2020. A new year and a new decade – a time for reflection and refocus. This year we will spend the summer transfixed by exceptional individual and team performance at the 2020 Olympics– and deluge of articles on translating Olympian performance into your workplace. But can we really learn anything from this pinnacle of physical performance? Can it be translated back in day-to-day business activity?
WhartonBC is fortunate to collaborate with Olympic Double Gold medallist Alex Gregory MBE – one of the most consistently successful team rowers in the sport’s history. His story has many parallels for high performance in the workplace. This has led us to define some key characteristics of high performing team relevant for any sector, team or leader.
Given 90% of investors treat management team quality as the most important non-financial factor when evaluating an IPO, and performance increases by 1.9x if a team is working towards a common vision¹ we want to share our insight. It may not bring you any personal gold medals- but hopefully it provides some team fitness resolutions that are easier to keep than many made in haste this year.
Resolution 1: Commit to a clear purpose
Do your teams really buy in to the goals you have set? Are the objectives more than office wallpaper or a passive ‘cascade’ into annual reviews? Do you articulate a purpose that resonates for your people, or just one that the board agreed with?
The pivot point for Alex’s performance was when he connected with what his personal goal – the elusive gold medal- meant for his family, rather than himself. This gave him a true sense of purpose and allowed himself to think laterally about where he could improve, rather than defaulting to what worked in the past.
Too often financial performance is set as the ‘gold medal’ to aspire towards. But ‘profit with purpose is set to become the new norm’². Purpose is increasingly a point of differentiation for businesses, as outlined in our recent WBC insight report: Creating Purpose-Based Cultures³. And talent will walk if we don’t respond; most millennials would swap purpose and progression over paychecks⁴.
What can you do? Properly ask yourself ‘why do you come to work each day’? Talk to your team about what drives them and how it links to the team goals. Rethink the goals to make them more personal and meaningful; better to have one goal that everyone gets behind than five meaningless statements on the wall. At the start of any project or team formation talk about the objectives and agree these collectively; especially critical in agile, remote teams who may struggle to connect without this shared purpose. After all: ‘The most empowering condition of all is when the entire organization is aligned with its mission, and people’s passions and purpose are in synch with each other’⁵
Resolutions 2: Communication is not just talking at each other
Alex’s experience is that “without communication you won’t reach your potential to achieve”. But communication must be meaningful; Alex states that our Olympic rowing team were talking- but at each other, not as a collective. If this had not changed, London 2012 may have had a very different outcome.
We know communication should be two way- but how often is this really the case? Do unspoken dynamics hide the quieter or more junior voices? ‘Speaking up’ is now on the lips of regulators, as conduct concerns hit the newspapers with alarming regularity(⁶,⁷) but it is not easy to achieve. Whistleblowing channels and policy changes are unlikely to create cultures of honest, two-way feedback. Innovation will also not flourish unless insights and ideas are ‘crowdsourced’ from across all levels of an organisation⁸. Yet quality communication requires effort and a deep consideration of the power balances at play in any group environment⁹.
So what can you do? Call it out; acknowledge that views may not always get heard properly. Explore what conversations your team would like to happen that aren’t. Introduce reverse mentoring to open awareness and build mutual confidence. Use technology to source views anonymously if needed. Ask junior team members to chair meetings. Use tools like the Speak Up Index¹⁰ to assess current levels of communication and information flow and use this to target areas for improvement. Be self-critical about your listening; talking balance- research suggests a 53:47 balance is ideal¹¹.
Resolution 3: Create the space for honest conflict
Effective communication needs conflict. Tuckman’s classic ‘Form; Storm; Norm’ model implies that a team is effective once stormy discussions end. But more recent research shows constructive conflict goes hand in hand with continual improvement. The difference is ‘trust’; high performing teams create psychologically safe environment so that points of disagreement can be raised, dealt with and used to improve¹². Without this, issues get ‘swept under the carpet’ only to re-emerge in unexpected ways.
Alex talks about how his team created just such a safe space and saw an exponential uplift in performance. It also created an unexpected benefit as they then could connect as individuals without any unspoken feelings getting in the way. Creating social connections between team members can enhance engagement, commitment and wellbeing¹³ so is worth the investment.
So what can you do? Tools like Lencioni’s Five Team dysfunctions¹⁴ provide a great structure for reflecting on the need for trust and conflict to build high performance. Focus on responding well when you are personally challenged. Create a ‘safe space’- introduce a ‘devil’s advocate’ card for individuals to hold in meetings or a weekly ‘amnesty’ where all issues can be raised. Over time these formal mechanisms can fade away as behaviours are established. Check out more suggestions in our Speak Up insight report¹⁵
Resolution 4: Know your vulnerabilities- aim for consistency
Too often high performance is confused with needing to ‘be the best’ and outperform everyone else; we want to challenge this ‘traditional’ perspective.
Instead, true high performance is about knowing what you need to contribute to overall performance of the team and consistently delivering this. This may not be about being the individual ‘top dog’; your role may be to provide different perspective, skill or insight. Alex’s journey shows how his ability to provide a consistent level of performance day in, day out, is what propelled him to success; enabling high performance even when the boat crew changed. The parallel for business is clear- high performing teams are the ones who reliably deliver the income, the critical project, the lasting customer relationship- not the ‘flash in the pan’ one off successes.
So what can you do? Knowing yourself and your own vulnerabilities here is key; Humility is now a key leadership capability for engaging with millennial talent¹⁶. As outlined in our blog ‘Transforming Leadership for the 4th Industrial Revolution’¹⁷, leaders now need to be the hub, the connector, the enabler, so get to know your team as individuals and encourage them know their areas for development. Share personal development objectives so team members know and understand what peers may need support on. Celebrate failure openly; follow the practices of organisations such as Tata who implemented a ‘Best Failed Idea’¹⁸. Use psychometric tools, coaching and mentoring to deepen insight and break down seniority barriers. Identify learning goals in a team at the start of a project- and find someone who excels in this area to act as an ‘in the moment’ mentor.
Very few of us will ever stand on a podium and accept a gold medal on behalf of our country. But bringing in the key characteristics of high performing teams to how we work is within the reach of us all. Just as with personal health, adopting even a small habit can produce significant, lasting change. A focus on commitment, communication, conflict and consistency should enable all leaders and team members to excel and achieve their own ‘gold’ level performance. A resolution truly worth making this year.
WhartonBC is a challenger consultancy focused on maximising performance through the potential of your people. If you are interested in exploring our perspective on what makes a High Performing Team and how Alex’s journey can be used to inspire your team and translate into tangible actions, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or check out our HPT client testimonial
² The future of business? Purpose, not just profit, Antonio Zappulla CEO Designate, Thomson Reuters Foundation. World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019
⁹ M.Reitz and J.Higgins 2019 ‘Speak Up: Say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard’
¹⁰ Speak Up Index https://www.therightconversation.co.uk/speaking-truth-to-power
¹⁴ The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni 2002
¹⁷ Transforming Leadership for the 4th Industrial Revolution, Wharton Business Consulting 2019