What is a High-Performing Team, and How Are They Created?

A client asked me a good question the other day: “what’s the real difference between a high-performing team and any other team.”

For me, a key factor is the quality of the work that team members do when they are working together.  And the bulk of that work is done in meetings.

So what do high-performing teams do in their meetings that’s different than other folks?   Here’s one thing: they formulate ideas, solutions and decisions that are better than any one member of the team could have developed by themselves.  Put differently, they create a collective intelligence when they are working together.  Working in this way also leads them to build much stronger commitments to their decisions, which unlocks rapid and effective execution.

How do they do this?   At one level it’s very simple:  they have better quality discussions.  Discussing is, after all, pretty much the only thing that managers do when they meet: they don’t write code or build things.  They talk, they listen, and they think.  That’s all.  But some teams do this better than others, and the best teams know how to hold powerful conversations systematically and reliably.

Some of the tests of a good discussion include:

• Can they make decisions based on solid data, logic and analysis, but not allow these to negate the value of gut instinct, emotions, and experience?

• Can team members disagree with each other and challenge each other’s thinking while also strengthening their trust and relationships?

• Can they surface and process the ‘elephant in the room’ when some sensitive or undiscussable issue might be holding the team back?

Most people intuitively know that the foundation of such discussions is a high level of trust amongst team members, and this has been convincingly argued by Patrick Lencioni in his best-selling book ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.’  But one thing is missing and that is the explanation of how trust works, and how teams can create and maintain trust in a systematic and reliable way.




Trust unfortunately is not like the brightness on your laptop screen: you can’t simply turn it up by pressing a button.  In reality, trust is an outcome.  Specifically, an outcome of having challenging, meaningful, high-stakes conversations and having those conversations while  feeling safe and respectful, day in and day out.

This can be reliably achieved by maintaining what is known as a ‘psychologically safe environment.’  Google has done extensive research on what drives the performance of their best internal teams and this factor is the most important of all in predicting which teams will outperform.

The process I use is designed to give people the ability to systematically and reliably create a psychologically safe environment.  My experience is that this opens up a deeper (and therefore riskier) level of dialogue, and that as these riskier dialogues are successfully navigated, trust begins to skyrocket, and enhanced team performance follows.

I also try to equip teams with number of practical tools to help make their business discussions more productive.  This helps them to identify the most important areas to work on and to set these up for an effective discussion.  Combined with the improved dialogue skills, the result is that team discussions are dramatically enhanced both in terms of their productivity and in terms of how team members experience them – or what I call positivity.

When a team can reliably and systematically work together to create a collective intelligence that is greater than the intelligence of its individual members, and hold powerful discussions that are both highly productive and super positive – then you can say that it is a high-performing team.

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