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a guide for malaysian employers on how to build a high performing team

The Employer’s Evidence-Based Guide To Building High Performing Teams

Nothing grows a business like groups of skilled, motivated, and collaborative individuals.

Known as ‘high performing teams’, anyone involved in employee training and development will tell you that building and sustaining these groups requires intentional effort..

a jumbled mess of rubber duckies to show what a non high performing team looks like
Otherwise, more manpower just means more wastage.  

Like anything related to changing human behaviour, it’s easier said than done! 

In this guide, we distill findings from recent research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), one of the world’s leading HR accreditation bodies.

The CIPD were approached by a pharmaceutical company who asked them to study available research on team performance to determine:

  1. Key attributes of effective teams, and 
  2. What organisations could do to enhance them

Here’s how we’ll break it down:

  • We’ll start with defining key terms 
  • We’ll share how to tell if a team is high performance
  • We’ll cover key attributes of such teams 
  • We leave you with action items to start building your own teams

Those interested in reading the study directly may find it here.

Otherwise, let’s begin.

Defining key terms

There are three key terms we must define: teams, team effectiveness, and team efficiency.

Team

In addition to being a group of people working towards a shared goal, a ‘team’ must fulfill three criteria:

  • it must be formally established
  • members must be given some degree of autonomy, and 
  • the various functions must be interdependent

These requirements suggest a need for well defined structure and roles (something smaller organisations can struggle with).

Team effectiveness

The study broadly equates team effectiveness with three types of performance:

  1. Task performance: how well a team carries out core functions
  2. Contextual performance: how far a team helps the business beyond core functions 
  3. Adaptive performance: how well a team adjusts to changing needs

As these are all outcome-based, the study mentions the importance of balancing effectiveness with efficiency, which are process-based.

Team efficiency

If effectiveness is how well a team achieves intended outcomes, team efficiency measures the cost of achieving those outcomes, such as:

  • time taken
  • internal processes, and
  • group conflict 

If we agree on these definitions, then we agree that an effective team is not necessarily an efficient team.

To outsiders it may appear that a team is doing well since all targets are achieved.

Internally, team members may be suffering from poor workflows and miscommunication that cause conflict.

How to tell if a team is high performance

Based on the previous section, a high performing team operates both effectively and efficiently.

a formation of flying ducks to show a high performing team operating effectively and efficiently

Effectiveness is broadly defined as the ability to achieve intended outcomes, and therefore must be measured based on member and team-based KPIs, such as:

  • sales figures
  • number of finished products
  • number of clients served, and
  • any relevant outcome-based KPI

Meanwhile, efficiency is broadly defined as the cost of achieving those outcomes, and can be measured based by looking at internal processes including:

  • frequency of members transferring out
  • how team members raise complaints and issues
  • team member familiarity with shared resources

Of course, neither of these are exhaustive lists; it’s the responsibility of employers to produce their own checklist of what to look out for in their team!

Attributes of high performance teams

The study breaks down high performance teams into three main categories: team composition, socio-effective states, and organising knowledge.

Team composition

This refers to the variety of team-member characteristics such as different ages, genders and level of educations.

birds with different patterns arguing with each other to show the impact of team diversity on performance

Overall, the research presented two main findings on team composition:

  1. There was only a very small (and often zero) direct link between greater team diversity and better team performance.
  2. The only personality traits of the Big Five that could be linked to improved performance were agreeableness and conscientiousness, and even then it was very minimal.

Overall, it suggests that the personal details and personalities of team members don’t matter too much when it comes to building a team, which is a good thing!

Interpersonal dynamics

This refers to team attitudes that develop from the experiences of team members.

fighting over scraps of food to show team members arguing with each other

The study reported a strong link between the following four sentiments and team performance:

  1. trust among team members
  2. psychological safety (members feel safe to take risks and speak up)
  3. liking fellow team members and
  4. feeling included

Unsurprisingly, this was especially important with remote working teams.

