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Highly Effective Teams - what is the magic ingredient?

All things being equal (access to resources, information, expertise etc), teams that know each other deeply will perform better.

Teams are the ‘engine’ of a school, or any organisation for that matter. Highly effective teams deliver the organisation’s strategic objectives and are therefore critical to its success. But…..

  • Why is it some teams perform better than others?

  • Why is that some teams feel better to be a part of than others?

  • What is the magic formula?

It turns out that whilst there may be nothing magic about it, there are some things that leaders can focus on to create the conditions in with a team can flourish. There are some practical examples contained in this blog which are illustrative rather than definitive, and I hope they may be useful.

Some questions to frame our focus:

What does a highly effective team look like? What are the observable characteristics that we can point to and replicate? How do we identify ‘where we are now’ in relation to these characteristics of what an ‘highly effective team’ looks like? How can senior leaders in organisations take this information and develop strategic opportunities to build capacity towards greater effectiveness? And critically, How can team leaders work towards being more effective as part of a team?

As a member and leader of a number of teams during my 30 years in schools I’ve pondered these questions. It can be tempting to focus in on what it looks like, and what members of a team might DO in order to be collectively highly effective. In my experience however, it is equally important to recognise what it is like to be part of a team that ticks all the boxes - what does it feel like? What are the behaviours, and what is it that the members are BEING rather than just DOING?

When designing and facilitating leadership development programs, as I do as part of 4Cs Coaching, clients will often ask that there is a focus on Building Highly Effective Teams. When looking for clarity in this there are multiple sources of research and examples of frameworks that espouse what the characteristics of highly effective teams are.

What do highly effective teams look like

Typical characteristics include

  • A common and clear purpose. The members of the team understand their collective vision and goals and focus on achieving these. As well as being clear on the specific goals of the team, where the sense of ‘purpose’ is framed more broadly (ie where teams that believe they exist to fulfil a need that is greater than them and sometimes beyond the confines of organisational objectives) these teams tend to be more highly driven and collectively motivated [1]

  • Trust in relationships. This is a dynamic and complex characteristic, and essentially revolves around the ‘culture’ of the team. It centres around a deep understanding of the personal traits, and particular strengths of each member of the team; the frequency and nature of interactions, collaboration and communication, and an aspiration to work in the interest of the team and not the individual.

  • Clarity on responsibilities and accountabilities. Whilst ‘knowing your role’ seems important, actually having a sense of ownership is more important. This sense of responsibly, and recognising the contribution being made to the team’s goals, seems to bring with it a sense of obligation and commitment to the team. Additionally, if there is a willingness within the team to both reinforce the accountability of the individual (ie hold others to account), as well as having a sense of collective accountability (we are all in this together) then trusting relationships seem to be affirmed.

  • Adaptive processes and mindset. Teams that exhibit high levels of curiosity, enjoy exploring new ideas, are innovative, embrace diverse ways of thinking, and have a culture of continuous learning, tend to perform better than those that don’t. Additionally, those teams that have clearly defined ways of working, but are open to experimentation and changing the way they work collectively, will be more effective over time.

  • Recognition and appreciation. Teams that measure and recognise success (as well as failure) against the set goals tend to stay more focused on the desired outcomes they have identified. Whist there is evidence that this is motivating [2] it is the gesture of appreciation, which acknowledges the value of a member of the team regardless of success or failure that is most powerful. This tends to strengthen team cohesiveness and bonds.

Brent Gleeson in Forbes Magazine in March 2019 [3] additionally notes in relation to the above that highly affective teams exhibit

  • Goals that have SMART characteristics and notably a time dimension to them. It appears that the ‘When’ is equally important as the ‘What’ and ‘Why’.

  • Also, in relation to adaptive mindsets mentioned above, teams work best when they exist in what is referred to as ‘Comfort Zone Expansion’. When the “work of the team is beyond the team’s zone of comfort, calculated risks are taken and they are always asking themselves "what if?" the team will tend to embraces and thrive in challenging contexts. This echoes the work of Lev Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development [4].

  • Where there are trusting relationships and clarity in terms of accountability, Gleeson also suggests that team leaders demonstrate Servant Leadership – the organisation embraces a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve. This enabling approach models behaviours that are focused on the benefits of the team and so have a cascading effect on its members.

  • And in relation to the above, that teams present as Ecosystems, Not Hierarchies; “High-performance teams take a more decentralised approach to leadership and decision making. While the planning process typically remains centralized and focused on big picture strategies, the execution of tasks and duties are decentralised”. This approach of distributed leadership, and sense of relative autonomy, signals trust at the cultural level of the organisation.

Some ways forward - the How

So, if we have a sense of what characterises highly effective teams, how can leaders go about enabling them? How can they build capacity toward greater effectiveness?

It seems that knowing the people in a team deeply is one of the most influential elements in building capacity towards greater effectiveness. All things being equal (access to resources, information, expertise etc), teams that know each other deeply will perform better.

