In the spotlight: High-Performing Organisations

High-Performing Teams

If you want to make the pace you have to set yourself high standards and give your very best performance. Many business leaders wonder if it’s possible to achieve this with their current crew. We believe it is. There’s more to a good team than the abilities of its individual members. By building trust, bringing people closer together, introducing and promoting a healthy culture of debate, and ensuring that everyone clearly recognises the common objective and the contribution they can make towards it, you can exploit this potential – and harness the power of high-performing teams for the benefit of your business.

Charles Donkor

Charles Donkor

Partner, People and Organisation, PwC Switzerland

Teams bring out the best in everyone

Joyce Caroll1 and her company, a global biotech firm of which she’s the general manager, are facing profound changes. If she succeeds in overcoming them, her organisation will emerge as a leader in the fiercely competitive oncology market. If not, the very survival of the business will be threatened, and a large number of jobs will be in jeopardy. Consequently, Caroll has decided to restructure her entire management team. She’s organising a workshop to empower her leadership crew to make the quantum leap ahead. But not long after it starts it becomes clear that they’re unable to work as a team and won’t be able to make even the slightest change happen. Added to a negative dynamic, internal tensions and a lack of clear focus, the team members are inexperienced in their new leadership role. In short, the team is not up to such a monumental task. There’s a risk that the transformation may fail before it has even begun.

Start at the top

This situation is no exception, particularly at top management level. Until now, teams have rarely evolved as teams in business. Quite the contrary. Company bosses generally send their newly promoted staff on management courses and finance expensive further training at costly business schools. The result: individuals develop but faced with the old dynamic in their team cannot leverage the new learnings optimally. Against this background the concept of high-performing teams has emerged. Organisations have to deal with increasingly complex tasks. They must digitise their processes, implement regulatory developments in compliance with the legislation, and deliver their products faster and more efficiently. These challenges are inevitably multi-disciplinary in nature. It’s impossible to cope with these new business dynamics as an individual.

What’s called for today is teams that prepare things together and approach their tasks as a unit – just as they do in sports – at every hierarchical level. These teams then serve as role models for all other teams. Obviously, each individual must continue to develop his/her skills in their own area of expertise. A goalkeeper must save goals, and a striker must score them. However, they can only win the game if they evolve together as a team. It would never occur to the coach of a national football team to send his players on individual trainings, then announce the team formation and tactics just half an hour before the start before leaving them to get on with the game.

Rowers v footballers

The traditional definition of a high-performing team is one that achieves an outstandingly impressive performance, making optimal use of the capabilities of each individual team member. This highlights the difference between a team and a group. The members of a team are committed and close-knit and share a common objective. They also have guiding principles to follow as they pursue their goal together. A high-performing team is not just a group made up of experts who meet, exchange ideas and then go their own way.

Figure 1: A team differs from a group on account of its commitment, proximity and common objective
  • Group
  • Collection of individuals
  • Way of identifying yourself
  • Easy to become member/step out -> no responsibility and commitment
  • Lack of commitment has no impact on outcome
  • No shared goals (but shared traits)
  • Few conflicts to be managed
  • Static
  • Team
  • Common goal (individuals can influence it)
  • Trust in each other
  • Ownership/self-responsibility
  • Clear(er) roles and responsibility
  • Make use of complementary skills
  • Open and transparent communication
  • A good team needs to be trained
  • Individuals are willing to make trade-off for sake of team goals
  • Output is key element
  • High-performing teams have min. and max. number of members
  • Diversity
  • Competition with and winning against other teams
  • More leadership (compared to groups)

A high-performing team can have a variety of roles. Here too, an analogy can be drawn with sports: take the differences between a football team and a rowing team. In football, things change and develop very quickly and the progression of the game is unpredictable. Everyone must remain constantly prepared to take on the lead role as soon as they possess the ball. Although the basic roles are defined in advance, a defender must also be capable of shooting a goal, for instance – if the situation so requires and even if it’s not actually his responsibility. In a rowing team on the other hand, the cox sets the pace and the timing, while the rowers (for example in an eight) synchronise their strokes with this rhythm. Their strength lies in their ability to follow and implement the cox’s instructions simultaneously down to the millisecond.

In a business context, an organisation needs a “football team” to innovate, ensure rapid growth, process flows of information or adopt marketable solutions. In times of crisis, when things aren’t being implemented consistently or the company needs to synchronise a range of different solutions, a “rowing team” is more appropriate.

What marks out a high-performing team is its ability to row and play football perfectly. At any given moment in any given situation it’s absolutely clear which ability is required. This allows the team to switch quickly from one “sport” to the other.

Five components

Whichever type of team happens to be in the foreground, there are five main characteristics which describe the dynamics within any high-performing team:

1. Trust: Basic trust (“psychological safety”) is essential for a team to achieve a top performance. This applies both to the team leader and the individual members. Everyone needs to be confident that they can and may do what is demanded of them – and nobody should act in an overly selfish manner. This trust implies proximity or closeness between the team members. A culture of healthy debate is another aspect of this trust. A high-performing team holds constructive debates and, in doing so, makes the solution better. Rather than avoiding conflict, the team members harness the momentum it provides. Finally, they must be allowed to show their vulnerability (they must have a “gear-down zone”) and the certainty that they won’t be criticised or regarded as an inferior team member if they do.

Figure 2: The three dimensions of trust in a high-performing team
«Is my colleague trustworthy?» «It's ok to challenge and be challenged» «I can show my weaknesses to my peers» Gear-down zone Healthy debates Trust equation Trust
«Is my colleague trustworthy?» Trust equation «It's ok to challenge and be challenged» Healthy debates «I can show my weaknesses to my peers» Gear-down zone Gear-down zone Healthy debates Trust equation Trust

2. Clear roles: In a high-performing team there must be a clear definition of who does what and who makes what decisions. Above all, this involves clarifying decision-making powers. What has to be decided by the team leader (e.g. the CEO), what are the team members allowed to decide for themselves, and what decisions need to be made by the team as a whole. Despite the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed) matrix and other decision-making matrices that are available, this is an area where major doubts can persist in inexperienced or even well-established teams.

