Turning Your Team Into a Performance Machine: Part 1 High Performance TeamsLeadership

April 19th, 2015 by Spencer Penhart leave a comment

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Close your eyes. Think about the best team you have ever been a part of. Got it? Now, keep your eyes closed, and identify the worst team you have ever been a part of. Big difference, right? What made the best team so great, and what made the worst team so poor? Now think about your own team of direct reports – how much time, effort, performance, and engagement is lost due to employees operating in a dysfunctional manner?

Team structures are now the norm in organizations across the globe. However, few get it right. The cost to companies is staggering – Gallup estimates that low employee engagement costs the U.S alone $450-550 billion annually. Mastering team effectiveness is a huge opportunity for leaders who are willing to learn and teach their teams how to do so, especially since team performance usually declines due to controllable human factors. My colleague John Spence has a wonderfully simple and effective model for driving accountability in teams and individuals – let’s apply the two most important components: Clear Expectations and Agreement.

Clear Expectations: You cannot hold someone accountable to something they do not fully understand, and without clarity of expectations, confusion and chaos ensues. Does your team have a clear purpose, understand your vision of where the organization is heading, how your mission benefits customers, and how their work impacts the group’s success in getting there? Is each member of your team 100% clear on their responsibilities, goals/deliverables, work standards, and how they are expected to conduct themselves? Are they clear on the rewards that await them if they do so, and the consequences if they don’t? Are these expectations in writing, kept somewhere visible, and referenced frequently? Clearly this is a lot to manage, and deserves significantly more attention than most managers devote to it. So often, managers simply assume their people are clear on their expectations, when in fact their people have wide-ranging perceptions of what the expectations are. If you want to gauge this in your own team, try having each team member write down and hand you what they think your expectations are for the team – the answers will surprise you.

Agreement: This is the one of the most vital but neglected elements in leading teams: Do the team members agree to the expectations that are placed on them? It’s the agreement to those expectations that enables the leader to hold team members accountable. If team members have not agreed verbally and/or in writing to the expectations, the leader leaves herself open to the possibility of 1) people not being clear on the expectations, 2) people feigning agreement when they are not actually bought-in, and continuing their prior behavior patterns. Once team members have agreed to the expectations, they now have full ownership and accountability for delivering on those expectations, making your job as the manager so much easier. You are now simply managing to the agreed upon goals and behaviors – completely transparent with zero subjectivity. The old excuses of “You don’t like me,” “This is unfair,” or “I didn’t know that” simply don’t work anymore, because the measurement is now binary and black-and-white: the employee either did or did not achieve the things they said they would. Have you asked your team members for verbal or written agreement to your expectations?


Ideas For Action:

Hold a foundational expectations-setting meeting with your team: This should be a half or full day meeting, preferably held off-site. This meeting not only ensures that everyone hears the same message, but also enables you to gather your direct reports’ input into the process and gain formal agreement on the outcomes. The goal should be to answer three questions in as much detail as possible: 1) Why does the team exist? 2) What are the team and individuals responsible for? 3) How will we behave with one another?

Make it interactive and fun: If you simply tell people what to do, they are unlikely to fully buy-in and feel emotionally connected to your cause. Make this meeting as participative as possible by using an interactive workshop format with lots of group discussion built in. Set up three stations of flipcharts arranged throughout the room. Divide your team into three groups, placing one group at each flipchart station. Assign each station one of the above three questions you are trying to resolve with your meeting, and have each group write their ideas on that flipchart for a fixed period of time. Then, have the groups rotate through each station, so that each group has a chance to give their ideas to each station. You can then consolidate the ideas within each flipchart to determine a clear, concise output. The beauty of this approach is that your team will come up with 90%-95% of the answers you would have told them anyway, but because each individual got to give input, they now feel respected for their opinions and have ownership for the solution they just created.

A team charter is an essential output of this type of meeting. It provides an ongoing, visual reminder of the meeting and the agreements for the team, and should be hung somewhere visible in the team’s shared space. If you opt against a formal charter, make sure the team’s final agreements get written down in some other form of document, and that a copy is given to every member of the team. I recommend having each member of the team sign the document, not for any legal reason, but as a reminder of their agreement. Make this fun and memorable by making a ceremony of it – balloons, oversized novelty pens, party accessories, whatever would engage and inspire your team!

Continuous reinforcement:

  • Reference the team’s agreements at the beginning of all team meetings, and have a brief discussion of how the attendees will exhibit the desired behaviors during the meeting.
  • Be sure to measure performance vs. goals at both the team and individual level, and make it visible (tracking software or a simple dashboard can be very helpful).
  • Ensure agenda time during your regularly scheduled one-on-ones (at least monthly) for individualized coaching with your direct reports on how they are performing against their individual and team goals, as well as how they are modeling the desired behaviors,
  • Create a simple recognition program around the desired behaviors. This will go a long way towards engraining the desired behaviors on a long-term basis.
  • Reward strong performance, and uphold consequences for not meeting goals. Mediocrity will spread rapidly if you do not keep your promises about rewards and consequences.


Following the above framework will give you the infrastructure necessary to build your team into a Performance Machine. What do you think? Have I missed anything? Please let me know your thoughts and comments below – I look forward to engaging with you!


Suggested reading sources for deeper info:

Organizational Management: Awesomely Simple by John Spence

Organizational Clarity: The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni

High-Performance Teams: The Orange Revolution by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton

Team Discipline: The Discipline of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith, Harvard Business Review July 2005

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