Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams

Effective team leaders focus on what team members need to work together productively and achieve great results.

A team is a group of people who are committed to working together to achieve a desired goal. Working together includes talking, sharing ideas, debating issues, collaborating, making decisions, establishing goals, and dealing with changing priorities.

Generally speaking, teams tend to be small in nature, particularly within the context of a larger organization. Most research indicates the ideal number of people to have on a work team is between five and 12. But, of course, the nature of the problem or opportunity influences the size of the team. In our online-centric world, teams today can be huge, particularly those that are “virtual” in nature.

High-performing teams, such as athletic teams, pit crews, professional musical groups, surgical teams, and others share three things in common:

1. An effective team leader

2. Talented and committed team members

3. Effective team processes

Effective Team Leader

The team leader plays a major role in the success of any team. The best team leaders have three important skills.

  • Task Skills—The ability to set goals, establish priorities, assign roles and responsibilities, plan and run effective meetings, and monitor results.
  • People Skills—The ability to connect with people, resolve conflicts, motivate, and celebrate success.
  • Diagnostic Skills—The ability to diagnose situations and determine what’s needed to move the ball forward.

Effective team leaders know when and how to use three basic management/leadership styles to engage the team members and get the work done. The three management/leadership styles include:

  • Directing—Telling people what to do and how to do it.
  • Discussing—Asking the right questions to engage people and solicit their ideas.
  • Delegating—Empowering others to take ownership for tasks and relationships with others.

Talented and Committed Team Members

Jack Welch once said, “The team with the best players wins.” I don’t think that’s always true, but it is often the case. Having team members with the required skills and motivation is critical for success. You want people who are committed to both the task and supporting and helping each other.

As author and consultant Jim Collins has said, it’s critical to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. Team success hinges on having the right people for the right roles. This starts with creating a list of the skills, qualifications, and experiences needed for the team. Use this list as you recruit and select team members.

How much diversity do you want on the team? It depends on the problem or opportunity the team is pursuing. In some cases, you want diversity, or a mixture of males and females, ages, education, work history, thinking styles, etc. A cross-functional team, where people bring different skill sets to the table, is desirable when you are dealing with major initiatives that affect the total organization.

Generally it’s helpful to have team members who can perform various roles, including:

  • Strategic Thinker—Someone who sees the big picture and connects the dots at a high level.
  • Detail Taskmaster—Someone who is detail-oriented and can identify all the relevant specifics needed to get the job done.
  • Facilitator—Someone who will engage people and help the team stay on track and follow a logical process.
  • Driver—Someone who keeps the team moving forward to accomplish the desired goal.

Team members need complementary skills. The best results come when people have the required skills, are passionate about the project or task, and are committed to helping each other succeed.

Effective Team Processes

There are three core strategies high-performing teams use to perform very effectively. They include: communicating, making decisions, and holding people accountable.

1. Communicating: Good communication is vital for team success. Team members need to be open and honest and say what’s on their mind. This requires a foundation of trust and openness to all ideas and points of view. High-functioning teams have serious, heated debates and even encourage disagreements in their meetings. But when people get defensive, personal, and guarded in their comments, the discussion ceases to be productive.

To prevent such scenarios, high-performing teams often establish rules related to communications such as:

  • One person speaks at a time
  • No side conversations in meetings
  • Speak up. Say what’s on your mind
  • Focus on the problem, not the person
  • Listen and fully consider all ideas

2. Making Decisions: Teams need to make decisions about goals, plans, assignments, etc. There are several ways teams can approach the decision-making process, such as:

  • Team leader decides (directing style)
  • Group consensus—all team members reach agreement (discussing style)
  • Majority rule (discussing style)
  • Team members decide (delegating)
  • High-performing teams often establish rules related to how the team will make decisions. For example, they may:
  • Fully consider all options
  • Strive to reach consensus
  • Make timely decisions
  • Avoid “analysis paralysis”
  • Disagree and commit

At Intel, Andy Grove demanded his people argue and debate the issues, but once a decision is made, they need to fully support it. To leave a meeting and then start badmouthing a decision that’s been made is counterproductive to morale and can undermine effective team dynamics and productivity overall.

