Queen's University IRC

Building the High-Performance Team


Carol A. Beatty
Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre Director

January 1, 2003

The managers who gathered around the table to plan a large budget cut didn’t look much like a cohesive team. In fact, they resembled competing animals around a shrinking watering hole. Each had his or her own staff and mandate to protect. And everyone realized how high the stakes were: if the downsizing wasn’t done judiciously, a damaging political backlash would certainly result. How were they to proceed?

As they eyed one other warily, the Deputy Minister introduced a skilled facilitator, one who understood what it would take to help this task force evolve into a high-performance team. The facilitator knew, for example, that it would be difficult to recover from a shaky start. She also knew that one of the greatest challenges for members would be to resolve the tension between their individual and collective interests.

She would have to address these issues by helping the task force commit to a common purpose and goals, to set up ground rules for working together, and to ensure that all members felt able to express their opinions openly. That completed, she would then need to help members agree on a problem-solving approach and on a way of handling the inevitable disagreements and interpersonal stresses that would occur as they worked together closely. A tall order indeed.

The Research: What Makes For a High-Performance Team?

How can the Task Force facilitator create a high-performance team? At the Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre, we have surveyed more than 200 teams and trained more than 250 facilitators from various public and private organizations.

Our research has found three main high-performance factors that make for excellence in collaborative projects, accounting for more than 80 percent of the statistical variance in team performance in our study:

  1. good team management practices
  2. group problem solving skills
  3. group conflict resolution skills.

Fortunately, these success factors are either skills than can be mastered by the majority of teams or structures and processes that can be put in place. Let’s take a closer look at IRC’s research on each of the three attributes that characterize a high-performance team – and how our facilitator must put it into practice to build the Task Force’s team capacity.

High Performance Factor 1: Team Management Practices

The first element in high performance is a cluster of factors we call team management practices, which fit into three broad categories:

  1. Approaching team tasks – This includes such things as having a team mission, setting team goals, generating procedures or norms to regulate team members’ conduct and behaviour, ensuring efficient organization and meetings, and reaching agreement on sound approaches to task performance.
  2. Maintaining good team relations – To foster top-notch team relations, high-performance teams ensure that all members feel included and able to express their opinions openly. Members share leadership and make sure member talents are fully utilized and nobody gets a “free ride.”
  3. Gaining member commitment – High performing teams demand full commitment to the team and its work from members, even though member efforts may not be balanced over the short run

Our facilitator knew exactly how to create and formalize effective Team Management Practices: she led the Task Force in building its Team Charter. This exercise provides members with a process of mutual discovery about their common purpose and how they plan to achieve it by defining:

  • Task responsibilities – their goals, timelines, scope, and authority
  • Social responsibilities – the roles they are expected to play, the relationships they are expected to develop, and the behavioural guidelines they are expected to follow
  • Commitment to the team – what’s in it for the members, the skills and experiences they have to contribute, and what additional skills and experiences they need to acquire to participate fully

High Performance Factor 2: Team Problem-Solving Skills

Solving problems is at the core of a team’s activities, and these team skills make the most difference between high or low team performance. Teams that are good at problem-solving do two things well: they are patient communicators, and they use a systematic process for solving problems. It is the combination of these two skills that leads to group synergy – the ability to create a better solution together than any of the members could have generated alone.

Communications patience Patient communicators work hard to understand others and to be understood. Creating synergy depends on team members’ willingness to accept each other’s ideas, to delay closure until a full discussion takes place, and to build on all members’ perspectives, alternatives, and solutions. Obviously, this is easier said than done, especially when team members care passionately about the group decision or when rewards are dependent on team outcomes. That’s where patient communication comes in. Of all the communications skills we measured, the most important one involved the way team members reacted to communications difficulties.

Patient communicators do not dampen down passionate stances as too dangerous to handle. Rather, they slow it down so they can listen to the varied perspectives being expressed, focusing energy positively so that barriers are not formed – a big challenge for our facilitator, particularly if members have some history with each other. The facilitator made sure that Task Force team m embers with controversial views were not blocked or ignored, and drew out quiet members so everyone got a fair hearing.

Systematic problem-solving

High-performance teams are also consistent in their use of a problem-solving process. It doesn’t seem to matter much which process they use, be it five or nine steps, but it does matter that they are disciplined in applying it. Our facilitator helped the team put into place a problem-solving process to ensure that members do not prematurely jump to conclusions, but expand their creative and strategic thinking before solution generation and action planning.

High Performance Factor 3: Group Conflict Resolution Skills

The final skill set that the facilitator must develop in the Task Force team is conflict resolution competence.

Every team runs into conflict, but what distinguishes high-performing teams from the others is how the team as a whole deals with it. Teams are headed for trouble when they avoid confronting conflict: it merely festers under the surface of team interactions until it often reappears suddenly as a full-blown crisis. And when such a crisis occurs, it is often personalized to such an extent that it is difficult, if not impossible, to get the team back on track.

Conflict may arise from many sources, but in our experience, interpersonal conflicts have been the most difficult to resolve—individual members’ antisocial behaviour, lack of politeness or respect for others, attempts at dominance, withdrawal or indifference, failure to pull their own weight, criticism or personal attacks, and so forth.

In skilled teams, conflict is viewed as a normal and healthy aspect of working together. Members surface diverse views and feel safe to examine ideas without fear of retribution; are careful not to personalize the conflict, evaluating the idea and not the person. In addition to dealing with current issues, the facilitator made sure that the team created procedures to deal with similar eruptions in the future. This way, team members are confident they can raise issues, subject ideas to critical examination, and express themselves openly, without fear they will harm the team or interpersonal relations.

The Solution: After Teams

All in all, the facilitator had a lot of work to do to ensure that the Task Force developed the team skills to deal with the highly charged and difficult task of downsizing. In the end, the Ministry’s confidence that the effort was worthwhile was rewarded: The Task Force came up with a better-than-expected solution that was fully supported throughout the organization. In addition, Task Force members were transformed into committed advocates and became more sophisticated team players, ready to take on the next team challenge thrown their way

And in both today’s public administration and private sector environments, that challenge will certainly not be long in coming.

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