The Surprising Secrets of High-Performing Teams

Hint: It’s not how well they interact, but how often

As companies continue to reinvent the ways employees experience and perform their work, teams play a crucial role in how that work is shaped, managed and executed.

But what are the habits of high-performing teams?

Cisco has spent the past several years researching, analyzing, prodding and experimenting the ways the tech company drives performance and empowers its 73,000 employees. In a recent interview, Cisco’s SVP of leadership and team intelligence, Ashley Goodall, highlighted three key characteristics of successful teams:

They play to people’s strengths: When asked about the dynamics of their group, members of high-achieving teams said they felt empowered to do their best work and that team leaders encouraged them to use their strengths every day. Not surprisingly, Gallup’s latest State of the Global Workplace report shows that strengths-based leadership has the potential to deliver improved business outcomes: Employees who say they use their strengths every day are 8% more productive and 15% less likely to quit their jobs. They are also more likely to strongly agree that they like what they do each day.

They create a safe environment: The litmus test of team effectiveness is psychological safety, the ability of  group members to think and act without worrying about social repercussions – basically, to just be themselves. Google discovered this firsthand when it studied 180 of its own functional teams to learn why some were successful and others were not. After a series of trials, research analysts turned up only one reliably consistent pattern of high performance: psychological safety.

They have common goals: Great teams need a shared roadmap: a realistic appraisal of where they are, clarity on what success looks like, and a common path to that success. Each member of the team knows what’s expected of them and how that role contributes to the team’s larger purpose and priorities.

Naturally, team leaders lie at the heart of this – it’s their job to help challenge and develop their reports to reach personal and team best. But Cisco has found that the real driver behind great teams isn’t how well leaders interact with their teams. It’s how often.

When leaders showed a high frequency of attention, team effectiveness spiked. The more often team leaders held routine check-ins with employees, provided just-in-time feedback, and intentionally built development and career advice into performance conversations, the better their teams became.

But the most surprising discovery: These gains emerged regardless of how well these interactions actually went. Team leaders who consistently made time for weekly conversations with reports delivered increased value for the employee and the team’s working dynamic – even when those conversations may have lacked style or finesse.

There’s a powerful lesson here for other organizations. Rather than coach leaders on how to design quality conversations or improve their EQ – not an easy proposition, especially at scale – a simpler target would be to get people talking to each other.

A lot.

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