When you want to build a high-performing team, it makes sense to bring together the best of the best. Leaders often begin a new role in a new organisation by handpicking a team to follow them. On paper this should work: hire the most qualified individuals to build a dream team.

However, the reality can be quite different.

Imagine being in charge of the Olympic 100m relay team. You have some pretty awesome sprinters to choose from! So, you pick the best four to run the race, the ones who can run like the wind and have proven themselves individually. You’re confident of a gold medal result. But now comes the hard part, they have to run that 100m leg and pass a baton to one another. We have seen many a relay race go awry thanks to poor baton-passing. It is exactly the same when we bring great individuals together as a team in the workplace, their strengths are as individuals. How do we get them to import those skills into a team environment, to pass the baton without dropping it?

Too many times, we focus on the desired result and don’t consider the foundation upon which a team is standing.

Define a clear purpose

Simon Sinek tells us that the ‘why’ is the most important in getting employees to buy into a company. Dan Pink adds that ‘purpose’ is one of the three key things that motivate people. Both experts agree that leaders and organisations can be a bit rubbish at getting this right. The best high performing teams know exactly why they were formed and understand their overall purpose. Make sure when you are building your team, or even adding to your existing team, to revisit your ‘why’ and check that everyone is on the same page. You should regularly review your team’s vision, purpose and goals for another reason: the breakneck pace at which businesses strategies are changing today.

Grease the wheel

Patrick Lencioni tells us that trust is the foundation of a high performing team. If the trust isn’t there then you have no hope of achieving the team’s goals. How well do you trust the people on your team? Can you be honest, open and even vulnerable with them? You can build trust with your team by showing that you are capable in your role, consistent in how you deal with different people and situations, act with goodwill and compassion and are always honest and sincere.

Periodic gut checks every team member needs to make include asking: Can my teammate complete this task? Will the results be good? Will they deliver on time? We trust people based on our intuition and the interpersonal relationships we have with them. We tend to ask ourselves questions like: Can I trust my teammate to not use my mistake against me? Can I tell them what I really think about the way they completed that task without getting a defensive reaction? Sonnenwald (1996) noted that emotional trust “can be the grease that turns the wheel”.

As a leader, you can build trust among your teammates by being the one who ‘goes first’, whether by admitting that you made a mistake or giving open and honest feedback to your team. It’s prudent to remember that old adage: “trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair”.

Embrace the challenges

Conflict is still one of the biggest organisational ‘taboos’. It is very tempting to get cosy inside your team rather than challenge each other on performance or behaviour. Finding the balance between support and challenge is key to being able to have those passionate debates or have that feedback conversation without worrying about what reaction you might get. Productive conflict is essential for the growth and development of your team. Being able to debate concepts and ideas without ‘getting personal’ means quicker problem-solving and no veiled discussions!

When a possible conflict arises, challenge your team in a healthy, supportive way by looking at what happened – including how you contributed to the situation and what emotions were involved (and whether they were relevant) – without pointing fingers. By doing so, you’ll gain a better understanding of what really matters to you and the other person in this situation (Harvard Negotiation Project, 1979-current day).

So, when you are building your high performing team (or Olympic relay team) think about clarifying their purpose, we’re here to take home the gold! Also consider how you will support each other and deal with failure as a team. You don’t want to be that relay team that everyone on it starts blaming one another over who fudged the baton pass. Think about how you encourage those challenging conversations in order to foster healthy conflict and debate as a team.

If you can get these things right, you are well on your way to sustaining a successful high performing team.

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From Sara Duxbury

Sara Duxbury is a business psychologist and coach with Carter Corson, and the ultimate people person, working with organisations to ensure development is at the heart of people strategy. In her past lives as a people director, Sara has an extensive background in legal and retail, and has a pretty full awards cabinet, including Sunday Times Top 100, Guardian Great Places to Work and IIP awards. Outside of work Sara is an avid Newcastle United supporter, showing she isn’t quite perfect.