The Rugby World Cup 2015 riveted the eyes of the world on a sport that reminds us of the importance of synergy and how high-performing teams function. The William Webb Ellis trophy has been lifted over the years by arguably some of the best captains of their respective eras and this raises a further question on the importance of leadership in high-performing teams.
But let us focus our attention on organisations where teams drive organisational competitiveness. The forming and leading of high-performance teams is one of the most complex challenges that any leader will face. Experience shows that leaders are often ‘derailed’ when organisations move talented individuals, often because of their technical competence, into positions of leadership without providing them with sufficient transitional support to lead teams.
These leaders are then expected to focus on challenging organisational goals, support their own team’s growth, assess the strength and weaknesses of individuals, and deal with behaviours that limit team synergy. Building capacity to lead high-performing teams should therefore be a central part of leadership development.
Most of us have experienced the tell-tale signs of dysfunctional teams. Pat Lencioni reflects on the causes of these dysfunctions and identifies them as absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. The symptoms are just so evident in teams these days that it might be quite easy to have personal experience of more than one of these dysfunctions.
Then there are the teams that somehow just get it right. They achieve the highest level of performance, and synergy seems to be so easy! What can account for their success? Is it a strong work ethic? Is it individual brilliance? Or can success be attributed to ‘chemistry’ between team members? How important is leadership? I would argue that most leaders have a passion for building and leading a synergistic team. No one wants to lead a team that is mediocre or average, yet managers often react at a late stage when tensions build, silos form, and impending deterioration becomes evident. Can we then assume that teams become dysfunctional because of poor leadership?
Leading teams takes persistence and a consistent pursuit of specific roles that leaders should play. These intentional efforts are to build capacity, but also to strengthen teams to become high performing.
But first, let’s define what a high-performance or synergistic team is all about.
A high-performance team is a group of people who work together toward a common goal and is able to achieve extraordinary results. The premise is that these results are the product of the combined power of a group when they work together, which is greater than the total power achieved by each team member working separately. Put in another way, synergy is the ability of a group to outperform even its best individual member . Synergy (1+1=3) doesn’t simply happen. And leaders have an important part to play in building such teams.
Here are six principles that leaders should follow in building synergistic teams.
Pursue territorial harmony
All businesses experience change, especially growing businesses in dynamic industries. Leaders grasp the need for change and prepare their teams to remain flexible and relevant. Territorial harmony is the ability to gain a competitive advantage from the territory that a team operates in. This would mean that they should have insight and an understanding of the changes and challenges within their territory and what justifies their existence. A team should purposefully network and build alliances with key individuals inside and outside their territory. They should also grasp and value the needs of their customers and make every effort to secure continuous support from their customer base. Teams that adapt to their changing territory faster than their competitors, potentially secure a home ground advantage that’s critical for survival.
Ensure the dedication of individual strengths
High-performing teams have leaders at all levels; not positional leaders, but leaders fulfilling specific roles. Leaders know their team members’ individual strengths and talents. They support and encourage each member’s unique contributions and value add. The team understands what each member has to offer and how they help to achieve shared business objectives. They tap into one another's skills and experiences, ultimately contributing to a culture where members want to contribute and dedicate their individual strengths.
Leaders should invest in a range of deliberate, planned and well-managed rituals to strengthen the pack.
Here are a few examples:
- High-performance teams meet regularly and discuss progress, concerns, and ideas for improvement. They table critical topics and have lively meetings. Conflict is not supressed or silenced but seen as an opportunity to maximise the diversity of thinking and doing.
- They make deliberate efforts to coach and mentor less experienced colleagues to build confidence and competence. The team creates opportunities for feedback and upskilling.
- Leaders make time to let everyone know when the team or a team member does something exceptional. They recognise individual contributions and celebrate team accomplishments.
- Leaders encourage extracurricular activities for team members to forge close-knit relationships and build high levels of cohesion and team spirit.
Build trusting relationships
A hallmark of the high-performance team is a high level of open, honest, robust and transparent communication. High-performance teams increase trust by building on shared values and a culture of respect and honest feedback.
When honesty and transparency are lacking there can be no trust. Without trust, teams are crippled by conflict, and loyalty and support will be non-existent. Without trust, teams fail to solve problems or make decisions. Trust seems to be the bedrock of successful teams; it fosters an unwavering sense of loyalty that creates a distinct competitive advantage over competitors.
Create a sense of purpose
Leaders align their teams around common objectives. Members proudly share a sense of why the team exists and are committed to accomplishing its mission and goals. Members know what needs to be done next, by whom and by when to achieve team goals. A clear sense of purpose contributes to focus and energy in task accomplishment.
Invest in team maintenance opportunities
Leaders should invest in opportunities to assess team functioning. They should measure success, pay attention to detail, and also ask: “What have we learned?”. Maintenance is about a culture of continuous improvement and asking questions at critical times, such as: “What can be done more cheaply, faster, more smartly and in a safer way?” Leaders should create platforms where honest reflection can be done ‘before the next match’.
Maintenance allows the team to step back for a moment, to pause, reflect, learn and refocus. This is a valuable skill for all high-performing teams in the modern era.
A discussion on the principles of synergy should highlight that leaders have a responsibility to be more proactive in tracking their team’s dynamics and functioning, and intentionally investing in these principles.
Each of these principles offers substantial rewards:
- Knowing the territory offers confidence and a home ground advantage.
- Leveraging strengths provides clear roles and leadership.
- Rituals offer cohesion and team spirit.
- Trusting relationships provide a team with loyalty and support.
- A sense of purpose enhances focus and energy within the team.
- Team maintenance contributes to continuous learning and a culture of improvement.
Synergy is a concept which is easy to discuss but difficult to create. However, when a team does achieve synergy, it is remembered as a champion team, not a team of champions, and somewhere in the reflection on the performance of such a memorable team, the discussion will revolve around the role that leadership played to achieve it.
Niël Steinmann is a specialist business consultant with extensive experience in the Human Resources field. He is a Registered Industrial Psychologist. He is the founding member and CEO of People’s Dynamic Development with offices in Cape Town, Pretoria and Jacksonville USA. PDD is a management consultancy that utilizes African analogies to develop people and organisations to significantly increase their performance capacity.