The four pillars of high-performing teams

by Carlo Borja
high performing teams

Have you ever wondered how Apple went from near-bankruptcy to $300bn+ in annual revenue? 

Or why Nokia was able to pivot its way through the smartphone era while Blackberry floundered? 

Or why Cisco routinely ranks top-five in the “Great Place To Work” list, and why 91% of staff feel their workplace is psychologically and emotionally healthy?

It turns out these household names share a common trait that virtually any company can develop, regardless of size, industry or cash in the bank. 

That’s the ability to build and nurture high-performing teams.

Apple, Nokia, Cisco and countless others have developed a resilience that seems like magic, but is really a lesson any leader can carry into 2024. The lesson is that while individual brilliance is always valuable, the true competitive edge lies in collaborative success.

With burnout rates hovering at an all-time high and most major markets still shaky, establishing and nurturing high-performing teams has never been more important.

However, it’s not something that appears overnight or by accident. Rethinking employee performance requires a deliberate, designed and enduring effort.

An actionable guide to creating a multiplier effect for employee performance

In this guide, we’re sharing a data-backed blueprint to help you:

  • Understand the characteristics of high-performing teams
  • Identify strengths and gaps in your organization
  • Develop strategies to nurture a culture of collaborative excellence
  • Increase productivity without burning out your best people
  • Leverage technology to gain actionable insights 

From understanding the foundational characteristics of high-performing teams to implementing cutting-edge tools and strategies for sustained productivity increases, we’ll explore how to transform your workforce.

The four pillars of high-performing teams

Every strong team is built on a foundation that emphasizes team performance over individual achievements. 

The shift from rockstars to supergroups is rooted in recognizing that the challenges and nature of work have changed. Individual effort was a hallmark of the pre-tech revolution era, but collaboration is the only way to succeed today.

1. Shared purpose

Personal values and connection to organizational purpose have become increasingly important in recent years. 

McKinsey’s research found that 70% of people derive a sense of purpose from work. So it’s worrying that only 15% of employees and frontline managers agreed they can ‘live their purpose’ in daily work. Worse still, 49% disagreed entirely (the remaining 36% were neutral).

People who get purpose from their work are more engaged, connected, committed, satisfied and excited at work. 

Although purpose is admittedly hard to quantify and convey, there are a few things managers can do here:

  • Ensure the organization’s purpose is clear, meaningful, and actively integrated into decision-making processes. 

This is more than a mission statement; it requires a genuine commitment from senior executives to use the company’s purpose as a guiding principle, both internally and in society.

  • Encourage personal reflection from all levels

A culture of compassionate leadership and psychological safety is one where employees are comfortable sharing their personal purpose. This approach significantly enhances the likelihood of employees finding fulfillment in their work. Managers must become role models for sharing personal purpose if they hope to build a highly engaged, high-performing team.

  • Embed purpose into daily work

This might include aligning their roles with the company’s broader purpose or encouraging them to contribute ideas that resonate with their values. For example, initiatives where employees can connect with the company’s core customer base can be highly effective at reminding employees why their work matters.

2. Skills and abilities

High-performing teams draw strength from a diverse skill set. These teams leverage each member’s unique strengths and competencies, creating a synergy that outperforms individual efforts to achieve shared goals.

  • Identify and appreciate individual strengths

What does each person in the team bring to the table? A comprehensive assessment of their skills, experience and areas of expertise helps assign responsibilities aligning with each person’s capabilities.

  • Address individual weaknesses

This doesn’t mean trying to transform everyone into an all-around expert. Instead, it’s about identifying areas where additional support, training or encouragement will help team members overcome obstacles and work on specific skills. 

  • Conducting a symphony of skills

Truly effective managers can leverage individual strengths to amplify the team’s collective capabilities. When team members complement each other’s skills and expertise, ideas form and flow better, knowledge is shared openly, and cooperative problem-solving happens naturally – all hallmarks of high-performing teams.

This insight also scales to the organizational level. Take Cisco, for example. In 2001, facing disruption from a rapidly advancing IT sector, Cisco proactively established cross-functional teams to improve collaboration and creativity throughout the entire organization. The outcome? Cisco remains a heavyweight in IT and communications nearly two decades later, thanks in no small part to the agility arising from this cross-functional effort.

  • Creating a culture of recognition

According to Gallup and Workhuman, employees who think their organization does a good job recognizing contributions are 3.8 times more likely to feel connected to the company culture. 

Here’s a tip: among employees who feel recognized at work, 72% say their organization notices the ‘little things’ as well as big-picture progress. Rather than waiting for annual performance reviews to roll around, proactive managers should have regular check-ins with their team that include recognition for personal and collaborative contributions.

3. Clear communication

Open, honest communication encourages a culture of collaborative innovation and helps employees ‘live their purpose’ at work. Clear, targeted communication gets things done. 

High-performing teams have a system to balance both types of communication. Establishing processes and expectations for effective communication – while also encouraging open dialogue and transparency – creates an ecosystem where trust, collaboration, and innovation thrive.

  • Set tech guidelines

Clear protocols on when and how to use specific channels make communication transparent and effective. For example, Slack is better for quick, informal conversations, while comments in Asana should prioritize task management and progress tracking. Staying organized wards off communication fatigue and prevents information from being lost in a flood of messages. 

  • Build trust in transparency

A psychologically safe environment is one where team members feel comfortable sharing feedback without fear of judgment or reprisal. This means encouraging employees to speak openly, but only if leaders are open to receiving and acting on feedback.

