic.
  3. ‘Undiscussable’ issues that negatively impact the team.
  4. Patterns and systems issues that are difficult to identify under normal circumstances.
  5. Individual and/or leadership behaviours that enable and block team success.
  6. Opportunities for individuals and the team (s) to improve performance.
  7. The desired future and the role you choose to play.


Building high performing teams that consistently deliver results and where its members feel valued and engaged, requires team leaders to address all aspects of performance and health holistically. By only focusing on performance, teams will not achieve nor sustain the very thing they are seeking.

Things You Can Do From Here:

  1. Get immediate results on your team by completing our HPT Survey.
  2. You can also download our white paper: Another Poor Report Card on Organisational Culture: What Can We Learn?
  3. Contact Us: If you would like to discuss your team’s needs, then feel free to get in contact by phone on 1300 100 857 or via our website or email me at

Another Poor Report Card on Organisatila Culture: What Can we Learn?

About the Author: The Leadership Sphere

The Leadership Sphere helps small and medium businesses and larger organisations in Australia, in creating value through leadership. The Leadership Sphere provides a humanistic approach to the way it delivers leadership, performance and coaching services. We work with leaders and senior teams who need to gain increased clarity, build capability and ensure contribution at every level in the organisation, and enable a safe, inclusive and  high trust organisation.

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