Leading Teams: Performance

This is the first of the 3Ps of high performing teams.

3Ps of High Performing Teams


We begin with Performance because that is the purpose of a team.

“Performance is both the cause and effect of teams.” [1]

This quotation from Katzenbach and Smith succinctly embodies the dominant theme of their writings: that a team leader should focus on performance, not team building. In part, this statement is a reaction to the conventional wisdom at the time they undertook their research: build team spirit and get everyone to commit to the team, then begin working. The idea was a committed team would perform better than a collection of individuals. This is undoubtedly true but, as Katzenbach and Smith point out, the best way to get commitment and buy-in, is to perform. As we saw earlier with Marcus Buckingham’s 12 questions, the essential foundation of motivation is contributing and doing a good job. Katzenbach and Smith reinforce their message:

“Teams are discrete units of performance, not a positive set of values”

The point is not that values are irrelevant, rather, they are a means to an end, not an end in itself – and they are more likely to develop if a team is performing. In their view too many managers put the cart before the horse – trying to build team values before people feel the need to be a team.

In fact, there is even evidence to suggest that high performance does not always require harmony. Harvard Professor J Richard Hackman comments:

“People generally think that teams that work together harmoniously are better and more productive than teams that don’t. But in a study we conducted on symphonies, we actually found that grumpy orchestras played together slightly better than orchestras in which all the musicians were really quite happy.

That’s because the cause-and-effect is the reverse of what most people believe: When we’re productive and we’ve done something good together (and are recognized for it), we feel satisfied, not the other way around. In other words, the mood of the orchestra members after a performance says more about how well they did than the mood beforehand.” [2]

Performance Principles

Katzenbach and Smith suggest the following principles to support the development of a high performing team:

  • Establish urgency and direction. All team members need to believe the team has urgent and worthwhile purpose, and they want to know what the expectations are. Indeed, the more urgent and meaningful the rationale, the more likely it is that a real team will emerge. The best team charters are clear enough to indicate performance expectations, but flexible enough to allow teams to shape their own purpose, goals, and approach.
  • Select members based on skill and skill potential, not personalities. Teams must have the complementary skills needed to do their job . Three categories of skills are relevant: 1) technical and functional, 2) problem-solving, and 3) interpersonal. The key issue for potential teams is striking the right balance between members who already possess the needed skill levels versus developing the skill levels after the team gets started.
  • Pay particular attention to first meetings and actions. Initial impressions always mean a great deal. When potential teams firs gather, everyone alertly monitors the signals given by others to confirm, suspend, or dispel going-in assumptions and concerns. They particularly pay attention to those in authority: The team leader and any executives who set up, oversee, or otherwise influence the team. And, as always, what such leaders do is more important than what they say.
  • Set some clear rules of behaviour. All real teams develop rules of conduct to help them achieve their purpose and performance goals. The most critical early rules pertain to attendance (for example: “no interruptions to take phone calls”), discussion-“no sacred cows”, confidentiality, analytic approach-facts are friendly, end-product orientations-everyone gets assignments and does them, constructive confrontation-no finger pointing, and often the most important-everyone does real work.
  • Set and seize upon a few immediate performance-oriented tasks and goals. Most teams trace their advancement to key performance-oriented events that forge them together. Potential teams can set such events in motion by immediately establishing a few challenging yet achievable goals that can be reached early on.
  • Challenge the group regularly with fresh facts and information. New information causes a potential team to redefine and enrich its understanding of the performance challenge, thereby helping the team shape a common purpose, set clearer goals, and improve on its common approach.
  • Spend lots of time together. Common sense tells us that teams must spend a lot of time together, especially as the beginning. Yet potential teams often fail to do so. The time spent together must be both scheduled and unscheduled. Indeed, creative insights as well as personal bonding require impromptu and casual interactions just as much as analysing spreadsheets, interviewing customers, competitor, or fellow employees, and constantly debating issues.
  • Exploit the power of positive feedback, recognition, and reward. Positive reinforcement works as well in a team context as elsewhere. “Giving out gold stars” helps to shape new behaviours critical to team performance. If people in the group, for example, are alert to a shy person’s initial efforts to speak up and contribute, they can give him or her the positive reinforcement that encourages continued contributions.

[1] Katzenbach and Smith, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization

[2] HBR article available here: https://hbr.org/2009/05/why-teams-dont-work