4 Secrets Of High-Performing Teams


No doubt there’s a lot wrong with the modern workplace. Open-plan offices? It’s like trying to work in the middle of a daycare. The cubicle? A solitary confinement cell decorated in dismal shades of practicality. And the meetings. Oh, the meetings. Time bends and distorts, leaving us trapped in an eternal now. The clock ticks so loudly you can hear the sound of your youth escaping.

But this all pales in comparison to the challenge of work teams. Those glorious microcosms of corporate society, where people from different backgrounds, skill sets, and hygiene standards come together to accomplish the impossible: not murdering each other. You get to witness the full spectrum of human emotions, from “visibly hungover” to “quietly sobbing in the bathroom.”

So how do we improve teams at work? Research has answers. Ready to make those collaborative efforts a lot more productive – and maybe even enjoyable?

Let’s get to it…


Creating A Team… Or Maybe You Shouldn’t.

In the modern workplace, assembling a team is the go-to solution for, well, everything. Need to change a lightbulb in the office? Form a team. Have to pick a brand of coffee? Team.

There’s one question that needs to be asked more often: Do we really need a team for this?

Teams are not always a great idea. Research validates what you’ve intuitively suspected – individuals become less productive once they’re part of a group. Studies frequently use words like “process loss” or even “collaborative inhibition.” According to University of North Carolina professor Bradley Staats, productivity per person can drop 40% even on a small team.

How does this happen? Most of it comes from the energy wasted in email chains, organizing, logistics, etc. It’s like planning an epic road trip but spending the whole time in the driveway arguing over the playlist. You waste more hours in meetings discussing what you’re going to do rather than actually doing it. Everyone’s so busy being a team player that they forgot to do the actual playing.

As Po Bronson writes, “In studies of thousands of companies that have implemented teamwork, there’s no firm evidence that, on average, they make any more money, or are even more productive, after instituting a team-based structure.”

So what if you really do need a team? It should be as small as possible to get the job done. Every person has to be able to develop a relationship with everyone else on the team. Small enough where you can actually remember everybody’s name without resorting to labeling them “Loud Guy,” “Tall Lady,” and “Emails Too Much.”

Bob Sutton, professor at Stanford University and author of “The Friction Project”, says once you get past 5 people, quality declines quickly. Overhead doesn’t just expand; it explodes in a supernova of Outlook invites and PowerPoint. Every new team member is another email chain, another “quick catch-up call,” another soul unwittingly drafted into the endless war on efficiency.

Sometimes, the real team player is the one who avoids making a team in the first place.

Okay, assuming the project does require a team, how do you make the group more effective? Believe it or not, 90% of a team’s fate is determined before they ever start working…


Team Effectiveness

J. Richard Hackman of Harvard studied teams ranging from airplane cockpits to symphony orchestras. What did he find? He calls it the “60/30/10 Rule.”

60 percent of a team’s success is “Who’s on the team?” 30 percent is how you organize it. And 10 percent, at most, is leadership.

If you make clear what every member is responsible for, you get the most out of that 30 percent. The number one easy thing you can do to improve a team’s performance is to clarify roles.

But the biggest issue is that 60%. And that means having A-players. You know the type. They don’t just meet deadlines; they make deadlines sit in the corner and think about what they’ve done. They’re the ones bringing a knife to a gunfight and still winning. Their passion for Excel borders on the erotic. Bow before their pivot table prowess.

The difference between the best and worst workers is staggering. Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, who studies top performers, found that in nearly all fields analyzed, the number of accomplishments by the top 10% will equal the number of accomplishments by the bottom 90% combined. Let that sink in.

But let’s be real: you’re not gonna have A-players. They’re about as rare as a quiet child on a long-haul flight. You’re more likely to have coworkers whose very presence makes you question the existence of a higher power.

So how do you find diamonds in the rough? We often think about the performance of individuals but we rarely consider context. How you do “Moneyball” for team members is by looking for the obviously bright people struggling in spots where they’re all but set up to fail. Those are the people you want to steal. Rescue these misfit toys from the Island of Unappreciated Talent and watch someone else’s C-player become your A-player.

Okay, you have your crew. How do the best teams deal with one another?


Team Interaction

A study was done of over 350 employees in 60 business units at a financial services company, and guess what they found? The secret to a team’s success lies in how the members feel about one another.

Team members have to like each other. You know it makes a difference. But this can’t matter as much as having smart people, right? Wrong. What makes smart individuals is not what makes smart teams. Another study found that what makes sharp groups is not their average IQ but the average of their social skills.

This effect is so powerful you can even quantify it. High-performance teams averaged 5.6 positive interactions for every negative one. And that may even be something of a human universal: what do happy marriages have in common? Yup: John Gottman found it was 5 positive interactions for every negative one.

There’s an old saying that “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” And this turns out to be very true. Research shows team trust is not determined by an average of the members; it hovers at the level of the least trusted member.

Now some are going to hear that and immediately think, “Oh, then we should get rid of all the negative people.” To which I say: WHOA, HOLD ON A SEC.

Of course, you don’t want toxic people. But this constant corporate emphasis on everyone and everything being warm and fuzzy all the time needs to stop.

Simply put: You need one team member who is not a team player.

You need a disagreeable person. Not a jerk — but somebody who says the honest thing that’s not going to be popular.