  • Provide regular, value-added feedback

Balancing constructive criticism and positive reinforcement keeps employees motivated by reminding them that their contributions matter. A good manager does this weekly or even daily, not once a year. The difference is access to reliable real-time workforce analytics that enables managers and employees to have productive conversations and uncover actionable insights about living projects.

  • Use data to inform decisions

Integrating workforce analytics into project management and employee performance tracking is an effective way to create transparency and level the playing field in development discussions. Reliable data not only removes bias from the equation but also gives employees clarity to self-manage their performance.

The key takeaway for managers is that radical candor and banter are good for morale, but work still needs to get done. 

Every high-performing team has its communication style. More important than the specific tools and channels your team uses is the workflow that links them together.

This is why integrations between communication, employee productivity and project management platforms are increasingly becoming essential. Integrations enable seamless data sharing, eliminating communication siloes and furnishing everyone with the best available information.

4. Trust in leadership

Employee performance is directly linked to the trust people put in leadership.

That’s the message from Gallup, backed up by data that shows trusting employees are four times more likely to be engaged at work and 58% less likely to be looking out for another job.

This trust builds businesses. PwC’s 2023 Trust Survey found that 91% of executives agreed their ability to build and retain trust would benefit the company’s bottom line.

However, that same survey found a 14 percentage point gap between how many executives thought their employees trusted them (79%) and how many actually did (65%). 

One big reason for the mismatch likely has to do with misunderstandings between employee motivators and employer demands. While employees repeatedly call for flexibility (particularly in the form of hybrid schedules, with evidence that flexibility increases productivity), companies are tightening the reins. 

Read more: How to make a hybrid work schedule that works for everyone

Managers of high-performing teams work hard to build trust. Here are a few of the ways they do it:

  • Working with employees to implement flexible policies
  • Maintaining oversight without micromanaging
  • Walking the talk on transparent communication
  • Involving employees in decision-making
  • Recognizing employee contributions
  • Developing empathy to understand their team’s individual motivators
  • Modelling a commitment to company culture
  • Escalating employee feedback 

At the organizational level, giving managers independence to build a bespoke high-performing team is also important. For example, Apple’s team structure under Steve Jobs was traditionally hierarchical, but the spoke-and-wheel structure introduced during Tim Cook’s leadership has undoubtedly contributed to the company’s $350-plus-billion-dollar revenue.

Using technology to enhance collaboration

We can’t talk about high-performing teams, employee performance and increased productivity without talking about tech. 

If purpose, skills, communication and trust are the pillars of high-performing teams, then technology is the beam connecting them. Without the right technology, organizations will experience gaps in perception and feedback that ultimately hurt performance.

How to invest in technology in 2024

The right technology can increase productivity and enhance employee performance, but only when it’s strategically implemented to match your organization’s need, structure and ecosystem.

Before investing in new technology, run through these simple steps to see whether the tool meets your business needs:

  1. Clarify the organizational need for new or improved technology
  2. Map the ecosystem to identify dependent, defunct or underperforming processes
  3. Define the current gaps in technological capability
  4. Identify opportunities to upgrade, integrate or improve existing software
  5. Assess employees’ capabilities and provide training if necessary

You might find that the best technology is the one you already have.

However, if there is still a need for new tech and a business case for employee performance after all these steps, we have one final tip. Given that an average of one-third (33%) of SaaS licenses are barely used or not used at all and 88% of executives fail to capture value from legacy technology, it’s worth identifying wastage to free up budget for new tools.

This is how Personiv, a Time Doctor user and award-winning BPO, managed to realize six-figure savings by trimming 70% of software licenses. 

Balancing productivity with well-being

While we’ve been busy building the pillars of high-performing teams, one crucial factor has been hovering in the background: employee well-being.

Burnout rates are still too high, with 57% of US employees experiencing “at least moderate” levels. At the same time, 42% of operational executives feel the pressure of labor shortages.

Although it might seem counter-intuitive to think about building a high-performing team in this environment, we believe the strategies outlined above are the answer to these challenges. 

However, managers must remain attentive to work-life balance issues. The pursuit of increased productivity and recognition for outstanding performance is a slippery slope towards overwork.

Time Doctor’s work-life balance widget is instrumental in promoting well-being while optimizing performance. Our purpose-built widget helps managers track the warning signs of burnout, including weekend work, long days, out-of-schedule work and overtime, ensuring employees aren’t risking their health. 

Are you ready to boost employee performance in 2024?

High-performing teams work efficiently and effectively to move the needle on organizational goals. They support each other. They play to each other’s strengths. They become greater than the sum of their parts, reducing the reliance on individual efforts and achieving more as a result. 

Building this kind of high-performance engine is the key to navigating the inevitable challenges 2024 has in store and emerging stronger at the other end.

The good news is that most organizations already have the engine components. What’s missing is the tune-up.

Take the time to map the pillars we discussed here against your workplace. What’s missing? What’s already working, and what could be improved? How do your team’s individual strengths come together, and what does that look like on the organizational scale?

While building a high-performing team may seem like a talent reserved for the Apples and Ciscos of the world, it’s a skill that any empathetic leader can learn and repeat. 

By implementing the strategies outlined here, and investing in workforce analytics to measure the outcomes in real-time, any organization can cultivate an environment where employees outperform every benchmark.

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