In a perfect world, your team members would always gel perfectly and work seamlessly together to take your business to new heights of innovation, profitability, and customer satisfaction.
But teams are made up of many individuals who need direction and support to feel connected to each other and your company’s mission — in order to perform at their best.
A high-performance team is driven, works collaboratively, quickly implements constructive feedback, and positively contributes to the whole team and the company.
1. Set Clear Expectations (And Coach People To Achieve Them).
Without properly defined expectations, no one on the team knows how to play or win the game.
Setting expectations starts with breaking down complex strategic objectives into clearly defined areas of accountability while aligning roles with your team members’ core competencies.
(Related: Is An MBA Worth It?)
I recommend that you start with the big picture and work inwards:
- Note the company’s strategic goals for 2023.
- How is your team expected to contribute? Clarify expectations to members of your team.
- Establish individual KPIs for each person, via a one-on-one meeting.
- Encourage team members to identify barriers to success and address these individually.
Be sure to use the SMART principle to guide your team’s goal-setting:
- Be specific: Ensure that your team’s goals are concise, with an outline of the steps involved.
- Make them measurable: Incorporate trackable, quantifiable benchmarks.
- Ensure they are achievable: Ensure goals are realistic in the context of your team’s skills, available time, and performance metrics. If not, adjust.
- Keep them relevant: Verify that the goal is aligned with the company’s overall vision, mission, values and strategic objectives.
- Make them time-bound: Break down your 2023 goals into quarterly and monthly checkpoints.
Don’t set and forget: maintain team performance through repetition.
Expectation-setting isn’t a one-and-done process.
Repetition is key. ALWAYS over-communicate. Be willing to state the obvious.
Reiterate goals in your everyday communications with employees, always tying strategic company mission to tactical team goals that drive day-to-day activity.
“The CEO has personally tasked us with implementing a new CRM by the end of July. Our old CRM is killing productivity. The sales team can’t be effective. The marketing team can’t be effective. Product teams can’t communicate effectively with marketing and sales. The new CRM will be the lifeline of the entire business, and by achieving this goal, we will enable everyone’s success. This is the most critical job in the business right now, and we’ve been selected to do it. All eyes are on us, team – I need you to bring your A-game.”
Team performance will improve once employees have internalised how their progress on a small task contributes to a larger mission.
Of course, your job as a leader doesn’t end with setting SMART goals and talking about them:
- Pay attention to how people are tracking.
- Provide recognition and feedback (more about this shortly).
- Look for opportunities to unlock higher levels of performance through additional training and development (for example, an online course, workshop, or mentorship program).
(Related: Top 21 Ice-Breakers For Zoom Meetings).
2. Re-Clarify Responsibilities During Periods Of Rapid Growth.
Each team member needs to know their area of accountability within a team, how their success is measured and what their future prospects in the company look like.
If your technology business, for example, is growing from $30m to $100m in revenue through international expansion, you can expect a healthy degree of confusion, frustration and even resentment.
As a manager, your job is to accept that some fallout is unavoidable while doing your best to provide clarity and direction.
3 steps to give employees more clarity during periods of transformation:
- Sit with each new team member and discuss their job title, priorities and scope so that you are both on the same page. Check in again if you sense that the employee has doubts about their priorities or your expectations around standards of work.
- Discuss ambitions and development needs, and discuss the path to promotion, a different role, or what training or mentoring opportunities the company can provide. Make sure to tie these to the achievement of KPIs.
- Make an action plan to document and address any internal concerns about how workloads are allocated or how responsibilities are divided. Can you build in more fairness? Remove bottlenecks? Improve lines of communication?
(Related: Raise Emotional Intelligence In Your Workplace).
3. Lead With Values (Not Rules).
When businesses have no values (or weak values), they fall back on rules. While rules are certainly important and unavoidable, they’re also inefficient.
Values are the root beliefs that your business operates from. Think of them as principles that shape your team’s behaviour.
Let’s say you run a sales team that sells B2B software by cold-calling other businesses. You probably have a 3-page SOP manual that sets out a number of rules:
- The client must receive a follow-up email within 30 minutes of the call.
- Every call must be logged in the CRM, with notes.
- Calls after 5pm are not allowed.
What do you expect the salesperson to do when they encounter a situation that your rules don’t cover, or requires them to bend the rules?
For example, they discover a hot lead at 5:05pm while scrolling LinkedIn on mobile, walking to their car.
Should they call from the car or wait until tomorrow (and potentially lose the deal)? Should they call you to ask for permission to call after hours and log the notes in the CRM tomorrow?
Because you have built a winning sales culture underpinned by concrete values below, they’re equipped to make the right decision:
- Hit your number.
- Hard work makes luck.
Dozens of rules can be replaced with a single value. Use values to ensure compliance with 80% of your expectations. Use rules for the remaining 20%.
4. Use Feedback To Hold People Accountable.
As a manager, it is your job to let your direct reports know how they’re doing in relation to how they’re expected to be doing.
Yet, a lot of managers don’t like giving feedback. In fact, most actively avoid it because they’re uncomfortable with the idea of conflict.
They rationalise it to themselves with the following:
High-performing teams have a work culture that embraces transparent and regular feedback.
For them, feedback is an essential mechanism of growth – rather than a source of conflict or criticism.
Regular feedback encourages trust, fosters team cohesion, and improves team performance. It’s your role as a manager to cultivate a workplace culture where team members welcome it, seek it, and (gasp) look forward to it.
You can deliver your feedback in a number of ways, but the essence of effective feedback is always the same:
3 conditions are required for feedback to be effective:
- Ongoing. Provide and request feedback year-round and throughout work-in-progress, not just at the end of a project or the end of the year.
- Open. Always welcome attention being placed on problems or issues, even when it’s inconvenient — for example, when feedback might disrupt meeting a milestone on a project.
- Reciprocal. Feedback should never be a one-way street, because the goal is to learn and improve so we can all perform better. Team managers should ask for feedback on their management style from the team and adjust to suit different personalities.
Studies confirm that people who feel heard and supported are more likely to contribute to the team. With proper feedback, you build a positive, transparent, and productive work environment.
Even if you believe the team performance and culture are outstanding, check in with employees on a one-to-one basis. People can easily suppress concerns and resentment, leading to unexpected complaints or worse – quiet quitting.
Ensure feedback is easy to receive by building a respectful culture.
Employees will find your feedback more difficult to hear if it’s delivered without regard to their knowledge, experience or feelings.
Teams with members who respect each other and interact positively outperform those with disparaging and negative members because they have a genuine desire to help each other and cover each other’s blind spots.
OurWatch confirms that a culture of respect fosters higher standards and organisational performance.
To solidify respect, ensure the following:
- Foster an environment where coworkers know respect is a top priority, and there are consequences for noncompliance.
- Hold training and regular coaching that teaches effective communication.
- Lead by example to promote the right culture. As a team leader, show your respect for others in daily interactions. The rest of the team will follow suit.
5. Avoid Micromanaging Capable People.
You hired a person into a role because you decided that they were capable of performing the role.
If you find yourself micromanaging this person, you have one of two underlying issues:
- You made a poor judgement call in hiring them. They’re underperforming and are not improving. Instead of accepting this truth and letting go of them, you hope to close their competency gap through micromanagement (I’ve made this mistake more than anyone).
- You made a great hiring decision, and they’re succeeding in the job. Yet, despite this, your anxiety is high, and trust levels are low. You’re not giving them enough autonomy and
If you find yourself in the first situation, you know what you need to do.
But if you’re in the latter, you may be in a habit of putting talented people offside.
If a leader tries to manage every aspect of a project, good team members are unlikely to innovate or take responsibility.
Your desire to prevent failure can, counterintuitively, lead to significantly less enthusiasm, initiative, performance or compliance.
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Ultimately, high-performing employees under the scrutiny of a micromanaging boss feel less capable and can slide right into feeling resentful and disloyal. As a manager, remember:
- Team effectiveness and team efficiency rely on your trust in them.
- When you cross into micromanagement, the team is less likely to respect you.
How can you feel more assured people are working on the right things?
Stay focused on setting expectations at the macro level. That is, clarifying goals and values.
Let your team decide how they achieve those goals, such as how the report is formatted or the size of the logo.
If the report succeeds, offer encouragement. If it doesn’t, hold them accountable.
Instead of being overly involved, your role as a team manager is to:
- Define high-level objectives that teams are working towards and clarify why they’re important.
- Clarify roles and responsibilities, so you can trust that people with the requisite experience or expertise are in charge of specific steps in a workflow.
- Provide resources including information, budget, headcount, and support at the executive level that gives people the confidence and scope to execute.
- Set boundaries and standards, so people understand the limitations they can work within and the quality of outputs required to meet expectations.
- NOT manage every aspect of every person’s day, which requires respecting people’s time and energy—part of being a great manager is protecting employees from overwhelm.
Your team will organise their dynamic and flow. You can remain a sounding board and mentor in times of need.
6. Create Systems That Support Autonomy And Team Productivity.
One way to improve team performance is by encouraging autonomy. Done properly, your team will feel empowered to achieve results.
The foundation of achieving this kind of well-oiled machine has been covered in previous points:
- Defining clear areas of responsibility,
- Paying attention to being a communicative and supportive leader that encourages feedback, and
- Demonstrating trust by giving people flexibility in how they deliver.
But on top of that, you need to create a system that facilitates independent work while keeping employees aligned with expectations and company objectives.
Effective structures and tools can also reinforce the boundaries you’ve set, reduce unnecessary interruptions and ensure your team remains focused on big-picture goals rather than getting distracted by day-to-day minutiae.
Some key components of a system that supports autonomy include:
- Create small teams with decision-making powers. Structuring workloads so that people have just a few collaborators, and can make and act on certain decisions quickly, will vastly increase efficiency and lead to more innovation.
- Make information easily accessible. Most businesses would have some cloud document storage these days, but that doesn’t mean useful information is easy to find. A renewed focus on ensuring important details about processes and projects is actually documented and available — perhaps through software — will cut down on wasted time looking for background material, so employees have what they need to begin.
- Provide project management tools that clarify workloads, timeframes, priorities, and tasks. When well-managed, such software provides a powerful guidepost for employees so they can direct their time and energy where needed. It can also help managers spot unmanageable workloads and redistribute tasks to avoid overwhelming employees.
- Asynchronous communication. Encouraging slower response times enables people to focus on work that matters. It requires a mindset change: not expecting subordinates to respond urgently to every email. Tools also help — messaging and collaboration platforms that enable team-wide communication that people can view when they’re available, and also act as a centralised source of truth that keeps everyone on the same page.
7. Encourage Collaboration (With Fewer Unnecessary Meetings).
“If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” This African proverb from Martha Goedert encompasses the spirit of team effectiveness.
We’ve explained why creating the right conditions for people to work autonomously helps improve team effectiveness. But workplace productivity isn’t possible without some degree of collaboration among team members.
Collaborating in meaningful ways solidifies our sense of belonging and helps us refine and expand on ideas developed in isolation.
The best way to encourage collaboration is:
- Shared Goals: All team members should feel inspired and connected to the company’s overall vision.
- Open Communication: In the modern working world, cross-functional teams are far more productive than those with strict hierarchies and closed-door policies. The uptake and support for tools you introduce to facilitate better communication are also important.
- Networking: Give people a chance to get to know each other outside transactional exchanges via email, such as targeted team-building activities. Personal relationships make team members feel more comfortable reaching out for help and working on tasks together.
People who actively contribute to a greater vision will contribute more meaningfully. Consider having your company vision in view in the workplace as a reminder to employees.
A prime example of poor collaboration is ineffective meetings. We’ve all suffered through meetings and thought, “This could have been an email.” Such meetings significantly lower productivity and motivation.
Even just one hour in an unnecessary or draining team meeting can interrupt the flow of a person’s day and reduce their ability to focus and produce quality work.
Ways to avoid meetings that prevent people from performing:
- Don’t schedule a meeting where other forms of communication will be easier for the group to digest information at their leisure (e.g., via email, or by recording your thoughts via video).
- Don’t keep recurrent meetings without knowing there are specific agenda items that need to be addressed, and being certain they require face-to-face interaction.
- Even if matters require talking through, try to minimise time spent in the meeting by requiring people to read and share thoughts or questions in writing first (so you know they’ve considered the topic in advance).
- Only ever invite the people who genuinely need to be there. Including people with no control over a decision merely wastes their time.
Reserve meetings for bigger projects and strategic conversations. Don’t set an appointment if you can communicate concisely with those people in the office or on a call.
When you do hold meetings, focus on the following:
- Run them effectively. Have a clear agenda, actionable items, and deliverables. Click here for a template you can edit.
- Meetings must start and end on time; respect your team’s time and tasks.
- Avoid stacking meetings back to back. You want to ensure everyone is fresh and alert when attending.
8. Recognise Every Success.
Having leadership skills, you’ll be accustomed to planning ahead and constantly pushing the team forward. However, they can also mean you easily overlook wins because you are too focused on setting new goals.
Celebrating successes is essential. Acknowledge the team’s performance and take respite before pushing for the next achievement.
You can celebrate by:
- Celebration: Ensure employees feel their commitment and performance have not gone unnoticed. You can read our ideas for recognition programs here.
- Personal awards: Take the time to appreciate each team member’s effort privately or publicly, whichever is their preference.
- Group rewards: Celebrate the team performance by treating the office to a celebration – for example, a lunch party, a meal, an all-expenses-paid trip, or gift bags.
A celebration is an excellent way to improve team productivity and strengthen cohesion.
Final Thoughts About How To Improve Team Performance.
Improving employee engagement involves consistent effort and adjustment from you, the leader. It requires dedication and commitment to enforce your team’s dynamic as one that is respectful, collaborative, and visionary.
You must lead by example and model optimal performance through your behaviour as a team leader.
Implement these seven tips to start seeing significant improvements in team productivity and performance in the coming year, and you’ll be proud to lead a high-performance team.