How to Build a High-Performing Team


A quality performing team is a notoriously elusive thing to create. No amount of buzzwords like synergy, trust, and leadership can guarantee that your team will function and adapt to the playing field in order to achieve its goal—to win. 

If it were that easy, wouldn’t the Chicago Cubs have ended their 107-year MLB championship drought a little sooner than 2016, or wouldn't every new start-up successfully 'disrupt' the market? 

The core ingredients of high-performing teams come from a true understanding of how the various parts of the team, or players, interact with each other, and the culture at large. Once those moving parts can be aligned and motivated to achieve the team’s goal, performance can be achieved and modified. But certain roadblocks can lead teams astray, so keeping a diagnostic finger on the pulse of the team’s dynamics can be just as critical in helping to achieve success. 

Keep reading to learn more about the types of cultures and key habits of high-performing teams and the dynamics of low-performing teams. 

What Isn’t a Team?

The problem with many teams is that they aren’t actually a team. Whether or not it is known to leadership or the team members, many groups have individuals who see each other as competition. They think, “if so and so is doing well, then I’m doing worse.” This is not the kind of attitude that builds a high-performing team. Instead of functioning together to create an interaction that’s more energetic than would result from either individual alone (the true meaning of synergy), these members push and pull in a competitive manner, often mitigating one another’s performance.

When teammates no longer work together to perform, they can lose trust in one another. It can be as simple as not trusting that someone will do their job, which can lead others to overcompensate, which then causes them to lose sight of their position in the group, and the cog begins to unwind towards an unintended and negative result. No synergy, no trust — who’s to blame? Enter leadership. 

There are typically a few kinds of leaders in teams. First, there are the team leaders or captains. They have a beat on the pulse of the team and are its beacons of ethics and morals—the culture. Great teams rally behind the valour and sacrifice of captains, and poor teams fall behind and cut corners. Captains truly lead by example, and the team follows. Founding sports editor for the Wall Street Journal, Sam Walker did a deep—a ridiculously deep —dive into the modern history of winning sports teams. He found that a team’s winning streak typically started and ended with the “arrival and departure of one player, and that player in every single case, would become the leader or the captain of the team.” 

Then there are the team managers or coaches. Team managers are the ones who assemble and manage the players in the team. They set goals, match key members to work together on given tasks, make adjustments, and, most critically they select the captains. A great team manager can inspire the team leaders and, in turn, the team. They also can make tactical adjustments to help the team perform when things don’t unfold as planned. As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations". 

There are an innumerable amount of things that can make a group non-functional. So before you go rushing around trying to make incompatible things compatible, make sure that you actually have a 'team' to begin with. 

What Is a Team?

A team is, first and foremost, a collection of people trying to achieve a goal by working together. That goal could be to create a new idea, secure a business relationship, sell a product, or, as we see in sports, win a game over the competition. Teammates do not see each other as competition but rather as integral parts of a larger organisation that operates with the sole purpose of winning. The culture of that team—along with other key variables like communication and development—dictate their success. 

Since the team is actually larger than the sum of its parts — an idea that the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University dubs 'team intelligence' — each cog in the system plays an integral role. While high-performing teams can adjust their internal system to adapt to a broken or missing link, even the smallest of defects in the system can lead to less-than-ideal performance. While this may sound a tad reductionist, if a team truly believes that each role in the system is integral to the overall performance, then the culture of the team becomes one of positivity. Each player buys into their role because they know that when they do their job, the whole team wins. 

In a fantasy world, every team member wants to be the star, the person who touches the glory. But in reality, a team of finishers/closers is incomplete. The closer needs a setup person, the setup person needs people to create opportunities, and everyone needs a backbone or defence. Everyone works together but stays in their lane. This idea was perfectly embodied by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots NFL dynasty because they built a culture founded on the saying “do your job".

Let’s put that into context.

The “Do Your Job” Culture

Say you want to create a team whose goal is to sell more of your product than it did last year. There’s nothing new about the product; you just want to sell more of it. The roster for your team includes the following: 

Team manager

The team manager is the coach. They run the organisational and administrative tasks that run the team. The team manager selects the personnel for the job and sees to it that goals are met and that the team’s system operates in a functional manner. 

Team lead 

The team lead is the captain. They work hands-on with the team and not only give direct support but also instill the culture at large of the team. Again, the lead is perhaps the most critical role in the team because high-performing teams have certain cultures and ethics like hard work. If the captain is in the trenches with the other members of the team, they will buy into their individual roles and pull together. Team leads are also the experts in opening lines of communication. They help meld the individual parts of the team into a larger sea of movement. They break up echo chambers to allow the team’s energetic current to flow and work hard to break up any roadblocks that prevent any team or member from doing their job. But they aren’t 'yes' men. 

As Walker noted in his research on winning teams in sports history (and their leaders), the captains often pushed back and created friction. This style of communication can actually lead to benefits. Allowing the free-flowing of ideas actually embraces the power of diversity. Members can openly state what they see and suggest things to try. When ideas work, they can be added to the playbook — and if it doesn't work, they can become a learning opportunity. This creates a “win or learn” mentality, as renowned mixed martial artist coach, John Kavanagh, penned it. 

