Building and managing high performing teams is not about Values, Engagement, Diversity, Purpose, Experience, Management or Rewards.

Whilst many of my blogs seem to focus on the negative, I was recently reassured my colleague Dr Hazel Harrison that this negativity bias is what keeps us alive. ‘Happy thoughts’ do not stop you getting hit by a truck when you’re crossing the road! Frequently in business, the ‘truck’ alerts us to needing to set teams and organisations on a happier course. This article highlights some of the distractions by looking at what building and managing high performing teams is not about, with observations on how we’ve seen meaningful change achieved.


‘Mind the truck’ 

I used to work with a very insightful and battle-scarred Network Architect who was engaged to investigate the poor sound quality experienced by a large central government organisation across their huge network. A well renumerated 6-month contract was granted to lift the bonnet and dig deep to identify the problems. On day one the high-level network architecture overviews were projected onto the screen. The ‘network truck’ was immediately obvious to the Architect, as was a relatively simple fix.


Whilst the decision to call it out immediately or deliver the news in conclusion of the contract is arguably one of integrity, ‘not being able to see for wood for the trees’ is a common problem of perspective. Many organisations are redesigning or optimising people strategies that were designed for a different era, or simply don’t work. Let’s look at the important elements of people strategy, that often ignore the metaphorical ‘truck’ in their execution.


The process of establishing values can land us in a muddle. They’re often aspirational, designed for customers, or developed by a committee before being put out to an employee popularity vote. Some even express unnecessary ‘hygiene factors’ such as being honest (who values dishonesty?).


Very occasionally, they’re able to convey the core values that make you, you! But even then, it’s very common for the values to be too ethereal to be embodied by the organisation. In my experience, the most common problem is an inability to translate values into behaviours that colleagues are prepared to live out and hold each other accountable for.

Behaviour = Value

It’s really helpful to work with your team to agree behaviours that make your business a great place to work. During this process negative behaviours are bound to surface. The opportunity here is to translate them into the behaviour you want to encourage. For example, tardiness becomes ‘be on time to meetings’. Aligning these positive behaviours with the provision of accessible enjoyable customer experiences should help to support the ‘brand happiness’ metric. Your organisational values should then be an encouraging expression of these agreed behaviours.


Having visual prompts in the working environment is another helpful tool in being a value-driven business. We have a set of drinks mats that express our behavioural expectations of each other. In the event of a ‘deviation’, our team find them a useful reference point and polite reminder in holding each other to account.


The world has gone survey and feedback mad. It seems you can’t even leave a public toilet without being invited to rate your experience through some sad or smiley face button nowadays! Our employees haven’t escaped the requirement to let us know ‘how we are doing?’ Whilst great stock is placed in the rise or fall in employee satisfaction, the touch points are usually too infrequent, non-contextual and lacking in actionable insight. The fact remains that engagement is a symptom of where personal motivations are being met.

Meaningful Motivation

Rather than obsessing over ‘Employee scores’, pursue individual conversations to get a first-hand ‘temperature check’ on how they’re feeling. This more meaningful interaction demonstrates a desire to listen which can have a disproportionately positive effect on engagement. These discussions can also help leaders to identify opportunities to achieve some ‘quick wins’ to restore positivity. They may involve some small communication, environmental or operational improvements that represent significant investments in ‘the bank of good-will’.


Understanding how colleagues personal motivations can be met at work is key to improving engagement and productivity. Some businesses really benefit from getting an independent coach in to carry out a ‘Motivational Map’ exercise. The exercise typically looks at three clusters of motivation: through relationships, achievements and individual growth. Understanding teammates key motivators and levels of motivation can also bring clarity in organisational design decisions such as team construct.


I am a wholehearted believer in the role Diversity has in establishing High Performing Teams. Diversity of thought is critical for a whole host of reasons including creativity and customer empathy. This can often be achieved by working in teams that include a mix of gender and cultures.


“Diversity is a fact. Equity is a choice. Inclusion is an action. Belonging is an outcome.”
Arthur Chan


Chan’s quote exemplifies the appropriate place of diversity, but so often strategies focus on diversity as an outcome, failing before they begin. For example, a large corporate came to us, wanting to increase the number of women in their sales function. Whilst the intent to attract a more diverse workforce was good, they hadn’t thought through how to foster the action of inclusion, to enable these women to belong. The environment, particularly in terms of customer education and expectation had not been invested in, resulting in their inability to retain these talented women. The moral of the story is, that in order to build a truly diverse business, you need to prioritise building a culture where underrepresented groups feel they can belong.


