Why are teams often not to blame for not being a high performance team?

A lot of companies are looking for “high performance teams”. What a “high performance team” is, is open for debate. Also if you create it or if is an outcome. It doesn’t matter how you define a high performance team, important is the group of people working together becomes a TEAM.

Absence of trust

What makes a team a team? Let’s start with what can prevent a group of people becoming a team. Patrick Lencioni describes in his “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” five levels where it can go wrong inside a team. The first thing he mentions is “absence of trust”. Trust is the foundation a team is build upon.

5 dysfunctions of a team model by Patrick Lencioni

Here we can learn a lot from the military. My best friend served as a soldier and spent a tour in Iraq. When we talk about it, he tells me it was hot, food was not great, you needed to share toilet and shower with too many people, there was a constant shortage of everything, sand was everywhere (and in places you didn’t want it to be), days were long, constant danger of shelling and it was the best time he ever had in his life. Returning to civilian life he missed the comradery, knowing the person to the left and right of you will have your back, no matter what. Complete trust. This is something the military trains for. The United States Marine Corps (USMC) have in their training parts that cannot be completed alone. You must ask help from others. You must be venerable enough to admit you cannot do it alone. The first step in creating trust. You learn to build on each other and trust each other. With this trust you are no longer reluctant to ask for help, to admit a mistake and take ownership of that mistake. You are willing to be vulnerable. “Trust and vulnerability grow together. And to betrayal one, is to destroy both.” (Brené Brown) Something that applies not only in the military but also in the civilian world.

Measuring results

Now let’s leave the military and go back to the corporate world. How are result measured? How is set if someone is performing good enough? We look at individual performances. How much did you sell? How much new features did you deliver? How many lines of code did you write?

If I take an example of someone in sales in an IT company it’s about making enough sales. If you meet your target, it’s a good thing. If for reaching that target you have a development team create a new feature in an impossible timespan, that doesn’t affect reaching your target. To quote Simon Sinek: “In the military, they give medals for people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may survive. In business, we give bonuses to people who sacrifice others.” What signal do you send here as a company?

Why not measure the positive impact someone has on his/her team? Does someone help other team members or the rest of the organization? Who acts most to the values we have in the company? Who contributes to the company with a problem solving mindset? As a leader, you’ll get the behavior you reward.  

Shareholders or employees?

How can a team have trust in an environment where we promote this behavior? This is an important moment leadership stands up and creates safety. Use the right way to measure how people are preforming. Also important is how you treat your employees. When your company doesn’t make the € 1.000.000,– of net profit that was promised to the shareholders, what do you do? Do you push your workers harder? Do you fire people so your cost go down and the net profit goes up? How can you create trust in a company where people are fired because the net profit isn’t high enough?

Hiring on virtues

The second thing is the hiring of new people. What do you select for? Do you have a good checklist with only technical abilities? If you’re looking for a new job, how many job adverts do you see where the company values are mentioned? And if they are mentioned, how often are they mentioned during the job interview? Even to the point where the person you’re talking with says “These are our values, we strongly believe in them. If you come to work here, we expect you to live by them.”

An example where everyone is checked on values is the Table Group. Everyone who wants to work there should be humble, have hunger, and be (people) smart. They believe this makes the ideal team player. If you don’t have those virtues, you cannot work there. Also everyone who is going to work with that person has a talk with the applicant to see if there is a fit and if the applicant has the 3 virtues.


So if a company doesn’t create an environment where trust and safety are important, how can you have a team where there is trust? Creating this safe environment is for a large portion a job of management. All layers of management. For example don’t blame people when a project goes wrong but ask people what they need to improve. Be open and honest. You’re the leader, the Alpha, so protect your people when needed like a good Alpha does and don’t throw them under the bus to save your own skin (or job).

Also look at what the values of your company are. What kind of people fit and don’t only hire just on a checklist of technical skills. And please have a few team members talk with the applicant to check if there is a fit, instead of walking in with the new team member on Monday morning and that being the first time you introduce him or her.

So there is trust and vulnerability in the team, team members dare to challenge each other and have respect for each other’s views, they have commitment and focus to reach their goals together, they take ownership and are looking to create real value for users and are living the values of the team and the company. If all of this is in place, the outcome is a high performance team.

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