How to Build and Maintain High-Performance Teamwork

To see the High-Performing Team Characteristics "at-a-glance,"

recent survey on workteam performance suggests that most of today's workteams are underperforming. Only 27% of respondents said their teams perform at top levels a majority of the time.

So what is the difference between a team that's performing at top levels and one that's not?

Just ask anyone who’s experienced both. The answer is Results

  • On a high-performing team you find strong personal and group commitment to goals, open and honest communication, and a high degree of accountability. Everyone on the team feels equally responsible for achieving the best possible outcome; team members are driven to do what they’ve said they’ll do…and to the best of their ability.  Result: The team can accomplish a lot without compromising quality. Outcomes are generally very good and morale is high.
  • On teams that aren’t high-performing, you see confusion, conflict, missed deadlines and faulty deliverables.  Some team members act as if mistakes or oversights are just par for the course. Mediocrity is accepted as the norm. Result: Outcomes are often below expectations. Team members are frustrated (especially those who are achievement-oriented).

The good news is that team performance doesn't need to stay low-to-moderate.  Lots can be done to lift morale, commitment and results.

Here's How to Build and Maintain High-Performance Teamwork

This article explains seven characteristics of high-performing teams and what a manager can do to build each one.  It also provides insights into how managers can help their team stay strong through times of change and difficult circumstances.  For a quick summary, see the infographic.

team1.11. Clearly Defined Roles

Before they can fully contribute to a team effort, each employee needs to understand what is expected of them. They need to know what role will they play and how that role supports the overall team (and organizational) mission.

It’s a good idea to make sure that team members understand the roles of their teammates as well.  Managers can do this in a group setting where each team member shares with the group what they are there to do.  If any areas appear to overlap, lead team members through a discussion of who will “own” what part of a task or responsibility.  

Remember to revisit team roles and responsibilities in times of change, or when a team member leaves or is added.

team2.12. Clear and Common Vision

On high-performing teams, employees know what success will look like and they know they will have a say in creating the goals that will help the team get there.  To build this environment, managers must first be clear on the team’s purpose in helping the organization reach its goals. From there, the manager can actively seek the input of all team members on how the team will fulfill this purpose and achieve the overall vision.

Agreed-upon plans and strategies should then be translated into SMART goals so everyone is on the same page and progress can be tracked.

SMART goals are: S-specific  M-measurable  A-achievable  R-relevant T-time-bound.


In discussing how the team will define (and achieve) success, teams should also spend time on contingency planning. This will help them stay on track should setbacks occur along the way.  

High Communication

Teamwork is sure to fail if people aren’t communicating.  Development of the “high communication” characteristic really starts at the top.  Managers need to be open and honest in their communication style; they need to show respect by considering all points of view and listening actively when people speak. What’s more, managers need to ensure team members treat one another the same way. In this type of climate, employees will feel their input is valued and will be  comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions.   

Managers also need to be upfront in communicating what’s going on outside of the team so that team members always have a handle on the big picture. Even when the news is bad, employees appreciate being told the truth.

Lastly, managers need to understand that part of their role as chief communicator is to recognize good work and address poor work. Employees will lose faith in a leader who doesn’t seem to notice what’s going on. 

team44. Strong Sense of Team Unity

In addition to being of great benefit to the organization, a unified team provides employees with a basic emotional need: the need to belong. How is a sense of unity built? Through:

  • shared goals (#2 above)
  • an inclusive and respectful environment (#4 above)
  • a belief on the part of each employee that what they do matters to the team (#1 above).

Managers who want to keep their teams unified should create a climate where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities. That way, no one feels the need to assign blame if things go wrong. The group works together on finding a solution, discusses how the mistake can be avoided in the future, and moves on.

Successes should be celebrated as a team. This will further build morale and esprit de corps.

High Trust

On high-performing teams there is a high degree of trust.

  • Employees trust the intentions of their manager and their co-workers.
  • Employees trust their co-workers to do their best.
  • Employees feel their boss and co-workers are honest.
  • Employees feel respected and valued and in return acknowledge the abilities and skills of others.

What is the manager’s role in creating all of this?  Make sure your actions reflect that you are trustworthy, and then show the team that you trust them.

Don’t micromanage.  As much as possible, give people the freedom to make decisions on their own. Make it safe for people to take educated risks and try new things. Encourage people to hold themselves and one another accountable for achieving the agreed-upon goals.  

team6.16. High Support

These days, you often hear the phrase, "I've got your back”.  This expression conveys that you are giving another person your complete support...that you are fully committed to their success and will do all you can to help. For a team to be high-performing, team members must feel this way about their manager and their fellow team members.

Managers can help their team achieve this level of high support by ensuring employees share the work, the achievements, and the failures. They can also encourage employees to practice peer-to-peer coaching and ask them to be on-call to help each other as much as possible.

Managers should be open and approachable themselves so people don't hesitate to come to them when assistance is needed. It’s also imperative that managers provide the tools and training employees need to be successful.

team7.17. Team Accountability

As we said at the start, a high-performing team is a team driven by results.  But not just any results…the right results! Team members agree on goals and then focus whole-heartedly on achieving them. 

  • Individuals are clear on what they are supposed to do and take personal responsibility for getting it done.
  • Everyone on the team commits to communicating honestly and effectively so that full understanding is achieved.
  • People help one another.

What is the manager’s role in building team accountability? First, getting the team off to the right start through role definition and goal clarification. Second, monitoring the group's progress and (without micro-managing) seeing that they stay on track to achieve the agreed-upon goals and results. The manager should participate in (or at least be kept aware of) modifications to the plan or timeline should adjustments be required.

Lastly, the manager should be the team’s biggest cheerleader…recognizing good work, providing support where needed, and celebrating successes.

For short "how to" videos on these team building concepts, please see MANAGER MOMENTS: How to Build a High-Performing Team. This micro-learning series allows managers to assess their team in the seven high-performance areas, further develop strengths, and address needs.  It also provides insights into the natural stages of a team and how to bring teams through change and challenges.