Leading Teams: People

We know that the highest performing teams are not simply those with the most talented individuals (though it goes without saying that ensuring that the team has the appropriate technical competences to achieve their objectives is critical). The success of a team depends on the interaction between all team members and these interactions are driven by each individual’s:

  • team competencies – relate to the competencies of being an effective team member, NOT a person’s technical or professional competencies
  • team commitment – is about a team member’s commitment to the team, not to their role
  • team mindset – concerns how the person thinks about the team, not their role in general

In other words, for a team to perform at a high level, it is not enough for the team members to have the relevant technical skills, they need to be able to work in a team and that depends on these 3 factors.


The more capable team members are in the following areas, the more effective they will be in working as a team.

  • active listening – team members should actively listen to each other with open minds; as Stephen Covey said, ‘seek first to understand, then be understood’.
  • giving and receiving feedback – a feedback rich culture is the foundation of continuous improvement but feedback needs to be given and received appropriately. It is fact-based, not personal, and solution oriented.
  • managing emotions – one’s own and others’ – awareness of emotional triggers (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness) team members to provide empathy and avoid difficulties
  • presenting ideas – good ideas don’t sell themselves
  • managing conflict – constructive conflict is a feature of many highly effective teams. There will always be different perspectives and it’s important that people stand up for what they believe to be the best course of action but without damaging relationships or creating obstacles to performance.
  • managing priorities – individual objectives must always be subservient to team objectives
  • being a ‘participant observer’ – each team member has responsibility not only to perform but to observe and evaluate how the team is working and make suggestions to improve performance.
  • leadership – leadership is a function, not a role. Over time team members should undertake more leadership tasks:
    • setting objectives
    • planning and prioritising
    • allocating tasks and resources
    • managing performance
    • reporting
    • developing and changing processes
    • liaising with other parts of the organisation

[more on this in the team stages section]

As a leader, part of your role is to support the development of these competencies. You may wish to create a template to help you to assess current levels and to identify how each competence can be improved.

Team commitment

In high performing teams, team members are committed to being an effective team member. This means commitment to the team goals, approach and purpose – and to each other. But with commitment there is risk, so an individual’s level of commitment will be affected by the extent to which a leader has created a positive culture by following the exemplary leadership principles. We can identify 4 areas of particular importance:

  • Trust – towards the leader and fellow team members. As already discussed, trust is developed through: competence, caring, clear expectations, open communication and conferring trust. The leader needs to reinforce the importance of trust, discussing it individually and in team meetings.
  • Comfortable – we each have different preferences and an individual may prioritize answers to certain questions. This is simply acknowledging that the leader needs to adapt their style according to the preferences of individuals – and help all team members to do the same.
    • What – High-D – what are we trying to achieve, what are our targets
    • Who – High-I – who will I be working with
    • How – High-S – how will we make things happen and ensure that things go smoothly
    • Why – High-C – what is the rationale for our approach
  • Secure – as a team member, my commitment will be driven by the degree to which I feel threat / reward in relation to SCARF.
    • Status – do I feel important in the team? Am I respected? Is my work appreciated and recognised?
    • Certainty – do I know what is going on and what may happen in the future? Is information freely shared?
    • Autonomy – to what extent can I do things my way and are my opinions listened to? Am I given responsibility?
    • Relatedness – do other people, in the words of Katzenbach and Smith, “give a damn” about me?
    • Fairness – am I treated fairly?

Trust, Comfort and SCARF triggers are not only related to the leader : team member relationship. They are affected by the interactions between team members. A team member’s commitment will be affected by the actions of his or her fellow team members. The leader has a role in increasing awareness and supporting team members in developing and maintaining commitment with each other.

  • Motivated – do team members believe that:
    • being a member of this team will help me to advance in my career?
    • I have opportunities to learn and grow? (mastery)
    • the team is doing meaningful work (Purpose)
    • I have a strong say in what and how I do things (autonomy)

Team Mindset

Mindset is a set of beliefs and attitudes that a team member holds in relation to being a member of the team and what will bring the best results. In a High Performing Team, members believe in:

  • openness and sharing ideas freely
  • asking for opinions
  • accountability

Research by Joseph Grenny[1] shows that:

  • in the weakest teams, there is no accountability
  • in mediocre teams, bosses are the source of accountability
  • in high performance teams, peers manage the vast majority of performance problems with one another
    • being supportive of other team members
    • team over individual performance
    • a solution rather than a blame focus
    • being flexible
    • ‘giving a damn’ about others
    • diversity and supporting inclusion

By developing a team mindset in individuals, the leader is creating a culture in which the team will come to assume many of the functions of leadership. By developing effective team members, the leader is not trying to create automaton clones. There will always be ‘deviants’ and ‘edges’ to people – and that’s more than OK. Part of being an effective team member is recognizing, accepting and making the most of these edges.

“Every team needs a deviant, someone who says,

‘Why are we even doing this at all?’” [2]


[1] Joseph Grenny, Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

[2] Professor J Richard Hackman

python team

“Disagreement within a team, and the expression of diverse opinions, is creatively invaluable. All the research shows that teams whose members share the same attitudes will enjoy the experience of working together, will have good opinions of the others in the team, and be keen to repeat the experience; but creatively they will produce bugger-all.

By contrast, teams whose members view things differently from one another will argue, but this creative conflict produces innovation. You want creative conflict: what you don’t want is personal conflict, because that will complicate proceedings and can result all too often in deadlock. The Python team was very diverse – just look at the entirely separate directions our careers went in after our time together – but despite our disagreements, creatively we worked very well together. We all had shortcomings, but these were balanced by the others’ different strengths.”

John Cleese