High performing teams have an outsized impact on company success. Learn what traits these teams have in common, so you can cultivate them in your business.
We all know good teamwork is key to — well — everything. And when a business wants to excel in its industry, it’s essential that it builds high performing teams dedicated to achieving its lofty goals.
But in a world where ways of working are continually changing, how can businesses support such teams and guarantee consistent top-of-the-class business results?
Luckily, research into what makes high performing teams unique has revealed several characteristics shared by these teams. In this article, we’ll explore the essential components that make high performing teams so successful, no matter the challenges they face.
High performing teams, also called high performance teams, are groups within a business that deliver above-average results, typically due to a clear focus on their goals and their specialisms.
Exactly what a high performing team looks like differs from organization to organization and industry to industry, but they share several common characteristics (aside from consistent above-average performance).
So, what sets a high performing team aside from other teams in their organization? Firstly, they understand the three psychological needs that drive goal-oriented behaviors. High performing teams are, by nature, goal-oriented. It’s in the name!
Research has shown businesses must meet employees’ need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness to ensure they feel fulfilled, driven, and productive. According to leading psychological theories about motivation, these are all essential components to high performance.
Yet, it isn’t what high performing teams do differently that you should focus on; instead, understanding what high performing teams have in common and how they meet these three psychological needs will be infinitely more valuable.
There are countless high performing teams to be inspired by, from those responsible for NASA’s high-profile space missions, to lesser-known teams that deliver incredible solutions to customers every day.
Within businesses, several types of teams tend to be identified as ‘high performing’:
Management teams are integral to a company’s success, and their performance also goes a long way to impacting company culture and overall team performance. There is value in ensuring your management team performs well, with 90% of investors considering the quality of a business’s management team to be the most important non-financial factor when evaluating an IPO.
It’s important for project teams to be high performing as they tend to focus on specific short-term goals, bringing together individuals with specialized expertise. It is important these teams have a strong sense of project ownership.
Autonomous teams are set up to work with minimal supervision. They are given the space to develop their own ways of working and can move quickly to resolve problems.
As virtual teams don’t work in the same location, they experience extra pressure to build effective processes, focus on communicating effectively, and create a supportive team culture.
While delivering consistently high results is one defining characteristic of high performing teams, it’s critical to understand what they have in common that allows them to reach these peak levels of achievement.
All high performing teams share not one, not two but dozens of key characteristics. Let’s look at eight in more detail.
Autonomy is a key physiological need for highly-motivated individuals. For managers, this means trusting employees to act independently without needing to approve every decision they make.
In practice, this includes trusting individuals to manage their time effectively, consider risk when making decisions, and take accountability for their actions.
When companies micromanage their staff, they miss out on opportunities for creative innovation, which is critical to delivering high-quality results.
A high performing team must trust one another and their team leader — and vice versa. Mutual trust is essential to creating a sense of “psychological safety,” which directly impacts high performance. This sounds like a complex concept, but all it means is that people feel safe to be themselves in private or professional environments.
In the context of teams in the workplace, creating psychological safety means building an environment where employees feel safe sharing concerns, making mistakes, and offering candid feedback. Without this candor, teams can’t be competitive, as they’ll lose out on valuable feedback and fail to take the risks necessary to be innovative.
In fact, a study by Google on teams named project ‘Aristotle’ found that psychological safety was the main factor influencing individual performance.
Some managers lead through a culture of fear, believing this will motivate people to work harder. The reverse is actually true, with fear impairing analytical thinking, creative insight, and problem-solving, according to The Fearless Organization by Amy C. Edmondson.
If a team doesn’t trust each other enough to support authentic collaboration, or they are fearful of their manager, this can result in a hostile environment which negates psychological safety. High performing teams understand this and put measures in place to support psychological safety.
Role clarity has a huge impact on our ability to achieve our goals at work. Indeed, according to employee feedback specialists, Effectory, 83% of employees who report a high degree of role clarity state that this is a factor that helps them be productive.
Teams working at the top of their game make sure that each team member has clear expectations of what they need to achieve. Roles are made clear, and the goalposts do not move arbitrarily.
This fosters a sense of transparency and ensures accountability toward their share of the work. By clearly defining each person's responsibilities, managers reduce task overlap, improve processes, and increase productivity.
While team members may have differing responsibilities, their work still feeds into the same projects and business goals. High performing teams align themselves under shared goals, prioritizing group achievements over individual egos and visions.
High performing teams understand that prioritizing your vision and career advancement over the team's needs can lead to inter-team conflict. The solution is to set a ‘why’ which provides a shared vision and lays out how each role feeds into the team’s overall goals.
In his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” Patrick Lencioni explores the importance of setting team goals that focus on group achievements: “When everyone is focused on results and using those to define success, it is difficult for ego to get out of hand.” This helps incentivize teamwork and improve collaboration, two significant factors in high team performance.
High performing teams also do away with blame culture, instead focusing on developing a strong sense of accountability for reaching shared goals. In practice, they’re more likely to accept their mistakes and band together to find solutions.
At Runn, we talk a lot about the benefits of effective communication because it’s essential to all teams, not just high-performance teams. But these teams go above and beyond to support open and honest communication, utilizing every medium of communication available, from in-person meetings and Zoom calls to emails and Slack channels.
High-performance teams collaborate as often as possible, bouncing ideas off each other and providing honest feeding. This helps them become better at tackling challenges, devising creative solutions, and staying resilient in the face of conflict or setbacks.
In high performing teams, the strength of personal relationships is a factor in their success - and this is no surprise. Research by the University of Michigan's Center for Positive Organizations found that “high quality connections” at work are key, not only to building trust between people, but also to facilitating collaboration and mutual learning - all elements which contribute to team effectiveness.
Whether getting lunch together, grabbing a quick coffee, or celebrating at an office party, high performing teams are likely simply to enjoy each other’s company. These informal interactions help strengthen relationships and foster a positive team dynamic, which prevents unproductive conflict and boosts creativity and productivity.
In a time of technological evolution and shifting consumer needs, we are never, ever done learning, and high performing teams know that. High performing teams try to learn from their mistakes and move with the times, which involves creating a culture encouraging feedback and investing in employee development programs.
Finally, high performing teams are led by high performing leaders. Many of the common factors we’ve discussed come down to culture, largely determined by management.
From taking the lead on defining the team’s goals and responsibilities to encouraging open communication and supporting autonomous working, effective leadership goes a long way to building a culture that begets high performance. Team leaders can also jump in to provide advice and secure funding for development programs.
The bar is high in teams that perform at the top of their game, and it may sound like a lot of pressure. But, ultimately, the underlying characteristics that unify high performing teams are all about communication: communicating honestly, openly, fairly, effectively, and with trust. As a result, high performing teams create some of the healthiest and most invigorating work cultures out there.
They prioritize collaboration and actively seek diverse perspectives. They foster a culture of continuous learning and growth. They establish clear goals and hold themselves accountable for their actions. They embrace change and adapt quickly to new circumstances, leveraging their collective agility to stay ahead.
But, crucially, high performing teams understand that excellence is not a destination but a journey - they are committed to continually raising the bar. Collective success is the ultimate goal - but this creates an atmosphere where individuals can also thrive and love what they do.
Learn how to organize your teams better with our guide on five common types of teams, how they work, and their pros and cons.
Many people aspire to become a team leader in their career - but what highs and lows might the role bring? We asked experienced leaders for their thoughts.