3. Holding People Accountable: Effective team leaders hold people accountable for assigned tasks and living the team’s values. An employee not meeting standards means other employees must endure some measure of consequences, even chaos, and must pick up added work for which they usually are not recognized or rewarded.

Team members on high-performing teams not only set the example but also hold each other accountable to the rules and values.

For instance, in terms of team operations, high-performing teams often establish rules such as:

  • Be responsible
  • Complete all actions items on time.
  • If you are going to have difficulty meeting a deadline, ask for help.
  • No surprises.

Stages of Team Development

Teams, like personal relationships, go through stages. Teams don’t become great teams overnight. It takes time for team members to develop trust, learn to collaborate, and understand each other’s thinking styles and behavior patterns. Team development is a process, not an event.

Psychologist B. W. Tuckman originally conducted research on small group interactions and described four stages of team evolution—forming, storming, norming, and performing. Each stage includes new challenges and opportunities to resolve issues, build relationships, and clarify roles. This model was first proposed in 1965. In 1977, Tuckman, jointly with Mary Ann Jensen, added the adjourning stage. The diagram below shows the five stages.










While it may look as it teams go through these stages in a neat and orderly progression, they don’t. They bounce back and forth as members leave, new people join, and the team experiences major successes and setbacks. It’s often two steps forward and one step back.

Certain issues and opportunities arise in each of the stages. The team leader needs to take specific actions to help team members work through these issues and continue to make progress.

Forming Stage

In the forming stage, team members meet for the first time. They communicate in a polite, tentative manner. Extroverts dominate conversation. Little, if any, conflict exists. Team members form impressions about their colleagues’ personalities, work habits, and motivation.

In the forming stage, people have questions such as:

  • Why was I selected for this team?
  • How much time and effort will this require?
  • What’s in it for me? What can I learn?
  • Who are these other people, and why were they selected?

Team leaders need to focus on three things:

  1. The Task—The team leader needs to explain why the team was chartered and what their deliverables are. This includes the expected output of the team and the timeframes and time commitments. Also, team leaders need to establish task roles and responsibilities for each team member.
  2. The People—Leaders need to give people a chance to get to know each other. Schedule activities such as lunches and perhaps an after-work get-together. Take a skills inventory. Be clear on who can do what. In addition, people need to understand how they will use their skills and work together.
  3. Operating Rules—The best teams establish operating rules all team members agree to follow. As discussed earlier, rules center around how team members will communicate, make decisions, and be held accountable for results. An experienced team leader from the aerospace industry says, “Develop the rules as a group, put them in writing, and distribute them to all team members.”     

Team leaders must clarify the task, build relations among team members, and help the team become efficient and effective.

Storming Stage

It’s difficult for team members to consistently work together in a highly productive manner. Hidden agendas, hurt feelings, and interpersonal conflicts often develop. Arguments and differences in work styles arise. The conflicts may be about goals, priorities, roles, and responsibilities. Some team members may not agree with their role or feel their ideas aren’t being considered.

Team members look for support and ask themselves questions such as:

  • Who agrees with my point of view?
  • Who are my allies?
  • What can I do to gain more power and influence?

The storming stage often is marked by power struggles. Team members align with others who see things the way they do. Subgroups may develop. Each subgroup may have opposing goals, priorities, and strategies.

Team members need to learn how to work through conflicts and find productive ways to disagree, negotiate, collaborate, and work together. Conflict isn’t bad, but it must be handled in a professional and productive manner. Mishandled conflict can create hurt feelings, lack of trust, and disengagement. Handled appropriately, conflict becomes an opportunity for learning, fostering stronger bonds of respect, and even building team morale.

