The Secret Life of High-Performing Teams

Explore the foundational elements for building a high-performing team.

In today's dynamic business environment, organizations have a lot of energy around building and sustaining high-performing and high-functioning teams. High-performing and high-functioning teams are beneficial and pivotal in ensuring an organization's sustained success, resilience, and growth in today's dynamic and competitive business environment. 

Building strong teams makes sense for an organization because it brings many tangible benefits. These benefits touch every part of the business, from day-to-day operations to long-term strategy, and help the organization perform better in many different ways. Because of this passion for excellence at all levels of the organization, we are frequently asked, "What is the secret sauce?"

Three Critical Components

In our experience, the algorithm for success isn't a secret. Still, it is special and requires a radical commitment to three critical components: psychological safety, courageous followership, and connectedness. These three components drive inclusion and belonging, which are proven to be fundamental for a high-performing and high-functioning team. Let's explore each component.

First Step: Embrace it together.

Psychological safety often requires taking interpersonal risks, which is why some people anchor on the word "safe." In reality, psychological safety calls for people to be brave, not just comfortable (in a safe environment), and the payoff is powerful.

Imagine This

You're in a team where everyone freely shares their ideas, supports each other, and is unafraid to speak their minds. This safe space, where all voices are valued and respected, is what Amy Edmondson calls "Psychological Safety" in her book, "The Fearless Organization." In its simplest terms, psychological safety is like the glue for high-performing, tightly-knit teams. It's not just about being free from fear of backlash when sharing ideas. It's about being brave enough to voice your thoughts, even when the stakes are high, and knowing your team's got your back.

Embracing Bravery 

Authentic psychological safety is about activating inclusivity and empowering courage. In teams, fostering honesty and collaboration is crucial, especially when confronting complex challenges. Speaking up can be daunting, as it may lead to disagreements and the exchange of feedback. Nevertheless, for teams that believe in psychological safety, every team member commits to cultivating an environment where candid discussions inherently embody self-respect and respect for their peers.

What’s next? 

So, in this vibrant mix of psychological safety, another ingredient, "courageous followership," melds beautifully. It's not merely about stress-free environments; it's about crafting spaces where, amidst pressures and complexities, we candidly work through, challenge, and tackle situations together. A culture where psychological safety meets courageous followership becomes a crucible where robust, high-performing teams are forged.

Second Step: Speak up & dive in.

In a team (regardless of your role), you can either support decisions or question them. Defaulting to either one is dangerous, but finding a sophisticated balance between the two…now that’s where high functioning and high performance come into play. What can you do to create the conditions where this becomes a reality? 

Courageous Followership

Ira Chalef came up with a compelling idea called Courageous Followership. He noticed that team members often do two things: question decisions or support them. Some people will always support decisions but may not help solve problems or bring up new ideas. Others might question everything but only help execute decisions if they come up with the idea. Again, you don’t want to operate in either extreme. A psychologically safe team is one that can ebb and flow in both directions together, and it requires each person (leader included) to be a courageous follower. 

What makes a courageous follower?

Simply put, a courageous follower is someone who debates and then commits. They aren't scared to question things and explore ideas with an open mind. But once a decision is made, they're all in, giving their full support to ensure the team reaches its goal. This mindset isn't just for team members but leaders, too. Sometimes, leaders need to be Courageous Followers within their teams and make sure everyone feels safe to speak up (that's where Psychological Safety comes in).

How do we embrace courageous followership?

Courageous Followership values everyone in the group because different people bring different, valuable ideas. It builds trust since every team member knows that in the end, they will all back the final decision and work together to achieve their goal. For leaders, it is crucial to create the conditions for the team to feel safe and help them understand the 'why' behind what they're doing. They also need to know when to encourage someone to share their thoughts or when someone might not be fully on board with a decision. For the team members, being aware and managing themselves is vital. They need to consider when it's the right moment to challenge an idea and whether they'll be okay with supporting a decision even if they don't voice their thoughts.

This approach asks everyone to step outside their comfort zone and communicate openly but kindly. It can sometimes be challenging to question your team, leader, or the usual way things are done. All teams are made up of people with strengths and weaknesses, and Courageous Followership means everyone gets to bring themselves into the team.

What’s next?

With Psychological Safety, we create an environment where every voice, whether whispering doubts or singing praises, is heard and respected. Through Courageous Followership, we activate a dynamic where leaders and team members navigate the ebb and flow of constructive debate, full-spectrum participation, and commitment. Now, as your team navigates the paradox of increasing isolation and distraction, genuine connection allows you to translate the right conditions (psychological safety and courageous followership) into action and progress.

Third Step: Stay connected.

In a world that’s becoming increasingly digital and potentially isolating, the intrinsic human need for meaningful connection becomes not just a want but an organizational imperative.

What role does connectedness play? 

In the realm of team dynamics, connectedness plays a pivotal role in fostering psychological safety and enhancing overall team performance. Much like a jazz ensemble, each team comprises unique individuals, each bringing their distinct instruments and styles to the stage. Some may exude boldness, akin to the blaring of a trumpet, while others radiate subtlety, akin to a double bass. However, the true magic of a jazz band, like that of a high-performing team, lies in the improvised harmony they create together—a symphony of connectedness.

In the world of jazz, musicians listen attentively to one another, skillfully intertwining their melodies and rhythms to craft a cohesive and enchanting composition. This process isn't scripted; it thrives on the spontaneity of the moment. Similarly, genuine connectedness within our team transcends scripted interactions; it involves tuning into each other's frequencies, understanding, and valuing the unique rhythms and melodies each member brings.

How do we create connectedness? 

Think back to steps 1 and 2 (Psychological Safety and Courageous Followership); consider them as the practice sessions and learned skills each musician brings to the stage. These skills truly shine in the spotlight of connectedness, converging into a melody of collaborative innovation and support.Connectedness requires acknowledging, appreciating, and authentically engaging with one another's unique tunes. It means discovering harmony within our diversity and contributing experiences to co-create collective impact, valuing each individual's contribution.

In the world of jazz, when missteps occur during a performance, musicians improvise, embracing a new path through the piece. Similarly, our connectedness equips us to navigate disagreements, misunderstandings, or missteps in our team's journey. This spontaneous adaptation ensures that the journey continues to resonate beautifully, supporting one another to remain in sync toward creating more value and impact–even during moments of friction.

The Bottom Line

As we navigate the complexities of our environment, the balance within our team and organization may shift. Nevertheless, our organization will thrive when we embrace inclusion and belonging, which is driven by the powerful force of psychological safety, courageous followership, and connectedness. What mindsets and behaviors does your organization need to commit to to activate your “special” sauce for high-performing and high-functioning teams?

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Your Growth Partner
April 26, 2024