4 Elements of Leading High-Performing Teams
Due to COVID and its aftereffects, your team may look a lot different than it used to. Organizations have upsized and downsized and have changed their geographic footprint. Most organizations are leveraging new and different technologies, and others are not meeting physically anymore at all. We have also seen a lot in terms of talent mobility in the last year. People are changing jobs and coming into new organizations, and new teams and leaders are forming.
It’s never a bad idea to discuss team dynamics and how to optimize them, but due to our unique point in history, we are at a pivotal moment in the way workplaces operate, and we are in the perfect place to explore what a leader’s role is for creating and managing a high-performing team.
The Most Common Leadership Roadblocks to Leading High-Performing Teams
Last year, GP Strategies conducted research about common leadership stumbles and successes. When asking people about the biggest stumbles they saw their leaders make, lackluster communication was at the top. Communication is the bedrock of high-performing and agile teams, and this research indicates that leaders are not taking a lot of time to really pause, understand, and discuss why teams exist, what their purposes are, and what their goals should be.
Anyone can pick up a bow and arrow and immediately shoot it. But if you want to hit a specific target, and for your shot to be effective, you need to first take the time to locate your target and aim before you loose the arrow. Are you taking the time to pause and take stock of your resources and talent, create goals with those assets in mind, and then communicate these things to your team?
The 4 Elements to Leading High-Performing Teams
Every team needs a leader, and every leader wants their team to succeed. Here are four primary ways a leader can foster their existing high-performing team or help guide their current team into high performance.
1. Build Trust
The relationship between employees and leaders is dyadic—it’s all about the quality of interaction and trust between the two parties. And trust is an interesting word. You can ask ten different people what trust means, and every single one of them could give you a different definition.
Trust is also on a continuum. It is not black and white. Some employees may trust you completely at first until trust is chipped away. With others who are more guarded, you may need to gain trust over time, starting at the point of hire. This means it can be very difficult to decipher how much collective trust your employees have in you as a leader, but creating the opportunity to build trust really comes down to a few key factors: consistency, credibility, and authenticity.
If you’re consistent in your approaches to solving problems, assigning projects, and interacting with your employees, if you do what you say you will do, and if you show up as the person you really are and are truthful in your words and actions—if you show this relevant vulnerability—you will create the conditions that can build trust, maintain it, or rebuild it.
2. Create Connection
Once you establish or reestablish trust, as a leader, you need to create connections. Doing so is more important than ever, according to research. Airspeed reported earlier this year on the issue of workplace social disconnection. They found that nearly 70% of workers surveyed reported they would quit their current job for a company where they believe they’d feel more connection. People are craving attachments now, particularly in this remote, virtual, and digitally enabled world we are working in.
Leaders need to get creative in the way they connect their teams to each other, facilitate connection among team members, and connect themselves with individual team members. This is one of the biggest topics of conversation with our clients right now: how exactly do we forge connection in our workplace climate? It’s important to consider the opportunities you’re providing for people to connect with each other on both work-related and occasionally on non-work-related topics.
Leaders can also create psychologically safe or inclusive environments by handling conflict well, coaching and developing employees, and amplifying the strengths of individual team members whenever possible.
3. Seek Alignment
In this remote and hybrid workforce, it can be difficult to get people on the same page, but building alignment is an important piece of leading high-performing teams. Let’s picture your team as a rowboat. You have some employees rowing on the left side of the boat, some rowing on the right side, and some at the stern. It’s critical to ensure that everyone who is rowing is doing so in the same direction, toward a common goal, or you’ll be perpetually stuck in the same place without making progress.
This part of leadership can take a lot of work. Aligning your team means making sure your team members are all aimed toward a common goal. Alignment is all about communication, and the process of great communication begins on day one—right with onboarding. It’s important that new employees have access to the resources, tools, and people they need to get their job done. And then it’s important to check in regularly to ensure that access to those things hasn’t changed.
On top of that, it’s also necessary to pause and ensure that you are indeed heading in the direction you want to go, that everything your employees are doing aligns with the overarching organizational goals or business strategies, and to then create ways to track progress, hold people accountable, measure success, and recognize individuals.
4. Drive Results
You could have the best communication, high team morale, and excellent levels of trust, but if you are not getting things done, you’re not working in the greater service of your organization. The inverse is of course true, as well: if you have a highly effective team in terms of results, but there is no connection or alignment, that’s not sustainable. Working in that environment will not provide a good experience to your team and likely won’t last long.
Achieving goals is often the metric that leaders of leaders use to determine success. Delivering results is the bottom line, and there are a lot of things that underpin delivering results depending on your industry and type of team. But from a bird’s-eye view, facilitating great results and deliverables is about making sure the right people are working on the right things. Your team could be working really hard, but if that energy is misdirected or misaligned with overarching goals, the results you want won’t materialize. Take the time to uncover individual strengths of your team members and assign responsibilities accordingly.
