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How to Create High-Performing Teams

Neuroscience is offering a surprising new understanding about what creates and destroys high-performing teams.

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Top teams excel through collaboration

You’ve probably seen this famous quote,

“There is no I in team.”

It was said in 1960 by Vernon Law, a baseball player. But you know what? It’s wrong. Turns out creating winning teams is an individual engagement as much as it is a group one. 

When I started researching the neuroscience of teams, I wasn’t aware that I would end up questioning such an iconic belief. But the brain science of what brings out the best in groups points us in a new and surprising direction.

The best teams, the highest-performing ones, create a cohesive unit through honoring each member’s unique contributions and making them feel included and valued for who they are, as individuals. 

As leaders, we want to leverage the gifts of those individuals within our team environments. The group needs to make its members feel safe enough to bring their best work forward. When this is done right, members feel they belong and the group is set up to achieve a rarefied state of peak performance, one that is neurologically different from the rest. 

Peak Performance or Dysfunction-Spiral Start Early

Have you ever been part of a team that you just loved? You couldn’t wait to come to work in the morning and you really enjoyed your teammates, even though you might face challenges? 

And have you ever been part of a team that felt like it was crushing your soul? You just hated coming in because you knew it’s going to be a bad experience with people you don’t enjoy? The problem is once you have been on a great team, it makes it even more unbearable to deal with negative teams, or even neutral ones where it’s all okay but not very motivating or inspiring. 

Neuroscience is offering a surprising new understanding about what creates and destroys high-performing teams. It turns out that they are neurologically different from mediocre or poor teams. There is an invisible something that we feel when we’re part of a great team and we know that “something” is missing when we’re not. 

Research shows that teams go through stages of development, and there is a critical juncture that sends them down one of two paths: Toward peak performance and success OR toward dysfunction and learned helplessness. 

As it happens, the early meetings are crucial for determining which path a team takes. It’s in those early interactions that the team starts to develop their norms for how they work together. And they tend to either create good norms, like treating each other with respect, communicating effectively, and including others. Or they create bad norms, like forming cliques, withholding information, or engaging in toxic conflict. 

Team leaders play a critical role in which path the team takes as their initial meetings and actions influence and establish the group’s norms. This ultimately determines whether the team’s trajectory continues to high performance or spirals into dysfunction and learned helplessness, where they finally give up hope of things getting better. 

Trust Is Crucial to Team Performance 

According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers Global Survey, 55 percent of CEOs think that a lack of trust is a threat to their organization’s growth. 

They are right to be concerned, because trust is crucial to high performing teams. Patrick Lencioni, an internationally recognized expert on teams, states, “Teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

Trust is not something that people can just dive into. It takes time to build and yet it must be in place for teams to do their best work. Bestselling author Dr. Brené Brown says that trust is built in those small moments where, over time, we learn we can count on each other. She likens it to putting marbles in a jar. When we have enough marbles in that jar, we can withstand a few withdrawals—disagreements, conflicts, or mistakes where we inadvertently do something that upsets or harms another.

Yet most teams launch immediately into the project and don’t allow people to build that important foundation of trust. But YOU can do this differently.

In those early meetings, when the trajectory of the team is getting formed, provide your team with both team training and team building. Team training refers to the knowledge and skills needed to work well as a team, and perform the task successfully. I like to cover topics like:

  • Understanding group development 
  • Doing a work style assessment 
  • Creating psychological safety 
  • Building inclusion and belonging
  • Effective communication 
  • Project management and execution, and 
  • Conflict resolution 

Did you know that conflict about a task correlates positively with creativity, but interpersonal conflict reduces it? Conflict resolution skills are vital to team health because they help the members wrestle with the diverse ideas and work styles each one brings to the team, without harming the trust necessary for them to perform at their best.

Team leaders are not the only ones who create an awesome team. Members also play an important role—team training gives them the tools and skills to do their part. Different from team training, team building is the process and interactions through which people learn about each other, both personally and professionally, building trust and safety with each other. 

Rather than digging into the assigned task, intentionally create experiences that build relationships, and more importantly, trust. Investing in team training and building on the front side will more than pay off in the group’s development and project execution later on.

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