Yes, you need them. Desperately. Without the Non-Team Player, your group is a ticking time bomb of unchallenged ideas. Without Captain Buzzkill over there, you’re two steps away from group-hugging yourselves into oblivion. You need someone who’s willing to rock the boat. Someone willing to say, “This is ridiculous. We’re screwing up.”

“Oh, you’re saying we need someone to play Devil’s Advocate.” No. Wrong. Bad. Studies show playing Devil’s Advocate only works when it’s sincere. Otherwise, it becomes just another box to check, and the feedback is ignored.

You need the cranky person lurking in the corner with a raised eyebrow. They’re here to throw a wrench in the gears of groupthink. While everyone else is patting each other on the back so hard they’re performing the Heimlich maneuver, the Non-Team Player is busy saving you all from driving off the cliff of collective stupidity.

And then we have that final 10% of Hackman’s equation: what makes a great team leader?


Team Leadership

What do you think the best leaders in the US Navy are like? You’re probably imagining Captain Granite-Jaw, a leader so tough he uses a cactus as a stress ball. He’s the kind of guy who thinks that “team morale” is achieved by yelling louder.

But that’s not the case. It’s more like Captain Cheerful — the kind of officer who probably high-fives the dolphins. The Navy annually hands out prizes for efficiency and preparedness and they most frequently go to divisions with commanding officers that are supportive. Which squadrons rarely get the award? Those with leaders that are negative and controlling.

And what’s the difference between a “manager” and a “leader” – other than the latter being a lot more popular in LinkedIn bios? John Kotter of Harvard found management is about consistency and order; leadership is about fulfilling human needs and creating change. Managers keep things running smoothly. Being a leader is much harder. It’s spending your day as an unlicensed therapist, navigating through an obstacle course of egos, insecurities, and the occasional emotional outburst.

Being a leader is an informal role. In other words, you don’t need to wait for a promotion to be a leader, you just need the qualities of a leader. In fact, promotions don’t create leaders nearly as often as leadership creates promotions.

What should you do to become a better leader? Three things: develop your people skills, grow your network, and have a future focus that sets a course for the group.

That “setting a course” part is vital: “One study of more than five hundred professionals and managers in thirty companies found that unclear objectives became the biggest barrier to effective team performance.”

This can sound daunting. It doesn’t need to be. A huge part of team leadership is merely creating the right environment. Do that well and a lot of things fall into place automatically. A good team environment has 3 parts: safety, vulnerability, purpose.


Alex Pentland at MIT says the thing that’s critical is “belonging cues.” Pentland found they were the number one predictor of team performance — more predictive than intelligence, skill or leadership. So make sure everyone is getting a chance to speak. That people are paying attention to one another and making eye contact. That body language is respectful and everyone feels heard.


No, it’s not easy to be as open and raw as a daytime talk show guest. But making ourselves vulnerable builds connection and trust. And research by Jeff Polzer at Harvard shows there’s a vital other side to that as well — how team members respond to vulnerability.

Admitting weakness is so powerful that it’s even done by the last group you’d ever expect to show vulnerability: Navy SEALs. After SEALs complete a mission they do what’s called an “After-Action Review.” And the words most encouraged in the meeting are: “I screwed that up.” By admitting weakness group members learn to trust, to be honest, and to ask for help. And by reviewing their mistakes they improve.


Good leaders create a story: This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what we stand for. These are our goals. Might sound silly for a group that’s auditing insurance contracts but it can be the difference between team spirit and feeling like a loose group forced together by bureaucracy.

Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Time to round it all up – and learn what it takes to inspire and motivate a team…


Sum Up

Here are the secrets of high-performing teams…

  • Creating A Team. (Or Maybe You Shouldn’t.): Ask the unasked question: do you really need a team? And if you have more members than a 90’s boy band, you’re in trouble. Every time a team is unnecessarily expanded, a productivity fairy dies.
  • Team Effectiveness: 60 percent of a team’s success is “Who’s on the team?” 30 percent is clarifying roles. And 10 percent is leadership. So get A-Players. The difference between the best and worst performers is the difference between a firecracker and the Big Bang.
  • Team Interaction: They need to like each other. Social skills, not average IQ, is what makes smart teams. And you need a disagreeable person. Somebody more Wednesday Addams than Mary Poppins. They might not be the hero you want, but they’re the hero you need; the one who’ll pull the emergency brake on the runaway train of groupthink.
  • Team Leadership: Even in the Navy, the best squadrons are led by commanders who are less like Captain Bligh and more like Mr. Rogers. Create an environment with safety (Does everyone feel they can speak?), vulnerability (good old-fashioned emotional nudity) and purpose (“This is who we are. This is what we stand for.”) and you’re most of the way there.

Research shows you inspire people by reminding them why their jobs are important. What positive effect are they having? Find a way to make this visible.

Similarly, Teresa Amabile at Harvard found what really motivates people is a feeling of progress toward important goals. Like points in a video game or completed miles in a marathon, when we see we’re making progress, we keep going.

Implement some of the above and it might be more than fear of living under a bridge that gets you moving at the office. When you’re working with a great team, every day feels like you’ve hit the jackpot in the lottery of office life. It’s less of a never-ending slog and more like a sitcom where everyone’s quirky but lovable. You half expect a laugh track to play every time someone makes a joke in a meeting.

You start to wonder if you’re actually at work or if you’ve accidentally joined a cult…

But it’s a nice cult, with great dental and a 401(k) plan.


Subscribe to the newsletter