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Defining High-Performance Teams

For over 40 years, we have worked in the talent management space supporting organisational development professionals in improving recruitment, development and management practices. One of the most common initiatives we see organisations focused on is “developing high-performance teams”. But what does that actually mean?

The concept of "high-performance teams" has been developed and refined over the years, drawing from several fields of study, including organisational psychology, business management, and human resources. However, pinpointing the exact origins of the term can be challenging, as it naturally evolved with the study of teams and their performance within organisations.

The study of high-performance teams gained significant traction in the 1980s and 1990s as researchers and businesses alike sought to understand the characteristics and practices that separated exceptionally effective teams from their less successful counterparts. This period saw an explosion of literature on topics like team leadership, team dynamics, and team effectiveness, contributing to our current understanding of high-performance teams.

One of the early mentions of "high-performance teams" can be found in the works of business and management thought leaders like Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, who co-authored the widely recognised book "The Wisdom of Teams" in 1993. In this work, they explored the concept of high-performing teams and identified core characteristics that make such teams successful.

What is a High-Performance Team?

It is important to note, there is no agreed-upon, universal definition of what a high-performance team is. Hence it is important to first ask how do you and your organisation define high performance.

A high-performance team might be defined in several ways depending on the context. Generally, it refers to a group of people with specific roles and complementary skills and abilities, who collaborate, innovate and produce consistently superior results. Here are some possible definitions from different perspectives:

  • Outcome-Oriented Focused - A high-performance team might be defined by their ability to consistently achieve and often exceed its objectives or targets. This could be in terms of meeting project deadlines, hitting sales targets, or achieving key performance indicators (KPIs).
  • Synergy & Cooperation Focused - A high-performance team can be defined by their ability to synergise and collaborate, where the combined efforts of the team members exceed the sum of their individual efforts.
  • Efficiency Focused - A high-performance team can be defined by their ability to operate with high efficiency, meaning they make optimal use of resources, including time, to achieve their goals.
  • Resilience Focused - A high-performance team can be defined by their ability to be resilient and adaptable, capable of overcoming obstacles and adjusting to changes without losing momentum or focus on their ultimate goals.
  • Innovation & Creativity Focused - A high-performance team can be defined by their ability to innovate effectively and creatively solve problems together. They constantly strive for improvement and are not afraid to take calculated risks and challenge the status quo.
  • Leadership & Structure Focused - A high-performance team can be defined by their ability to distribute leadership responsibility, and for every member to take responsibility. These teams usually have clear structures and defined roles, but also allow flexibility for members to contribute in different areas.
  • Communication Focused - A high-performance team can be defined by their ability to effectively communicate and connect. These teams ensure that every team member understands their responsibilities, and feedback is consistently shared and acted upon.
  • Improvement & Growth Focused - A high-performance team can be defined by their ability to foster individual and team improvement. In these teams, members are encouraged to grow and develop their knowledge, skills, seek improvement and to take on new roles.
  • Trust & Respect Focused - A high-performance team can be defined by their ability to foster and maintain high levels of trust. In these teams, members trust each other's competence and commitment and respect each other's contributions.
These definitions cover the broad aspects of what a high-performance team typically stands for. However, specific criteria can vary based on the organisation, the team's purpose, and the industry or sector.

Building Your High-Performance Teams Definition

It is likely that in most situations, a good definition of a high-performance team for your organisation lies in several of the above categories. For example, your company may value productivity, collaboration and trust - so a high-performance team definition needs to incorporate these 3 elements.

In order to better define high-performance teams in your specific situation, you could consider the following questions:

Vision and Goals
  • What are the organisation's shared vision and goals?
  • How are these goals communicated and understood by each team member?
  • How are individual goals aligned with the team's overall objectives?

Team Composition & Roles
  • What skills, experiences, and perspectives are represented within the team?
  • How are roles and responsibilities assigned within the team?
  • How does the team leverage its diversity to enhance performance?

Communication & Conflict Resolution
  • What channels and methods does the team use for communication?
  • How does the team handle disagreements and conflicts?
  • How open and transparent is the communication within the team?

Leadership & Decision-Making
  • What leadership style is practised within the team?
  • How are decisions made within the team?
  • How does the team balance individual autonomy with collective decision-making?

Performance & Accountability
  • How does the team define and measure its performance?
  • How does the team hold its members accountable for their responsibilities?
  • How does the team handle errors and setbacks?

Learning & Improvement
  • How does the team learn from its experiences and mistakes?
  • How does the team identify areas for improvement?
  • How does the team innovate and adapt to changes?

Culture & Values
  • What values and behaviours are encouraged within the team?
  • How does the team build trust and foster collaboration among its members?
  • How does the team balance productivity with the well-being of its members?

By asking these questions, you can gain a comprehensive understanding of the factors that contribute to the formation and functioning of a high-performance team. Thus, allowing you to create a clear definition. It can also help identify areas for improvement in your own teams.
Trevor O'Sullivan

Trevor O'Sullivan

General Manager. Since the early 2000s, Trevor has worked with thousands of Talent Management professionals to develop and apply assessment-based talent management solutions for selecting, developing and managing people. Trevor is an active member of the TTI Success Insights (TTISI) Global Advisory Council, contributes to TTISI product development and is a regular presenter at TTISI-R3. He is honoured to have received multiple Blue Diamond Awards and, more recently, the Bill Brooks Impact Award recognising his contributions to the TTISI global network.

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