High Performing Teams

High Performing Teams

Authors: Christine Hudson and Ronica Roth

Are you halfway to a high performing team?

As a leader of a team, which of these common techniques have you tried so your team becomes high-performing?

  • Sharing a personal story to increase camaraderie
  • Making a working agreement that people should feel free to speak up in meetings so that everyone feels heard
  • Declaring that a meeting is safe so people can voice dissenting opinions

We’ve both seen lots of leaders take these steps with the best of intentions.  We might even be guilty, ourselves, too. (We are.) Unfortunately, these actions start from the right idea, but get you only halfway there.

You’re on the right path. If you take these steps to the next level–to the impact that will make a difference– team morale and productivity will soar.

Sharing personal stories

The goal of sharing personal stories is to create the trust needed for authenticity and real conflict

If you’re looking to create a high performing team, when you share a personal story, the goal needs to be more than creating camaraderie; the goal needs to be about showing and creating vulnerability-based trust:  Show your team that you can be human, that you don’t have a “work face” – that they, too, can bring their whole selves to work.

In fact, not only should you share a story, the rest of the team should, too. We’ve found great success in creating high-performing teams by leveraging Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” parable:  You and your team each share a story about your childhood. Share where you grew up, number of siblings, your birth order, and a challenge you overcame as a child.

Team members who aren’t afraid to share their own weaknesses can authentically engage in conversation and conflict, because they aren’t expending energy putting up defenses.

A whole team showing up as their authentic selves can fearlessly dive into the root cause of issues and move past them.

“The first dysfunction [of a team] is an absence of trust among team members. Essentially this stems from their unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust.” — Patrick Lencioni

Hearing all voices

When we hear all voices we get the benefits of diverse thinking and full engagement, but you must challenge the listeners–not the speakers–via working agreements.

Participation can’t be legislated. Instead, we need to create an open, safe space for people to walk into. And that space needs to be inviting to a variety of people.

Luckily, this goal can be reliably achieved through deft and conscientious facilitation. Many facilitation techniques specifically address creating safety and ensuring all voices are heard.

For example, to generate lots of ideas (or concerns), you can start with a silent, written brainstorm for a couple of minutes followed by a round-robin readout of each person’s idea or by a timed response in which each person gets two minutes to talk (and everyone else must be silent). The quiet individual work makes space for people who prefer to think before they speak. The round-robin readouts ensure every idea is heard before judgment or processing occurs.

To get an honest vote that takes an accurate temperature of the room, you can use a “secret ballot” using paper and tallied by a facilitator. In this case, you avoid the groupthink of some folks just “going along” with the most senior person. It can help enormously to have an external facilitator in these circumstances.

These are just two actions you can take to create real safety and invite honest participation. Learn about many more techniques in two of our favorite books: Collaboration Explained, by Jean Tabaka and Sam Kaner’s The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making.

“You’re only as smart as the quietest person in the room” — Jean Tabaka

Safe meeting spaces

Only actions–your actions–can create the safety that brings truth and dissenting opinions into the room

You want to know what’s really happening on the team or project, and you value each team member’s unique viewpoint. Great. Honesty requires safety. And safety is built one team member at a time, starting with you.

How do you react when you hear bad news (the project is off the rails)? As humans, we often go through a process of denial or blaming. If we speak or act from that place–especially as leaders–we essentially demonstrate to everyone that bad news is better hidden.

But it turns out that with awareness, consciousness and practice, we can choose *not* to respond to our brain’s instinct to avoid responsibility, and can instead take a deep breath, and *choose* how we want to respond. If we do this, then we help create the safety and space needed for people to speak up.

What do we mean when we say “choose how you want to respond?”

When any upset occurs, every human progresses through a series of stages, in order, with the brain offering up possible explanations for the problem. Christopher Avery describes these stages in The Responsibility Process:

Lay Blame – Holding others at fault for causing something

Justify – Using excuses for things being the way they are

Shame – Laying blame onto oneself (but feeling powerless and defensive about it)

Obligation – Doing what you have to instead of what you want to

The trick is to teach our brain to reject each of these initially offered explanations, because each one takes away our power in the situation. Instead, we seek to make it to Personal Responsibility, where we own our power to create, choose and attract.

When we act from a place of responsibility, we are accepting our power and owning our response. We are no victim of ourselves or others but rather able to accept the truth, remain strong (even if the truth reveals our fault in the matter), and remain open to what’s next.

We’re not going to pretend: This takes practice and effort. We personally found it useful to practice responsibility with a group dedicated to learning to practice responsibility at ever higher levels (such as a local community of practice or Christopher Avery’s The Leadership Gift Program). But you can start today. The simple act of  becoming aware of how you react when things go wrong – small as losing keys and as large as losing a customer — will get you on the path to personal responsibility.

It starts with you.

Building a high-performing team starts internally, with you.

First, learn to notice when you are applying dysfunctional responses like ‘blame’ and ‘justify’ and work toward more often coming from a place of personal responsibility.  Then, you’ll be able to create vulnerability-based trust by sharing authentically sharing stories and bringing your whole, responsible self to work. Finally, within the safe, trust-full environment you’ve created (and continue to create) by demonstrating personal responsibility and authenticity, you can use facilitation techniques to ensure every voice is heard.

Invite the team you lead to join you in this journey.

Christine Hudson is helping CA Technologies transform to modern strategy deployment and product delivery methods. She works with companies and in communities to support senior leaders practicing lean-agile behaviors and processes.

Ronica Roth has more than 15 years of experience in agile practices. Based in Boulder, CO, she speaks and writes regularly on agile topics. Her current mission is to equip CA Technologies’ agility consultants as they guide and support companies on their transformation journeys. 

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