Practically, there are 5 areas of focus that can help schools move forward in the relational dimension of teams:

  1. Know where you are now – what does the team do well, and not so well

  2. Know your people well, and allow them to know each other deeply

  3. Enable enhanced communication within the team, particularly informal communication opportunities

  4. Enable enhanced opportunities for interaction within the team, particularly informal opportunities

  5. Enable enhanced interactions with individuals and teams that exist outside the team, particularly thought leaders and those engaged in professional learning

Let’s unpack it a little:

1 Know where you are now: There are some great audit tools that can offer a framework for focusing your analysis of what a team does well, and not so well. I particularly like the Team Performance Inventory Model by Impact Development Training:

Team Performance Inventory Model

What is particularly interesting with this audit tool is that there is a focus on the dynamics of interactions and communication in ‘Quality Conversations’ (observable behaviours that lead to useful and efficient conversations, enabling teams to leverage diversity of thought and manage conflict), and ‘Effective Relationships’ (the inclusion, respect, and trust within a team that supports sustainable performance)

This hints at the significance of these team attributes in team performance.

2 Know your people well, and allow them to know each other deeply: during my 30 years in education, I’ve been lucky to work with many great team leaders. There are many attributes they exhibit; often highly inclusive, consultative and democratic, insightful and analytical. Consistently though, I’ve recognised that great team leaders know their team members really well, and this is often demonstrated through high levels of EQ (Emotional intelligence [5] - the measure of a person’s interpersonal and communication skills).

Research by MIT affirms these as important elements not just for team leaders, but for all members of a team. MIT’s Sociometrics mapping tool [6] gives us some deeper insights into this area (we’ll come back to this in a minute)

So… ‘How’ can senior leaders build capacity and opportunity in this area? One way forward (and this is one of many) would be to engage in professional learning programs that actively aim to enhance a team member’s knowledge of self, and provide a common point of reference for others within the team.

The flagship Mental Fitness program by Positive Intelligence® [7] is one such example. Rooted in evidence-based research from cognitive and behavioural psychology, and neuroscience, the program gives participants an opportunity to audit their own positive and limiting mindsets through a PQ (Positive Intelligence Quotient) score, and to build greater creativity and growth mindset through a structured development program.

Saboteur Profile Audit

Additionally, it enables participant to recognise and better manage their limiting beliefs, (‘Saboteurs’) supporting growth of the individual team member. The augmentation of this occurs when ALL members of a team undertake the same program, as they now have an enhanced understanding of self and others, a common framework from which to improve the dynamic and interactions of the team, and an enhanced ability to have open conversations and greater capacity to fulfil the characteristics of highly effective teams as noted above. (more information here).

Furthermore, where team leaders employ a coaching approach (rather than mentoring), or where team coaching is provided through a professional coach, these teams will see a notable improvement in interactions and communication transparency.

Professional learning opportunities that allow team members to share new insights together, collectively experience their own and other’s learning, will therefore build a deeper understanding of the team, and strengthen relationships. This is particularly so where the professional learning is not transactional but developmental, and built around enhancing capacity and relationships.

3, 4, 5 - enhancing communication and interaction (within and externally to the team): MIT’s research is ground-breaking here. Quoted in Harvard Business Review it notes:

The implications here for senior leaders in schools is recognising the value and impact of giving teams opportunities to interact informally, and not just through scheduled and structured meetings that focus on ‘the priorities’ of the organisation.

MIT’s research identifies certain characteristics about interactions and communication when it comes to highly effective teams. These include

  • Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, (there is equity) keeping contributions short and sweet.

  • Members tend to communicate face-to-face, and their conversations and gestures are energetic (identified by the number and nature of exchanges)

  • Members connect directly with one another and not just with the team leader. There are high levels of engagement

  • Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.


It seems therefore that the relational characteristics of a team are key to its success. A deep understanding of each other’s personal traits, and particular strengths (as developed through the PQ program, for example) is foundational.

When forming a team, it seems that giving greater consideration to how they communicate (rather than to select individuals for their experience or accomplishments) would be a good place to start.

Additionally, a developed consciousness, and intentional desire, to enhance the frequency and nature of interactions, collaboration and communication within a team (as identified by MIT’s) is critical to a team’s success. Where there are opportunities to interact informally and socially, as well as focused engagement on actions that contribute towards goals; and where communication includes honest and frank feedback about performance and interpersonal relationships, we will see teams flourishing.

References: [1] See Dan Pink – Drive, Canongate Books, 2010 ISBN 978 1 78689 170 9

[2] See Frederick Herzberg 2-Factory Theory

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/brentgleeson/2019/03/14/15-characteristics-of-high-performance-teams/?sh=3d34d43b6ae0

[4] See http://www.strategicpeoplesolutions.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/A-Strategy-to-Boost-Your-Training-Results.pdf

[5] See Dan Goleman Emotional Intelligence; https://www.danielgoleman.info/

[6] https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams

[7] See https://www.positiveintelligence.com/program/

Effective Teams
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