The importance of high-performing teams

Jul 29, 2020

Sean Quigley explains how team coaching can help companies achieve the ultimate competitive advantage.

Research tells us that at best, 20% of leadership teams are high-performing. It also tells us that at least 50% of teams are underperforming. These statistics should be of interest to anyone in a leadership role, as they have huge implications for business performance, the delivery of public services and a wide range of organisations, including not-for-profits.

Every organisation is increasingly reliant on greater teamwork to cope with growing challenges, greater complexity, and uncertain environments. The COVID-19 pandemic has just added a new level of challenge. The need for collective leadership and collaborative ways of working across organisational and sectoral boundaries has never been greater. However, teamwork remains the one sustainable advantage that has been largely untapped in most organisations. There is a great need to help teams develop ways of working so that they achieve more than the sum of their parts. The message is clear: senior leaders must get out of their silos and work with each other more. To navigate today’s constantly changing business environment and address cross-disciplinary challenges, top leaders must act as one and be role models for their organisations.

In my experience, both as a team coach and a member of senior leadership teams, there are many reasons – some of which are potentially complex – why teams underperform. However, leaders need to recognise the key areas that lead to underperformance.

All teams can improve performance. Imagine the impact of a 10% improvement in the performance of your team, and the consequent benefits for customers and all stakeholders? Team leaders need support and guidance to identify areas where their team is underperforming, and to get to the next level of performance. That is where team coaching can have an immediate impact.

High-performing teams

A high-performing team achieves outstanding performance by making optimal use of the capabilities of each team member. This highlights the difference between a team and a group. The members of a team are committed, close-knit and share a common objective.

Highly effective teams avoid wasting time talking about the wrong issues and revisiting the same topics repeatedly because of a lack of buy-in. Highly effective teams also make higher-quality decisions and accomplish more in less time and with less distraction and frustration. If some of the 80% of teams that are not high-performing did indeed improve their performance, this would represent a huge opportunity to unleash untapped potential and add value.

High-performing teams are not only important at the top of the organisation. Today, teams are widely used in the form of project teams and cross-functional teams, for example. There is an inherent flaw in this enthusiastic shift to forming teams, based on the assumption that team members naturally know how to collaborate effectively.

To take a sporting analogy, teams know that they must be greater than the sum of their constituent parts. There are some outstanding examples of this. The New Zealand rugby team, the European Ryder Cup teams and the Irish women’s hockey team, which reached the Hockey World Cup final in 2018. As Babe Ruth famously said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime”.

This also applies to business teams and it is noteworthy that Peter Hawkins, a leading expert in leadership team coaching, found that in 40 years working with leadership teams, the average intelligence of the individual team members was over 120. However, the collective intelligence of the team as a whole was about 60. This is a significant challenge for many businesses and organisations that recruit or promote the brightest and best, yet struggle to operate effectively as a team. Indeed, many organisations have excellent development programmes for individual managers and leaders. Yet, it is rare to find organisations with programmes focused on integrating those individual programmes with team development programmes. This is a major blind spot.

How can team coaching help?

Unlike some other team interventions, team coaching is designed to work with teams for lasting change. Team coaching is a true partnership designed to work flexibly with the team for a period of time so that a higher level of team performance and a deeper sense of cohesion can be sustained into the future. Team coaching isn’t just about helping the team optimise the way it communicates and learns together (the work of a group). It also enables the team to define and execute its collective task in a way that creates greater value than is possible from the sum of the individual members. It is a process of empowering your team to find and implement their own solutions. The team coach facilitates this learning journey and supports the team in developing the skills needed to maximise their collective potential. The team coach will bring your team through a tried and tested process to identify where they are and what they need to do to be genuinely high-performing.

Teamwork comes down to mastering a set of behaviours that are in theory quite straightforward, but can be challenging to put into practice day after day. However, when all team members know what those behaviours are and commit to putting them into practice, that is a crucial step towards becoming a high-performing team. The team coach can help the team improve performance and add value by ensuring that:

  1. the team has a clear, collective and compelling purpose with agreed objectives;
  2. these are aligned to the needs of stakeholders; and
  3. they all recognise that this can only be achieved through effective team collaboration.

Every team member must take responsibility for their part, as well as for the functioning of the whole team. They must present their collective purpose and objectives to a wide range of external stakeholders. It is also essential that it is a learning team, where members are jointly and individually developing and adapting to the ever-increasing speed of change.

The five dysfunctions of a team

In the book by Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he says that “organisations fail to achieve teamwork because they unknowingly fall prey to five natural but dangerous pitfalls”. In his book, he describes the five dysfunctions that are pervasive in all kinds of organisation. By identifying the dysfunctions by name, leaders can watch out for them and learn to address the root causes that prevent teams from reaching their full potential. The five dysfunctions are outlined in Figure 1.

Based on the indicators, does your team exhibit any of the characteristics of a dysfunctional team? Would you prefer your team to have the features of a high-performing team? If your team is ready to work hard, take responsibility for results and achieve its potential, now is the time to take action. Working with a qualified team coach can help your teams make the transition quite quickly.

Sean Quigley FCA is an executive and team coach, and non-executive director.