Macro-purpose is important, but it’s also over-played. I used to pontificate over anecdotes such as the janitor at NASA – “I’m helping put a man on the moon Mr President”, and the stone masons “laying stones” vs “helping to build St Paul’s cathedral”. Whilst it’s great to feel part of something bigger, the Great Resignation statistics* don’t back up commentators speculations around people leaving jobs to be more mission-led. Exciting and fast-growing companies without a greater-good purpose aren’t struggling to attract and retain talent in the same way as many cause-led organisations. Whilst many may like to work for a Not-for-Profit, largely only those over 50 can afford the associated pay-cut!


Micro-purpose, the feeling that your work is purposeful and making a difference day-to-day is important. Providing job satisfaction is critical to retaining high performing team talent. Essentially ‘doing good work’, can be as, if not more satisfying than ‘doing good’ (it does not necessarily need to be linked to a higher macro-purpose).


Consistently providing intrinsically rewarding work isn’t always easy or even possible. What is possible, is to ensure that all work gives a sense of purpose and progress. To achieve this, colleagues need: objectives, feedback, recognition, timely sign-offs, autonomy, opportunities to train, develop and work on new projects.


Experience is problematic. Of course, it’s relevant, but can be an unhelpful filtering metric. Someone with 20 years programming experience, may be very good, but are they experienced in the context you’re recruiting into? If the business recruiting is in fast moving technology, it’s possible that a programmer with 4 years’ experience in a similar environment may be better suited. It’s also possible that the candidate with 20 years’ experience has been doing the same thing, rather than growing their experience over that time.


Someone with 20 years ‘growing experience’ in the workplace could bring valuable wisdom and connection to your business. They may bring the added benefit of a network and people connections to be able to quickly pull together an effective team. They may also be able to recognise a problem or opportunity they’ve broadly seen before and have good idea as to how to address it (regardless of the context). Essentially the benefit of experience needs to be viewed as how it’s added value to a person’s portfolio of skills and their contextual understanding.


Where you have a team of motivated individuals striving towards a goal, traditional task assigning managers are largely irrelevant. In fact, they can have a demotivating and disengaging effect. Servant leaders and coaches are much better placed to provide the framework, support and interventions that these talented individuals need.


To achieve a better population of servant leaders, businesses need to affect a cultural shift. This is largely achieved through:

  • Identifying key servant leader attributes
  • Actively recruiting with these attributes in mind
  • Promoting leaders based on these attributes (accepting that subject specialists might not be leadership material!)
  • Using successful teams to showcase best practice servant leadership in collaborative forums
  • Ensuring that leaders have time to lead, rather than leadership being an add-on to the day job


If there were ever an example of huge amounts of effort being misdirected, then it is the hugely complex and often divisive area of rewards. On the assumption that employees are fairly remunerated in the first place, additional employee rewards are best limited to areas where there is a proven tax and / or social benefit e.g. pension provision. The fact is that research has proven fiscal rewards to; stifle creativity and innovation, engender the wrong short-term behaviour, and encourage tunnel vision and a fixed mindset.


Dan Pink’s ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates us’ clearly articulates the lack of connection between reward and output, demonstrating that purpose, mastery and self-direction are valued more highly. So how do we ‘reward’ a clear sense of purpose, mastery and self-direction in the workplace? Respect, development opportunity creation, recognition and praise are hugely powerful. When leaders who value and model coaching and mentorship take an employee aside to commend them for doing a great job, it’s often more powerful than financial reward!

In my (fairly well informed) opinion and experience, high performing teams are more about cultivating; wisdom, positive behaviours and motivation. Teams thrive when there’s a sense of belonging, a culture of coaching and praise, and purposeful work opportunities. I’d love to explore these thoughts further with others. If this is interesting to you then please email me,


*the UK Labour Force Survey, shows that with the resignations from the end of 2020 to the final quarter of 2021 the vast majority of job leavers went into the same role with another comparable sector organisation.

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