Improving as a Leader to Facilitate High Team Performance
There are a lot of ways leaders can improve specific behaviors to build trust, connection, alignment, and results. It all begins with understanding your current baseline. Take an honest assessment of where you are now, how you’re performing, and how your team is performing. This self-evaluation can be formal or informal. It’s crucial to also get feedback from your team. How do they think your team is operating? What gaps do they detect in your overall strategy? Do they feel purpose and connection? In what ways do they want support but aren’t receiving it?
After you have been honest with yourself about where your team currently stands and have received their input, be relevantly vulnerable and honest with them. Let them know what areas you believe need improvement and what your vision for the future is.
These more public conversations can feel uncomfortable, but being authentic and communicating will help make enormous progress toward creating that productive, safe environment that fosters a high-performing team.
Well, the 2022 ATD International Conference & Exposition is a wrap, and this gathering of around 8,500 talent development professionals (comprising in-person attendees in Orlando, Florida and virtual attendees globally) was certainly one to remember. As I reflected on these three days in mid-May, I was struck by the parallels between the conference and what we are seeing in client workplaces and learning experiences. So, I wanted to share some realizations and lessons learned during the course of this three-day experience—as well as what it means for talent development professionals.
It’s so, so good to reconnect in person.
I work from home and, despite spending many years as a frequent flyer, hadn’t traveled in over two years. Suffice it to say I was ready for some face-to-face interaction, and I know I wasn’t alone! I heard so many stories of colleagues who had never met or hadn’t seen each other in over two years. I myself met in person with colleagues and clients whom I’d only ever seen previously via Teams meetings. I reconnected with former classmates and coworkers, and even met some favorite authors and thought leaders. However, the impact of COVID was still present: many still wore masks, on-site testing was available, and hand sanitizer was a hot giveaway item in the expo hall.
Implications for talent development: If possible and safe, consider an in-person gathering and maximize every moment. In doing so, however, consider the possible risks related to COVID exposure and outbreak and how the virus has changed the way we connect with others. Be respectful of the needs and preferences of others when it comes to health and wellness protocols.
And yet … Hybrid is the new reality.
Reduced in-person attendance and a strong showing for the virtual option mirror what we’re seeing in work environments. It was almost as if two parallel events were happening at once. Virtual and on-site attendees were linked through hashtags, video feeds, and a conference app—allowing us to share the experience simultaneously. The technology that enabled the virtual experience also adds value to me as an in-person attendee. In the past, if there were two sessions I wanted to attend scheduled for the same time, the best I could do was divide and conquer with a colleague then share notes afterwards. With slide share and on-demand recorded sessions, I’ve been able to extend my conference experience by catching up on what I wasn’t able to attend live while in Orlando.
Implications for talent development: What are we doing to create effective hybrid learning experiences for those who travel and those who don’t? Is the experience equitable, and is that even a realistic goal? How are we using technology to elevate and enhance our learning experiences—yet, how can we be sure we aren’t leaning on it too heavily?
Inspiration abounds both inside and outside of our field.
Whether it’s flipping your script to overcome failure like Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, or incorporating mindfulness practices like author and former monk, Jay Shetty, many transferable practices and behaviors were shared that can impact learners and talent development professionals. I certainly felt inspired and appreciated the reminder that professionally applicable insights exist in many areas of life and work that I hadn’t previously considered.
Implications for talent development: Can we sometimes be too insular, taking lessons only from those within our field? How can we continue learning from other fields? What can we do to translate lessons into actionable practices for ourselves and our learners?
Investing in yourself is critical.
As talent development professionals, we often give our all investing time and effort in others—but not so much in ourselves. It was uncomfortable to leave my day-to-day work behind for a few days, and coordinating work coverage, childcare, and home logistics was no easy feat. But I’m so happy to have had the time and space to learn, connect, and share. I returned to work a bit tired but reinvigorated and inspired. Now the challenge, just like many of our learning experiences, comes in ensuring we apply that motivation to our day-to-day work.
Implications for talent development: Have you filled your own cup lately? What have you done recently to develop, challenge, or educate yourself? How can we keep learning and motivation alive after inspiring experiences?
It’s important to have fun.
Plinko in the expo hall. Informal team dinners. Networking happy hours. Even a day trip to Universal Studios. No, I’m not trying to make anyone envious, but the fun side of ATD22 definitely added to the experience. On a personal level, seeing people outside the usual business setting helped us get to know each other better and deepened existing connections. I definitely worked hard and learned a lot while I was away, but the ability to decompress and build relationships in the process was a huge bonus.
Implications for talent development: Informal experiences matter. What fun can we build into our events and our day-to-day work environment? How can we infuse some lightness and connection into our learning experiences?
Take a moment to reflect.
