A highly effective team does a jointfist bump.

Building High-Performing Work Teams

Kristen Peairs
March 5, 2024
January 26, 2024

Whether you’re tasked with creating a high-performing work team from scratch, filling an open position on an already existing work team, or supporting a work team in upgrading its performance, it’s important to know the factors that go into helping teams excel.

First, though, let’s review the definition of a high-performance work team.

What Is a High-Performance Work Team?

A high-performance work team is a group of people who consistently produce higher quality results together than any one of them could produce on their own. These people function as a cohesive unit where each person uniquely contributes to the focused purpose of the whole.

In a high-performance team, there is fluidity of sharing, collaboration, and communication along with trust and accountability between all team members. These teams tend to have a high degree of autonomy.

The Most Important Factor for a Successful High-Performance Work Team

Psychological safety. Psychological safety is the number one factor that contributes to a high performing team’s success.

The story behind this finding started in 2012 when Google began assessing its own teams with the goal of discovering the factors that most contribute to a high-performing team’s success. This venture became known as Project Aristotle. At first, the researchers could not find any clear patterns. Success didn’t consistently relate to technical skill levels, leadership, introvert/extrovert, gender, social relationships, or any number other factors. The researchers were perplexed. How could they find the answers for which they were searching?

When they started reading research by psychologists and sociologists, they had a breakthrough. From that research, they learned about group norms. Group norms are the unwritten rules and standards by which a group operates. With group norms as the focus, Google’s researchers were able to determine that psychological safety was the most important factor in the success of their high-performing teams.

What Is Psychological Safety?

Amy Edmunson, PhD, the founder of the phrase psychological safety, says, “psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” If a team member is afraid of being ridiculed, silenced, or otherwise hurt, they are unlikely to share freely. When team members start monitoring their words and being careful for fear of what might happen if they speak honestly, the functioning of the whole team is affected.

To be clear, it is still important to gauge the words being spoken in order to discern something is judgmental rather than objective.

Factors That Support Psychological Safety

  • Empathy: Feelings are a part of a being human. Staying attuned to our own and others’ feelings contributes to relationship building and trust.
  •  Conversational turn taking: Research has shown that when everyone talks about the same amount of minutes over the course of time the group meets, outcomes are better than groups with high variability in who speaks the most.
  • Admitting weaknesses/mistakes: Everyone makes mistakes. It can be helpful to admit when we’re the ones who messed up because it paves the way for others to be honest, too.
  • Asking for input: Asking for feedback is a way of inviting new perspectives. Being willing to be vulnerable opens the path for others to do the same.
  • Responding with curiosity: Regardless of what has happened, responding with curiosity (rather than judgement and/or punishment) invites new information while also building trust and safety among team members.

Additional Factors for a Successful High-Performance Work Team

Dependability, structure and clarity, meaning of work, and impact of work were additional factors identified through Google’s work with Project Aristotle.

  •  Dependability: Being able to count on each other to do work well and on-time builds trust and cohesiveness.
  •  Structure and Clarity: When team members have clear goals and structure, they can more effectively move forward with meaningful planning.
  • Meaningful Work: Each team member must be doing work that aligns with their own goals as well as the organization’s goals.
  • Impact of the Work: It’s important for team members to know (and be enrolled in) the effect of their work as part of the larger picture in the company and beyond.

Human Resource Tips for Building A High-Performance Work Team

  •  Clearly communicate project goals to all team members. When the goal is clear, team members can more effectively organize themselves toward achieving that goal.
  •  Ensure job descriptions for team member positions are accurate by having discussions with department managers, team leaders, and team members to learn about the qualities the new team member(s) should possess.
  • When interviewing, assess for the presence of soft skills such as emotional intelligence, emotional integrity, and empathy. The presence of soft skills contributes toward psychological safety.
  • For interviews, plan deep probing questions to learn how candidates listen and respond. As potential members of a team, it will be important for them to hear thoroughly and reply thoughtfully.
  • Ask for the management’s and the team’s input on potential candidates. The ones working with the candidates will be able to provide insight as to whether or not the fit is right.
  • For existing teams, provide training in conflict navigation* and emotional intelligence as it is these skills that promote an environment of psychological safety.

             *Conflict is a healthy part of a team environment. Being able to adeptly navigate conflict is a skill that can be built given time, resources, and practice.

Great resources to check out!

Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

Applied Empathy by Michael Ventura

Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

Kristen Peairs
Kristen Peairs
Kristen Peairs is a Registered Dietitian, Licensed Massage Therapist, and Professional Educator. Throughout her 20-year career, she has worked with many people suffering from a diversity of chronic health conditions. Understanding how food affects the brain and the whole body has been a key factor in the success of her healing strategies. At Nivati, she has researched, written, and filmed over 100 health and wellness videos for their content library. Kristen is currently writing a cookbook for people living with food allergies and intolerances.