Organising knowledge

This refers to how a team collects, shares, organises and distributes its knowledge, as collectively the knowledge of a team should be greater than that of its individual members.

a group of owls to show organising knowledge in an organisation by employees

The study found four types of knowledge organisation had the highest impact on team performance:

  1. Shared Thinking: Team members define and think about issues in a similar way, promoting harmony in issue interpretation and communication.
  2. Information-Sharing: Teams use members’ knowledge and expertise to tackle complex problems, promoting trust and cohesion and strongly predicting performance across different team types and sizes.
  3. Collective Memory: Teams build and maintain a shared knowledge system (transactive memory system) that helps identify who knows what, supporting information-sharing and enhancing performance, driven by trust in teammates.
  4. Team Learning and Reflection: Teams benefit from periodically reflecting on their goals, collaboration, and communication, which supports shared thinking, information-sharing, and collective memory, even though the direct impact of team learning on performance is usually minimal.

With what we have established so far, time to move on to the last section: action items for employers.

4 ways to build high performing teams

The study recommends team building, teamwork training, debriefing, and team goal-setting as effective interventions to improve team dynamics and knowledge organisation.

1. Team building

These activities typically involve social and personal interactions outside the workplace, and while employers have a practically endless list of team building options, the study identified several best practices for the most effective sessions: 

  • initiated externally
  • supported by management
  • planned without team member involvement
  • jointly led by internal and external colleagues
  • aimed at solving tangible problems
  • focused on the group and both team goals and interpersonal relations, and 
  • integrated with other team effectiveness interventions

Ultimately, team building activities improve team performance by boosting trust, team inclusion, and communication. 

2. Teamwork training

Teamwork training are more formal sessions directly related to team goals and performance, including:

  • discussions of team issues 
  • evaluating team performance
  • group brainstorming, and
  • simulations 

Through interactive group training, team members and leaders build social support, manage interpersonal conflict, and improve team dynamics.

3. Debriefing

A debriefing session is where teams reflect on recent experiences without fear of punishment, with the main aim of learning from their actions and being better prepared for future challenges.

The study shares the following best practices for effective debriefing: 

  • focus on improvement instead of grading performance
  • target specific activities
  • encourage and consider multiple perspectives, and 
  • reference as many evidence sources as possible

When conducted appropriately, it was found that debriefings significantly boost team performance.

4. Team goal-setting

Setting specific goals together as a team was found to have a moderate to significant impact on its members’ ability to reflect and adapt to changing needs as new challenges were encountered.

While it’s no surprise that the study found specific goals to be better than open-ended goals, employers may enjoy learning that challenging or difficult goals tend to produce better results than ones that are easily accomplished.

Addressing individual and skill gaps

We agree with the recommendations in the study but much of it assumes individual members are already competent at their job functions, and so before team building or goal-setting sessions, ensure individual team members will not be limiting factors.

Also, the study doesn’t mention it but a team where everyone thinks and works the same can underperform with no one to challenge the status quo.

Ensure your team has a good spread of knowledge, work styles, and skills!

In summary

Here’s a recap for readers:

  1. A team must be formally established, autonomous, and interdependent.
  2. High-performing teams operate effectively and efficiently, measured by KPIs (e.g. sales) and internal processes (e.g. conflict resolution).
  3. Team composition probably has very little if any impact on team performance.
  4. The biggest attributes of high performing teams are high trust, psychological safety, inclusion, and effective knowledge organisation.
  5. These attributes can be developed through teambuilding activities, teamwork training, debriefing, and team goal-setting.

As said at the start, a high performing team can grow a business like nothing else, but requires a significant amount of work from leaders.

We hope our summary of this piece of research helps you with building your own high performing teams.

a goup with a clearly defined leadership structure which a study finds is important for creating high performing teams
Remember the clear structure and roles!

If you would like more direct assistance, do get in touch!

Let MISHU build your high performing team

Training and Development Brendan MISHU trainier HRD corp certified

With multiple HRD Corp Certified Courses under SBL-Khas, MISHU’s trainers and coaches are here to build high performing teams at every level of your organisation, from junior to C-suite executives.

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