The Simple Secret to a High-Performing Team

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Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than the right idea.Ed Catmull

The smartest leaders know that it’s their team that makes them successful. As a leader, you spend a lot of your time making sure that your team is working well together.Setting ambitious goals and creating a fun company culture are great, but what if the team doesn’t work well together?

You’ll work hard to avoid any conflicts, to make sure everyone holds each other accountable, and that people are fully using their strengths.

Despite all the time and energy you’ll spend on creating a high-performing team, sometimes it doesn’t work out. Some teams just seem to run better than others.

Why is that?

It’s because they’re closer with each other, they trust each other more.

The secret to a high-performing team is if everyone trusts each other.

Like any relationship, when there is a strong level of trust, collaboration will be strong too. The foundation of a good team (like any relationship) is that everyone is comfortable enough with each other to do good work.

They can challenge each other without fear of retribution, they can share ideas without the fear of being called stupid, and they can help each other get better without embarrassment.

Let’s look at some of the research behind this and then offer some tips on how you can build trust with your team.

Google’s Project Aristotle

Google’s project Aristotle is one of the coolest pieces of research about what makes a good team.

A team of people inside Google’s People Operations (what they call HR) studied tons of different Google teams to see what made them work well with each other.

Their first theory was that if they could find the best mix of skills, they’d be able to form the perfect team.

Imagine the best marketing person, the best developer, and best graphic designer should be the best team, right? Wrong.

In fact, who you put on a team has very little to do with how successful the team will be. It’s all about how they interact with each other and more importantly, how they view their contributions.

Google learned that there are five key things that make for a successful team:

  1. Psychological safety: How comfortable do you feel taking risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can you depend on your teammates and hold them accountable?
  3. Structure and clarity: Are goals and roles clearly defined?
  4. Meaning of work: Is everyone on the team working on something that is personally important to each of them?
  5. Impact of work: Do you believe that the work you’re doing matters?

The most interesting part of their research was that the first item, psychological safety, was by far the most important on the list.Without it, the other four don’t matter.

Think about this question and answer honestly: Have you ever held back from sharing anything at work (something you were working on, an idea you had, a complaint, etc.) because you were worried about how people might react to it?

If you answered no, you’re either incredibly confident or you’re lying.

It’s normal to be nervous about looking unprepared or uninterested. There is a lot of fear at work about how much we should know. In most situations, it’s easier to stay quiet and hope no one notices than to admit you don’t know.

We all try to avoid any situation that will affect how our coworkers and managers perceive us.

In their research, they found that the safer team members felt with each other, the better they did in almost every area of work. They were:

  • More likely to own up to their mistakes
  • Better partners to their colleagues
  • Less likely to leave Google
  • More likely to be open to diverse ideas

So then the question becomes, how do we create that feeling of safety on the team?

Building Trust With Your Team

Trust is earned and built over time, and you’ll only get trust from others if you give it first.

The best way to do that is by being vulnerable.

One of the most popular TED talks and one that’s in my top five TED talks of all time is Brené Brown’s talk “The power of vulnerability”.

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If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend it.

The courage that comes from allowing yourself to be vulnerable and to open up and share your flaws is very powerful.

Here are some tips on how I would build trust on the team:

  1. Be A Role Model

    The first and most important thing for you to do is to set an example for your teammates and be vulnerable.

    Share a big mistake you made, or a time that you were confused or embarrassed to share work.

    Showing that you’re vulnerable and are willing to open up will set the tone for others to open up.

  2. Remove The Fear

    You need to work hard to make sure that no one is scared of sharing anything.

    Remind employees that it’s okay not to know something, even if it’s part of their job.

    Remind employees that it’s okay to fail and make mistakes, it’s about learning.

  3. Stop Blaming

    When something goes wrong, instead of asking “who did this?”, ask “what can we learn from this?”

    When you ask “who did this?” It creates a culture of fear. Understand that blaming gets you nowhere and does nothing to solve the actual problem.

    Instead, work with everyone to figure out what happened and find a way so it doesn’t happen again (better documentation, more thorough checklist, etc.)

  4. Empathize

    As a leader, you need to be mindful of the fact that not everyone learns the same way, not everyone is interested in the same things, and not everyone is as knowledgeable as you.

    Instead of getting angry, empathize with your employees and teach them. You should also try to set up as many resources as possible to make sure everyone has access to learn about everything.

  5. Share A Story

    In Google’s research that I referenced earlier, teams tried to increase psychological safety by starting their weekly meetings with each team member sharing a risk that they took the previous week.

    Of those teams that practiced sharing a risk, they improved their psychological safety scores by 6%.

Personal Responsibility

One important thing to keep in mind is about how personal responsibility plays a role in all of this.

As much as it’s a leader’s responsibility to help employees feel comfortable, each of us has a personal responsibility to get over any of our own fears of taking risks with our team.

You need to get yourself comfortable with failure and the concept of being wrong.

This is something that you can work on, by focusing on being positive all the time.

  • Look at feedback as a positive thing
  • Turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts
  • Understand that everyone makes mistakes
  • You get better with each mistake you make

Speaking from personal experience, this is something that I struggle with because I’m sensitive, and the work I do is very creative (and personal).

Every piece of content I create, from a tagline on a landing page to an eBook, is seen by thousands of people.

I make myself vulnerable every day.

Every time there is a negative comment on a piece of content that I created I take it very personally.

I’m working on a few things related to that:

  • I’m trying to take the feedback I get as a learning opportunity, and use it to not make a similar mistake in the future.
  • I’m trying to take more time with each piece of content I create (better planning, longer deadlines, more reviews before it goes live)
  • I try reminding myself that mistakes will happen, and that I shouldn’t beat myself up over these things. I tell myself this almost every day.

I’m hoping that as I make myself more vulnerable, I’ll be able to become more comfortable sharing anything and everything with my teammates, and we’ll be even better than we are today.

Are You On A High-Performing Team?

I’d love to hear your stories of how you motivate your team and build that trust. Share it with us in the comments below!



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