When you invest the time and effort to take part in a conference or multiday learning experience, it’s so easy to fly home and immediately dive back into your normal routine, addressing your neglected inbox and playing catch-up. Heck, that’s what I did. But at some point (the sooner, the better), you have to make time to give thought to your experience: appreciate how out of the norm it was and what inspired you, and note which aspects you want to start incorporating into your own work moving forward. That simple practice of reflection will carry you through to the next big event—and make your work life better in the meantime.
In the early parts of 2020, companies around the world had to rapidly shift their training plans away from in-person delivery, and some had to abandon plans altogether. Whether part of an existing plan that needed to be escalated or a brand-new plan, the learning industry grappled with enthusiastic and skeptical questions about the efficacy of 100% virtual learning. Can the virtual learning experience be engaging? Are people going to tune in and tune out? And in hindsight, what have those teams learned?
From both learners and developers alike, a majority of the stories are positive. Many companies and learning teams were surprised by the ways training could be delivered, by the way skills could be practiced, and by how technology could facilitate some of those practices.
As companies begin the return to in-person training, business and learning leaders need to incorporate lessons learned from virtual programs of the past two years.
In-Person Training vs. Virtual: The Battle of Benefit
As in-person training programs begin to reappear, the question most companies are asking themselves is how it compares to virtual training?
In-person training usually requires bringing a group physically together and pulling them offline, often multiple days at a time, and that system has worked well. These types of programs have since been separated into segmented virtual sessions, offered in smaller chunks of time, and can be less disruptive to the business environment and day-to-day needs.
Even though this approach has benefits for busy work schedules, shortening attention spans, and logistics budgeting, there is still an important need for in-person training. When learning new concepts and processes, there seems to be something magical about bringing people together to share the same physical time and space.
And people still crave in-person experiences. In some of our evaluations at GP Strategies, we’ve received feedback that various virtual learning programs were excellent, but the participants also wished they were offered in-person sessions. Learners still crave the informal learning experiences and connections that come with in-person training.
There are priceless moments of learning instructional designers can’t plan for, such as when participants are sharing a cup of coffee or heading to a meal after hours. The connections made can translate to coaching and mentoring moments or building a professional in-house network for future troubleshooting and ideation.
In short, virtual training does certain things very well, and in-person training does too. It’s now time for learning teams to examine the benefits of both and develop criteria for the right blend and when to use them.
Balancing Cost and Value
The cost for virtual training can be lower than in-person training in many cases, but it’s important to consider the concept of cost and value. In-person training can incur costs associated with bringing people together, from the logistics of travel to lodging, food, and time away from their duties. But it can be argued there is a value of bringing people together.
As an example, one of GP’s customers had teams that had never met each other in person because they were all hired within the past two years. GP delivered a cohort-based learning program over a few months. Bringing them together helped to amplify their learning experiences and build interpersonal connections. It also built rapport, relationships, and positive experiences within the company culture that continued throughout their learning experience.
It’s also important to understand that each company is different. Some companies and industries are more on-site-based than others, and in those situations, a fully digital or virtual solution may end up costing more because the technological capabilities don’t exist.
What Learners Need
Instructional designers need to keep the learner at the heart of every program and module. At the moment, learner needs and preferences differ greatly. The learning industry is entering an era of great capabilities and opportunities, but people have been impacted in vastly different ways. Instructional designers and business leaders need to understand that not all learners and not all people are ready to return to in-person experiences. They may not be comfortable, they may not be able to, or they may have a situation going on both in and outside of work which may impact their willingness or ability to participate in an in-person training experience.
Learning and business leaders need to be mindful of these situations and think about ways to be more inclusive in those experiences. When designing training experiences and bringing people together, it’s critical to be as safe and practical as possible in the classroom. This may include distancing, minimizing the use of shared materials such as whiteboard markers, and being considerate.
Leaders also need to consider ideas for virtual participants to be included in those experiences, such as having one or more cameras on the facilitator and in turn having the facilitator be mindful of those cameras.
Facilitating Hybrid Learning Experiences
Learning leaders need to examine their facilitator pool because it has most likely changed in the last two years. Like participants, facilitators are at different points in their journey in their comfort level and their willingness and ability to travel and come back from their pivot to virtual training delivery.
Virtual facilitation and in-person facilitation are similar in some ways, but also require distinct skillsets. Some facilitators were adept at making the shift to virtual learning while others are leaping at the opportunity to go back to in-person learning. It’s up to the organization to recognize that and structure their facilitator pool around those mindsets.
Planning for In-Person Training Events
When planning for in-person training events, there is local variability when it comes to COVID-19. Rates of infection are different, and the rules and regulations have varying requirements. Learning leaders must be aware of those differences in where people are coming from and going. If the venue is off-site, there may be additional rules as well. Also, airlines may have an increased number of delays and cancellations.
