Building and Leading High-Performance Teams

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about building and leading high-performance teams in the workplace, as well as, timely answers to them.

What is a problem-solving team?

A problem-solving team is a team whose members share ideas or offer suggestions such as how to improve work policies and procedures. These teams are rarely given the authority to implement any of their suggested actions unilaterally. The team’s purpose is to analyze alternatives.

What is a self-managed team?

A self-managed team is a truly autonomous team where members not only solve problems, they may also implement solutions and take full responsibility for outcomes; it is otherwise known as a self-directed work team, an autonomous work group, a high-commitment team, or empowered employees. The traditional hierarchy of managers, supervisors, and operating employees is replaced by this team, whose members are entirely responsible for their own operations. The change is shown in the following figure, where the first level of management has been eliminated and replaced by a self-managed team. To build accountability, team membership is a full-time, mandatory part of the job.

What is a cross-functional (multi-disciplinary) team?

Teams can be cross-functional or multidisciplinary. This team is made up of employees from about the same hierarchical level, but who work in various departments and come together to accomplish a task. A committee composed of members from across departmental lines is an example of a cross-functional team, and a task force is nothing more than a temporary cross-functional team. A cross-functional team is an effective way to allow people from different areas within an organization, or between organizations, to exchange information, develop new ideas, solve problems, and coordinate complex projects.

What is a virtual team?

With the increased use of technology, a new type of group has entered the workplace: the virtual team, whose members work together electronically via networked computers or the Internet. Members of virtual teams typically perform the same functions as members of face-to-face teams. They share information, make decisions, and complete tasks.

What are the benefits of using teams?

The evidence suggests that teams typically outperform individuals when the tasks being done require multiple skills, complex judgments, and a range of experience. Managers and organizations have found that teams are more flexible and responsive to changing events than are traditional departments or other permanent groups. Teams can be quickly assembled, deployed, refocused, or disbanded. There are also motivational advantages of teams. Employees can be motivated through greater involvement in the organization, and teams facilitate this by promoting employee participation in making operating decisions. In addition, teams can help hourly workers to develop new skills. Another explanation for the popularity of teams is that they provide an effective way for managers and other managers to democratize their organizations and increase employee motivation.

Often the potential benefits of a team are not readily apparent. Flocks of geese provide an unusual but very appropriate example of how a team can achieve the same objectives as an individual, but with better efficiency and safety. Every aspect of the flock’s organization remains focused on the achievement of the common goal. Egos, titles, divisions, or excuses are not permitted to deter the group from its objective. Group encouragement spurs additional effort. Leaders are necessary but interchangeable, organization of work depends on the task, accountability for individual and group performance is paramount, and seemingly small adjustments can yield amazing results.

Why do some teams fail?

Working in a team demands a great deal, and not everyone may be ready to be a team member. Analysis of failed attempts at introducing teams into the workplace suggests several obstacles to team success. These pitfalls can be avoided if you understand them. The main threat to team effectiveness is unrealistic expectations leading to frustration. Frustration, in turn, encourages people to abandon teams. Both managers and team members can be victimized by unrealistic expectations. If teams are to be effective, you must make a concerted effort to avoid common management mistakes, while team members must be aware of the pitfalls they face as well.

What are the common management mistakes with teams?

The common management mistakes generally involve doing a poor job of creating a supportive environment for teams. For instance, reward plans that encourage individuals to compete with one another erode teamwork. Teams need a good, long-term organizational life-support system. Teams also cannot be used as a quick fix to any organizational problem-they require a sustained commitment over time. Finally, some managers are unwilling to relinquish control to the team. In the past, good managers worked their way up from the plant floor by giving orders and having them followed, and they may find it difficult to change that approach.

Some common mistakes are:

  • lack of trust
  • poor staffing of teams
  • inadequate team skills training
  • vague or conflicting team assignments
  • lessons from one team not transferred to others
  • limited experimentation with teams
  • weak corporate strategies and poor business practices that teams are not designed to overcome
  • teams adopted as a fad or a quick-fix, with no long-term commitment
  • hostile environment for teams, such as command-and-control culture, competitive/individual reward plans, and management resistance

What are some of the common problems for team members?