3. Accountability: The members of a high-performing team fully dedicate themselves to every project they take on, and the other team members can rely on this. Team members need to be able to clearly prioritise issues, particularly if they’re involved in several project teams at once. This also means that team members should not place their own functional interests above common interests. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is all too frequent.

4. Meaning of team: If you want someone to put in maximum effort, they need to know what they’re working towards. Each member of a high-performing team must recognise the importance of teamwork for the success of the business as a whole. The team’s self-image is derived from the contribution it makes to the company’s success. A clear answer is needed to the question “what would be missing if our team didn’t exist?”

5. Winning spirit: The definition of winning is open to dispute. The actual substance of the objective isn’t as important as everyone actually pursuing the same goal (“alignment”). A joint aim must be ambitious, achievable by a fully committed team, motivating for individuals and relevant to the company’s potential growth.

Figure 3: The core drivers of top performance
High Performing Teams achieve superior results for their organization through effective interaction within the team as well as with internal and external stakeholders.
Team members believe and contribute, feel safe to take risks and to address issues
Team members work in defined structures, have clear roles, plans and goals
Team members get things done on time and meet high standards
Meaning and Impact
Team members think their work is personally important to them as well as others, and creates impact
Winning Attitude
Team members put a high level of energy to reach the best results for the team and its stakeholders. They have a "healthy" attitude to being first

When there’s a lack of trust

It’s not mere coincidence that trust is first on the list when it comes to the development and success of a high-performing team. People who distrust each other can’t work together. The company loses out on huge potential strength as a result.

The “groupthink” phenomenon is often underestimated here. Due to a lack of transparent, open communication, a team loses the ability to see reality for what it is. This has a lot to do with lack of trust. If a team is no longer able to address issues via a healthy and constructive culture of debate, single-track thinking will ensue. Views and opinions are no longer challenged, even if individual team members entertain doubts. This is when incorrect decisions are made, which everyone ends up regretting. How could such fundamental risks be so badly neglected? The “groupthink” phenomenon occurs when no healthy discussions take place and the relationship between team members is impaired. Team leaders should start hearing alarm bells ring at this point.

The second negative effect of a lack of trust within a team is that individual members can suffer from burnout syndrome. Nobody is superhuman; we’re all emotional beings with our strengths and weaknesses. We often find it hard to show our weaknesses in our daily professional lives. This makes it all the more important to be open about our own vulnerability when working as part of a team. If we admit to feeling vulnerable, other team members can offer support during “moments of weakness”, without holding it against us. If there is no basic trust of this kind, too much effort has to be spent on maintaining a strong outward appearance. This may be possible for a while, but when moments of strength fail to materialise, burning the candle at both ends can have fatal consequences.

A desire to win

A winning attitude has already been listed as one of the main characteristics of a high-performing team. From experience we know that teams have trouble with the definition of “winning”. They don’t want to compete as individuals between themselves, or as teams against each other.

In high-performing teams, winning not only means being faster, but is also about getting more out of yourself and your colleagues. This implies great commitment, even going as far as devotion. Similarly, a crystal-clear definition is needed of what it means to win and of what the team is hoping to achieve. This framework has to be part of the corporate culture. A subtle feel for precise adjustments and nuances is called for.

Going back to football for a moment, every Champions League club has at least three goalkeepers. Number one knows that he has to do his very best to stay number one. At the same time, he can be certain that his colleagues will be ready to step in if anything happens to him. Numbers two and three are motivated by the idea of becoming number one themselves one day. At the same time, they can learn from and emulate the regular keeper.

In business life, the same is true when it comes to functional changes. A department – for example the finance department – is undergoing a transformation and implementing a change in strategy. The HR department wants to do the same, and is eager to learn from the experience of the finance department. In true “winning spirit”, the HR department can implement the same goal faster and more smoothly, and motivate its team even more effectively. This approach represents a healthy way of winning – because there are no losers.

Work more efficiently, become high-performing

Let’s go back to our initial example. Joyce Caroll decided to introduce a culture of high-performing teams, as this was the only way her company would be able to rise to the challenges it was facing. Caroll’s initiative was in fact perceived as integrating and motivating. She applied the concept gradually – and this is essential advice for any company that wants to champion the high-performance cause.

The first step is to list the current strengths and weaknesses of the team. This is usually done by asking a higher placed team (for example the board of directors) to give honest feedback to a subordinate team (for example the executive board) and vice versa. The second step is to structure the elements described in Figure 3 in an ambitious manner. The third step is to make sure that the team uses clear vocabulary. They must determine the types of teams used (football team, rowing team, etc.) and the terminology (“healthy debates”, “winning spirit”, etc.). This mode of communication needs to be practised, as with any new game or sport. Fourthly, the team leader must clearly acknowledge their position in relation to the team, and establish teamwork as a key attribute. After all, the team will be helping to bring the whole company forward. The fifth and final recommended measure is to rapidly transfer high-performing thinking to other teams. This will increase the pressure on your own team, thereby boosting its performance.

In a high-performing team, optimum performance should be ensured from each and every member. Optimum is individual here, in that each individual must undertake to do their very best. Anyone who gets this far will discover that there is huge profit-making potential hidden in every team.

We’re at your service!

Charles Donkor

Charles Donkor

Partner, People and Organisation, PwC Switzerland

+41 58 792 45 54

  1. This is a genuine client case. The name of the general manager has been changed.