Customer support 

There’s a saying in sports that good defence wins championships. In a business, the customer support team is the goalie of the team — the backbone of the defence. They handle all of the nitty-gritty aspects of the customer’s journey from seed to sale, and of course, feedback. Any major issues with your product will come to light with the CS team. So communication between them and the team lead is paramount. 

Marketers, advertisers, and PR specialists 

Marketers, advertisers, and PR specialists are the playmakers and the set-up people. Depending on your product, their actions may result in sales, but that’s not necessarily their sole focus. PR specialists handle press, outreach, and handle the overall reputation of the brand. Good PR can build new relationships, open new doors, build brand trust, and waltz through a crisis. Marketers and advertisers identify the needs of the customer, figure out how to fulfill those needs, run the campaigns, and track the metrics to see how the budget compares to the sales. 


The sellers are the finishers, closers, the glory getters. They chase leads and then close them. In the digital world, a seller can also be something as simple as a button in an online store (which is why I mentioned that marketers and advertisers can sell), but the sales team remains a cornerstone of a high-performing team. *Depending on what you sell—for example, software as a service (SAAS)—the team may also include an account manager. 

If this team wants to perform at a high level, everyone needs to do their job. That means individual members finish their tasks, perform those tasks to their highest ability, and trust that each team member is also doing their job in the same manner. The result creates a true synergy, and the team begins to radiate results that are larger than the sum of the parts. It was not just the star quarterback, Tom Brady, who won those 6 Super Bowl rings in New England; it was the larger culture of everyone doing their jobs. 

High-performing teams also have a few other key habits to keep in mind. 

By The Numbers 

A 2021 survey conducted by renowned psychologist Ron Friedman of 1,106 American office workers found several key practices of high-performing teams. Here’s the breakdown: 

  • Successful teams make a lot of phone calls—about 10 calls per day in comparison to the 6 daily calls made by lesser-performing teams. The numbers show that staying in constant communication is a part of achieving performance in teams. 
  • Successful teams don’t waste time when they have meetings. In fact, high-performing teams are 39% more likely to have pre-work for meetings, 26% more likely to have an agenda, and 55% more likely to start off with a check-in that gives progress updates. Being efficient enables the team to focus on their goals and not be bothered or burnt out by needless meetings. 
  • Another thing winning teams do is bond over topics that are not related to work. They are 25% more likely to talk about non-work topics like family or sports—even on the job. They are even more likely to meet outside of work for coffee or a drink. The camaraderie that comes with knowing a person for more than their work identity is another ingredient for success. 
  • Finally, high-performing teams are 72% more likely to get frequent appreciation from their colleagues and 79% more likely to receive appreciation from their managers. The workers are also 44% more likely to give appreciation to others. 

Build for the Future

Fortune 500 coach Tugba Yanaz writes in Entrepreneur Magazine that high-performing teams also give individual members the power to make decisions. Enabling people to make their own choices gives them autonomy. When people have the freedom to operate, they can then start to take ownership of their role. The end result is individuals who are invested in their roles and want to succeed at their tasks. 

Yanaz also wrote that high-performing teams continue to develop individuals. Research by the late Harvard University professor of Organisational Psychology, J. Richard Hackman, shared by the American Psychological Association, highlights that when competent coaching is available, it can help members get over rough spots and take advantage of emerging opportunities. Opportunities for growth and mentorship are essential ingredients for a great team. 

So You Have a High Performing Team, Now What? Measure It.

A high-performing team is made up of a lot of moving parts. There’s addressing the negative aspects of the culture, finding a common goal, establishing a roster, building the culture, instilling good habits, and providing avenues for future success. Do all of this, and sprinkle in a bit of good luck, and then you might put together a high-performing team. 

Once you have what you believe to be a high-performing team, you might wonder what the signs are that indicate it is actually high performing. One way to better understand a team’s ability to perform is to measure resilience levels in individuals and the group. Resilience is the ability to adapt to change. 

In conjunction with our global partners, Springfox and the Resilience Institute, have developed version 5 of the Resilience Diagnostic and Development Tool. This tool has been a trusted industry assessment metric since 2008. You can use it to measure an individual’s and/or a team’s ability to perform, in addition to mental fitness, cognitive skills, emotional intelligence, and well-being. 

It only takes 5 minutes for individuals to take the assessment, and the group report is interactive. Contact us to find out how you can use our global benchmarks to identify your team’s needs.  

Everyone Wants to Be on a Winning Team

Outside of diagnostics, another sign of a winning team is that others want to join. Gallup notes that high-performing teams attract talent. Everyone wants to be part of a winning culture. Build it, and they will come. Now you know what you need to build a high-performing team. It’s time to go for it. 

Keep well.

Please note: This article is republished with the permission of Nicklas Balboa from the Resilience Institute—our global research partner.

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