How to Create High-Performing Teams

John Gruber
Jul 19 · 5 min read
Photo by Jozsef Szoke

The best players don’t thrive in the wrong team. High-performing teams can make average players great. But the opposite is also true. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.

Busy times, slow times and challenges are always around the corner. Weak teams become crushed by the smallest amount of tribulation. Mediocre teams survive it, but the highest performing teams thrive and grow.

High-performing teams lay their foundation on a great culture. The culture lays the groundwork to becoming a high-performing team. Having a poor culture in your team is like building a house on sand. Eventually, the rain and wind will come and it won’t matter how great the house, how sturdy its walls, the sand will be washed away and the house will crumble.

While creating a “great culture” is discussed everywhere it typically comes up short in practice. Everyone falls back to their old ways. The first bump in the road caused everyone to panic and go back to the old, safe way of doing things. Changing the culture doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming and resource intensive. As a matter of fact, it’s the complete opposite. A great culture is about leadership getting out of the way so smart employees can do a great job.


The smartest employee is useless if they don’t have the freedom to be creative. If you tell someone how to build a mousetrap, they’ll build the mousetrap. If you tell someone you need a better mousetrap, they’ll build a better one. As Henry Ford once said:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

It’s counter-intuitive to our way of life. We love lists and documented processes that are easy to follow. Pretty little arrows to tell us where to click and what to do. Lists and processes are great once it’s figured out. But the longer you use it, the farther you fall behind.

The world is moving faster than ever. People worked in the fields the same way for thousands of years. Then, someone realized animals could do some of the work for us. We had a new way of doing things and it worked great for another thousand years. But those days are over.

We’re moving at breakneck speeds. 50 years ago, we didn’t have the internet. Now, it consumes everything we do. With rapid changes in business and technology, the internet has become the cornerstone. Teams need to be agile and loose. Creating processes, using the processes, and always thinking about a better way to do things.

High performing teams know what needs to be done. Leaders in high performing teams know they don’t know what needs to be done. Leaders need to stay focused on the end-goal. Not the road to get there. Great leadership sets rigorous standards, defines clearly what they want but they never tell an employee how to do their job.

It’s the responsibility of every team member to figure out how to do their job. How to reach a new high. How to achieve what wasn’t possible one year, one month, or one week ago. How do leaders set rigorous standards without telling an employee how to get there? It’s easier than you think.

Set lofty objectives with measurable results.

Objectives are typically long-term goals. Big but realistic. Measurable results tell a team exactly what you want.

By setting an objective we’re creating a picture of what we need. We’re explaining how the work fits into the big picture.

Measurable results help team members stay on track. They don’t tell people how to do their job but they define what the end result will look like. By making the results measurable we’re setting a rigorous standard. A standard that can be achieved in a creative way.


Giving people the freedom to be creative has one dangerous drawback. If not handled properly a team can work hard, be excited about what they’re doing and completely fail.

The challenge is caused by our own visions. We all envision the world differently. We all have had different life experiences. Life experiences that brought us together yet still make us different. For a team to thrive, everyone must be unique. Unique experiences help us approach problems differently. Everyone creating a solution to the same problem. At the same time, we all need the same vision for our team’s success.

High performing teams need frequent feedback or employees may work hard to create a mousetrap when the customer needed a birdhouse. There’s no set rule on how often feedback is required. Marketing and sales may need daily meetings while developers need them weekly. The same team may meet weekly for one quarter and daily the next. It becomes a give and take to find the balance. Every team member should be vigilant. Constantly asking themselves if they need more or less feedback and communicating them effectively. Getting the timing right isn’t the only challenge.

Not all feedback is created equal. High performing teams have a unique way of communicating. Scientists performed a study on how different teams communicate and found remarkable differences.

To make good employees great you need 560% more positive feedback than negative. People thrive on knowing they’re doing well. Positive feedback creates a forest fire of motivation. Just like a small fire, it’s easy to extinguish a demotivated person’s energy and enthusiasm. When employees are given constant positive feedback, their motivation becomes a forest fire. Instead of going out, it’s able to withstand anything. Not only will it burn through anything in its path it will ignite a fire in colleagues across the team. Positive reinforcement isn’t the only thing scientists found when comparing high/low performing teams.

Great teams ask a lot of questions. Everyone’s constantly learning from one another. Working hard to understand why something was done the way it was before advocating a solution. Low performing teams will constantly advocate solutions instead of asking questions first. Asking great questions helps everyone grow and keeps the team dynamic and on track to building a better mousetrap.

Once everyone is asking great questions and receiving positive reinforcement another change takes effect. High performing teams support one another more. Every member starts to see the value in one another. They become a team their excited to be a part of. They stop worrying if they’re the best or the worst. They don’t have a need to talk about themselves to show how superior they are. They become one united, unbreakable unit ready to face any challenge.

Source: The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model

Summary

  1. Set tough objectives with measurable results.
  2. Let smart employees build creative solutions.
  3. Give 560% more positive feedback than negative.
  4. Ask questions and understand the issue before proposing a solution.

References

  1. Validity of Observer Ratings of the Big Five Personality Factors by Michael K. Mount, Murray R. Barrick, and J. Perkins Strauss
  2. The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model by Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy

The Crossover Blog

Welcome to the future of work. The Crossover blog is your resource for staying up to date on topics that matter in the modern workplace-like tech skills, remote work, recruiting insights, and more. Learn more about Crossover and browse remote tech jobs at www.crossover.com.

John Gruber

Written by

Productivity and technology to make the world a better place. Because we all need a little help and motivation sometimes.

The Crossover Blog

Welcome to the future of work. The Crossover blog is your resource for staying up to date on topics that matter in the modern workplace-like tech skills, remote work, recruiting insights, and more. Learn more about Crossover and browse remote tech jobs at www.crossover.com.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade