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The Magic of High Performing Teams

"Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work."

– Vince Lombardi

Teamwork is a magnet topic – one that attracts a great deal of attention in organizations and in the business press. Consider some of the classic titles that have addressed this important subject:

  • “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni
  • “The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork” by John Maxwell
  • “The Secret of Teams: What Great Teams Know and Do” by Mark Miller
  • “The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization” by Jon R. Katzenbach and
      Douglas K. Smith

This is far from an exhaustive list. Related books, articles, seminars, workshops, and webinars deal with numerous aspects of teamwork, including self-directed teams, virtual teams, working across generations in teams, and leading teams. What are the ingredients to the “magic” of high performing teams?

Patrick Lencioni has identified five behaviors found in cohesive, productive teams. When these behaviors are consistently demonstrated, teams perform very effectively. When these elements are missing, teams become dysfunctional and rife with distrust, poor communication, toxic interaction, and poor performance. Let’s briefly examine five critical behaviors of exceptional teams.


The best teams are built on a bedrock foundation of trust. Team members are honest and open with one another. They are both entirely candid and entirely respectful. They do not hold back from raising and working through issues they encounter in the team because they trust one another’s motives and assume positive intent. Team members build trust by being vulnerable about what they don’t know, mistakes they make, or what they can’t do without help. They count on each other to provide support and assistance when needed. The high level of trust in a great team makes it possible to be vulnerable. And vulnerability increases and strengthens trust.


When there is high trust, team members are able – and willing – to engage in productive conflict, which is unfiltered and constructive debate about differing perspectives, ideas, and solutions to the challenges faced in the course of daily work. In unhealthy teams, conflict shuts down dialogue and debates frequently turn into arguments or even personal attacks. In healthy teams, spirited debate is a productive way of surfacing ideas and perspectives, exploring them thoroughly, and working through issues to arrive at potential solutions. The most effective teams demonstrate the ability to manage what I have termed “the critical two inches” – the difference between what is kept hidden under the table and what is placed out on the table for all to see and discuss openly. Effective teams do not fear or avoid conflict. Instead, they welcome conflict as an opportunity to deal with differences, have everyone be heard and understood, and reach solutions that all team members can support.


When conflict is addressed openly so that all team members are heard and understood, everyone is more likely to commit to supporting team decisions – even if what the team decides is not their personal preference. We all have undoubtedly experienced the “meeting after the meeting” where people express doubts or concerns they did not raise at the time. When not fully committing to team decisions, people undermine team effectiveness. There is no value to holding back only to return later to say, “I told you so!” Such behavior increases conflict and erodes trust. Contrast this with high performing teams where each member, having had the opportunity to offer opinions, ask questions of others, and debate and challenge ideas, can fully commit to supporting the ultimate decisions reached by the team.


Healthy teams hold one another accountable for their commitments and
their behavior in support of team decisions. They recognize that accountability is a critical element of successful performance and that failure to hold each other accountable is sowing the seeds of failure. Further, high performing teams understand and accept that holding people accountable is not the sole responsibility of the manager or team leader. The willingness for peers to hold each other accountable indicates a high level of caring about people and outcomes; unwillingness to do so signals a lack of caring and is an abdication of responsibility. The best teams will not accept a culture of “spotty accountability” and never knowing when the team is or is not serious about keeping commitments and achieving goals. Rather, they consistently hold one another accountable – because they care.


Ultimately, high performing teams produce the desired results – consistently, efficiently, and effectively. Team members “own” their outcomes, celebrating successes and accepting responsibility when they fall short of their objectives. They understand that “poor performance plus an excuse does not equal acceptable performance.” They learn from failures to be more effective in the future. The best teams understand clearly how trust, productive conflict, commitment, and holding one another accountable lead to successful results.

So, is high performance in teams really “magic?” Not really. These behaviors are straightforward, commonsense principles that can become common practices in our teams!

“Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”
– Steve Jobs

Dee Oviatt is Senior Training Consultant at ATW Training Solutions. Dee can be reached at or by calling 515.727.0731.


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