Actions team leaders can take:

  • Address issues early on, when they arise.
  • Remind all team members of the team’s key goals.  
  • Help team members understand and appreciate their similarities and differences.
  • Reinforce operating rules. “We agreed to attack issues, not people.” If necessary, establish additional rules of engagement regarding conflicts.

At this point in the process, the honeymoon is over. Team leaders need to help individuals find common ground and learn to argue in a professional way.

Norming Stage

Having worked through conflicts and disagreements, team members now understand each other better and appreciate each other’s knowledge, skills, and experience. Team members become more interdependent. Team members discover there are many benefits to working together.

Team norms or standards become established regarding task performance and people interactions. Some of the norms that high-performing teams establish regarding people interactions include the ability to effectively:

  • Respect and trust of each other
  • Assume good intent
  • Be open to other ideas
  • Utilize candor—direct communication
  • Identify common ground

Regarding task performance, some of the desired norms include the capacity to:

  • Pursue excellence—do their best work
  • Complete assigned action items on time
  • Take ownership

Team leaders need to be aware of the evolving norms and make sure they are aligned with the team’s values and operating rules.

Actions team leaders can take:

  • Set the example. Model the desired behaviors.
  • Highlight the norms.
  • Praise team members whose behavior aligns with team norms.
  • Hold people accountable. “We agreed to start meetings on time. We’ve fallen into the habit of people showing up 5 to10 minutes late.”

Norms are important. They establish the framework that influences how team members work together and the quality of what they produce.

Performing Stage

At this stage, the team is performing at a high level. All team members are fully engaged—participating, collaborating, and achieving great results. Team members understand and accept their roles and responsibilities. Team members are able to openly discuss ideas and resolve disagreements on their own. They learn quickly and are committed to continuous improvement.

Teams are described as being highly efficient and effective.

  • Efficient—No waste. Team members use their expertise, time, and other resources in the most productive way.
  • Effective—Team members are focused on the right mindsets and behaviors to maximize performance and productivity.

Here’s a quote from a winning football coach that exemplifies the performing stage:

 “…We had energy out there, and we were feeding off each other. Players listen to coaches; coaches listen to players. Players listen to each other. Each player executed his part of the overall plan. We trusted each other. It was a special day!”

As teams become more successful, team members become more committed to each other and the team’s goals. Team cohesiveness increases when members work together and achieve the desired results.

Actions team leaders can take:

  • Celebrate success. Point out not only what the team is accomplishing but also how team members are working together.
  • Don’t let the team get complacent. Find new ways to challenge individual team members and the team as a whole to perform at a higher level.
  • Delegate more responsibility to the team.

The three team processes—communicating, making decisions, and holding each other accountable—are working well.

Adjourning Stage

The team has completed its assignment, and now the team is being broken up. Team members may experience a range of emotions, including pride (of accomplishment), relief (the project is done), sadness (will no longer be working with these people), and anxiety (what’s my next assignment).   

Actions team leaders can take:

  • Reward and recognize individual and team accomplishments.
  • Capture lessons learned.
  • Conduct a closure ceremony. Review the team’s mission and accomplishments, and say good-bye to all team members.

All team members fully understand what they accomplished and how they did it. There is a clear sense of closure before people move on to new projects.

Final thought

The one key takeaway you need to remember…

Effective team leaders focus on what team members need to work together productively and achieve great results.

Paul B. Thornton is speaker, trainer, and professor of Business Administration at Springfield Technical Community College. He teaches principles of management, organizational behavior, and principles of leadership. Thornton has designed and conducted management and leadership programs for Palmer Foundry, UMASS Medical School, Mercy Health Systems, Sunshine Village, Holyoke Housing Authority, United Technologies, and Kuwait Oil Corporation. He is the author of “Leadership—Off the Wall” and 12 other books on management and leadership. He may be contacted at