Contrary to those who contend that employees lack the motivation and creativity for real teamwork, teams frequently take on too much too quickly and drive themselves too hard for fast results. Important group dynamics and team skills get lost in the rush toward the goal. Consequently, team members’ expectations need to be given a reality check by management and team members themselves. Teams also need to be counseled against quitting when they run into an unanticipated obstacle. Failure is part of the learning process with teams, as it is elsewhere in life. Comprehensive training in interpersonal skills can likewise prevent many common teamwork problems which may arise from conflicts in personalities, work styles, and approaches to communication. Teams fail when their members are unwilling to cooperate with each other or with other teams.

Some common mistakes are:

  • the team tries to do too much too soon
  • too much emphasis is placed on results and not enough on team processes and dynamics
  • unanticipated obstacles cause the team to give up
  • resistance to doing things differently from past practices
  • conflict over differences in personal work styles
  • poor interpersonal skills, such as aggressive rather than assertive communication, destructive conflict, and win-lose negotiation
  • poor interpersonal chemistry where loners, dominators, and self-appointed experts do not fit in, and other personality conflicts may occur
  • lack of trust

What are the symptoms of low-performing teams?

Obviously, many problems can lead to low-performing teams. The absence of the basic conditions for a cohesive team—trust, complementary goals, and a clear mission—usually will result in low productivity. Various symptoms, outlined below, should help you recognize low-performing teams.

  • Cautious or guarded communication: Low-performing teams may have members who fear some form of punishment, ridicule, or negative reaction, and therefore say nothing, or are guarded in what they do say.

  • Lack of disagreement: Lack of disagreement among team members may reflect poor team interaction, indicating that members are unwilling to share their true feelings and ideas.

  • Use of personal criticism: Personal criticism such as, “If you can’t come up with a better idea than that, you better keep quiet,” is a sign of unhealthy team member relations.

  • Ineffective meetings: Low-performing teams often have ineffective meetings characterized by boredom, unenthusiastic participation, failure to reach decisions, and dominance by one or two people.

  • Unclear goals: Low-performing teams often do not have a clear sense of mission, and members are often unable to recite their team’s objectives.

  • Low commitment: Without a clear sense of purpose, low-performing teams tend to have low commitment.

  • Destructive conflict within the team: Low-performing teams are often characterized by a suspicious, combative environment and by conflict among team members.

What are the characteristics of high-performing teams?

Of course, organizations want high-performing, productive teams rather than low-performing ones. High-performing teams are characterized by the attributes described below.

  • Commitment to a mission: The essence of a team is a common commitment to a common goal. Without it, groups perform as individuals; with it, they become a powerful collective unit. Teams must, therefore, have a clear mission to which they are committed.

  • Specific performance goals: High-performing teams translate their common purpose (such as “build world-class quality cars”) into specific performance goals (such as “reduce new-car defects to no more than four per vehicle”). In fact, transforming broad directives into specific and measurable performance goals is the surest first step for a team trying to shape a purpose meaningful to its members.

  • Right size, right mix: The best-performing teams generally have fewer than 25 people—usually between 7 and 14. The skills of team members should complement each other: a team needs people strong in technical expertise, as well as those skilled in problem solving, decision making, and interpersonal relationships.

  • A common approach: High-performing teams also agree on a common approach with respect to the way they will work together to accomplish their mission. For example, team members agree about who will do particular jobs, how schedules will be set and followed, what skills need to be developed, what members will have to do to earn continuing membership in the team, and how decisions will be made and modified.

  • Mutual accountability: The most productive teams also develop a sense of mutual accountability. They believe “we are all in this together” and that “we all have to hold ourselves accountable for doing whatever is needed to help the team achieve its mission.” Such mutual accountability cannot be coerced. Instead, it emerges from the commitment and trust that come from working together toward a common purpose.

  • Teamwork: All teams need members who are motivated to work well with others to accomplish important tasks—whether those tasks involve recommending things, making or doing things, or running things. They use teamwork—working together in such a way that their respective skills are utilized to achieve a common purpose. A commitment to teamwork is found in the willingness of every member to listen and respond constructively to views expressed by others, give others the benefit of the doubt, provide support, and recognize the interests and achievements of others.

This article is excerpted from BOMI International’s Effective Management Reference Guide. The guide can be purchased by calling 1-800-235-2664, or by visiting