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Common Characteristics of High-Performing Teams

All organizations are made up of teams. The performance of these teams influences the overall success of a business. This is the case in both small startups and large multinational organizations.

In this article, we’ll look at what makes a high-performing team, as well as explore practical steps your business can take to build high-performing teams.

The High-Performing Teams Model

High-performing teams are those that achieve better business results when compared to similar groups.

They generally perform as more than the sum of their parts. Several studies, including those from Google and MIT, suggest that in high-performing teams, the ability or performance of the individuals within the group is of secondary importance to other factors.

Identifying the characteristics of high-performing teams to improve the productivity of groups in their organization is a priority for many managers. Here is a look at what makes a high-performing team.

Characteristics of High-Performing Teams

The points below are some of the most important factors that studies have found can impact a team’s performance.

While there are only four categories—communication, composition, having a plan, and psychological safety—each one includes several points for managers to consider.

For example, communication covers not only encouraging communication but encouraging a specific type of communication. Having a plan includes not only setting goals and measuring them but also building a strategy to achieve these goals and clarifying the role of each team member.

High-Performing Teams are Good Communicators

In a study that explored why some teams outperformed others, MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory found that the key to high performance was in the way teams communicate.

Additionally, the study found that patterns of communication were not only the most important predictor of a team’s success but were as significant as all the other factors the study looked at combined.

These other factors included the intelligence of the individuals in the team, their personality, their skills, and the content of their discussions.

The researchers identified three aspects of communication they found were crucial to team performance. These were:

  • Energy, as measured by the number of and the nature of exchanges between team members. The study found that when it came to building energy, face-to-face communication is most important, followed by video or phone calls. E-mail and texting were the least effective.
  • Engagement is how energy is distributed amongst team members. Teams in which energy is distributed equally among all members were more engaged than those in which it was concentrated in a small number.
  • Exploration is the number of outside connections a team has. The study found that high-performing teams had members who frequently engaged with external teams.

The question, then, is how to encourage teams to communicate in the way defined above. The study highlighted several actions companies had taken that had produced positive results.

  • Schedule breaks so teams are off work at the same time. Doing so will encourage communication among members.
  • Experiment with seating arrangements to encourage strangers to sit together and improve exploration. For example, using long tables in areas where employees eat lunch.
  • Managers can set a personal example by actively seeking out face-to-face communication with team members.
  • Provide feedback to employees about communicating more effectively. For example, encouraging people to listen when others are talking and minimize interruptions.
  • If that doesn’t work, switching out team members can improve energy and engagement.

High-Performing Teams Have Optimal Composition

According to McKinsey, the size of a team can affect how well it performs.

The consultancy firm found that having fewer than six members in a team could result in poor and slow decision-making due to a lack of diversity and bandwidth. On the other hand, a team’s performance begins to worsen once it gets beyond ten members as the larger size encourages sub-teams and divisive behavior.

McKinsey also suggests that when creating teams, managers should consider whether the skills and attitudes of team members are complementary.

The consultancy firm isn’t the only organization to cite size as a predictor of the performance of teams.

In a survey of over 100 senior executives from across America, ThinkWise found that small teams— those with
less than ten members—outperformed the average score in all but two of the indicators of high-performance teams.

Medium teams with ten to fifty members outperformed the average score in two categories. Teams with over fifty members outperformed the average in just a single category.

High-Performing Teams Have a Strategy

The ThinkWise study also provided an interesting insight into the traits of high-performing teams. The most significant difference in these metrics came in communication, corroborating what MIT found.

However, the second was that high-performing teams keep commitments. This combines with other traits such as having a sense of direction and purpose to suggest that high-performing teams have a clear understanding of objectives and a path to achieving their goals.

The New York Times agrees. In an article, the newspaper singled out, making a plan as one of the top insights for how to lay the groundwork of a highly productive team.

Specifically, the newspaper pointed to the importance of:

  • Managers taking steps to ensure teams work well together.
  • Creating a clear map of what a team’s priorities are and how they will be measured.
  • Setting a clear shared goal for the team encourages the unit to work together to achieve the goal.

Google (more on their study below) also found that structural clarity—defined as clarity of the team’s roles, plans, and goals—was important.

High-Performing Teams Feel Psychologically Safe

In 2012, Google began to study hundreds of teams within the organization in an attempt to find out why some groups were more successful than others.

After spending years running models to define which traits impacted the effectiveness of a team, it found that the number one metric was psychological safety. This was followed by dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact.

According to the report, psychological safety refers to “the individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk.”

Teams in which members feel psychologically safe are those where the members are confident when it comes to asking questions, making suggestions, or admitting mistakes.

In terms of fostering psychological safety, Google pointed to research by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, who suggests “Framing work as a learning problem, not an execution problem, acknowledging your fallibility, and modeling curiosity and asking questions.”

Wrapping Up

The above four factors are many of the traits high-performing teams display. Managers looking to improve the performance of their teams should look to introduce ways of encouraging that type of behavior with their own teams.

To learn more about working better, check out our articles on improving communication in teams and increasing productivity at work.