These protocols and other variables add an extra layer of logistics for training coordinators. Learning leaders need to build an agile and flexible mindset into training events.
A Transitional Period for In-Person Training
The learning industry is in a transitional period and one that will fluctuate. Learning leaders need to cultivate an experience that is inclusive and build flexibility into learning programs for a large variety of mindsets, comfort levels, and logistical challenges. Creating a safe work environment with built-in flexibility for both participants and facilitators is crucial for success during the transition.
Recent research from GP Strategies identified communication as one of the critical stumbling blocks of leaders, and one of the factors most directly attributable to leadership success.
Today’s increasingly remote and hybrid workplaces make effective communication skills more important than ever. When time and distance separate employees and their leaders, it can be more challenging to build and maintain trust. Key managerial tasks like delegation and giving feedback are often more complex. Critical conversations related to performance, career development, and engagement tend to look different—if they’re happening at all. And not addressing those potential pitfalls can come at a high cost—from lack of morale to diminished trust to staff turnover.
Thankfully, our research and practice indicate it’s not necessarily that managers need different communication skills to thrive in a hybrid environment, but rather a nuanced application of those skills which takes into account the shifting situational context. Those nuances include leaders demonstrating increased empathy, equity, intentionality, and clarity in their communication.
Being a great leader has always required an understanding of self and others. But the events of 2020 brought an increased focus on holistic wellness and unblurring the lines between work and home lives. As a result, leaders need to demonstrate increased empathy, both as they speak and as they listen to their employees. Give grace when allowable and provide time and space for small talk and celebrations, both in and out of the office setting. From acknowledging milestones like work anniversaries and birthdays to checking in on weekend plans, taking time to connect on a human level builds the trust, psychological safety, and connection that are critical for sustained team success.
Questions leaders can ask themselves to check for empathy include:
- Do I have an understanding of the benefits and drawbacks to each employee’s work setup and situation?
- Am I balancing the need to get things done with the human needs of my employees?
- Have I checked in on my team members outside of just their work contributions?
Having employees working in different physical settings can create inequity on a variety of levels. In leading your team, tap into your inclusive mindset as you strive for equity in opportunity (including stretch assignments and career development opportunities), participation (having visibility and a voice) and the sharing of resources and information. With remote employees, be sure you are creating opportunities to get the same “small talk” benefits as those you see in person more often. As a leader, your work to ensure equity is critical—it sets the framework for the trust and psychological safety needed for relationships and teams to thrive.
Questions leaders can ask themselves to check for equity include:
- Am I aware of all available technology to assist with creating a level playing field with my team?
- Do I share the same information with team members, regardless of where they are located?
- Is there equitable acknowledgment of milestones, accomplishments, and occasions, regardless of where my team is located?
- When meeting with my team, is there balance between who is speaking/not speaking? Does the physical setup provide advantages to some and not others?
Great communication in the hybrid world requires leaders to apply intention in terms of how, what, and when they communicate. In our virtual communication course, we give leaders four main tips in this area: to open up, be transparent, mind their modality, and multi-task with care. Opening up means taking the time to share more about yourself—who you are, what you value, and your life outside of work. Transparency comes into play when communicating context and rationale, often behind changes or decisions, which can help build more buy-in and support. Being intentional about modality is important because, depending on the message, it may be delivered more effectively in certain methods than others. Finally, being intentionally mindful and focused on the task or conversation at hand can be hugely beneficial in building trusted relationships with your team members.
Questions leaders can ask themselves to check for intentionality include:
- Have I given thought to how, why, and when I am communicating with my team?
- Am I utilizing the proper modality for the message being communicated?
- Do I prioritize synchronous touchpoints with my team whenever I can?
- Am I tuning out distraction as I interface with my team members?
When you don’t have the luxury of seeing your team members every day, clarity is key. As a leader, you can mitigate misunderstandings and maintain morale through being clear in the messages you are delivering, as well as the channels you choose for delivery. It is critically important for leaders of hybrid teams to be clear about individual and team goals and objectives, to link the team’s goals to the larger organizational strategy, and to explicitly state culture and expectations. Checking for understanding of these key elements is an important step for leaders to take so that they can ensure their team is on the same page.
Questions leaders can ask themselves to check for clarity include:
- Do I have a consistent communication schedule with my team?
- Does each person understand their specific role on the team?
- Is there a consistent and accessible source for key foundational documents and information?
- Have I created an environment where team members can seek clarity if it is not provided?
While it’s true that the shift to hybrid work has created challenges for leaders, when it comes to communication, those challenges are easily addressed. Remember, it’s not necessarily about developing and deploying new communication skills, but rather, the nuanced application of existing skills. If leaders apply empathy, equity, clarity, and intentionality in their communication, they will set the stage for successful working relationships in the hybrid world of work—now and in the future.