Conventional wisdom isn’t getting companies where they want to be. In only 10 percent of companies are workgroups high performing, meaning that they make money for the company and introduce new products, services or processes. About half are average performing, and 40 percent are non-performing.
Research has confirmed five observations that defy conventional wisdom about creating high performance:
Reason 1: Short-term thinking kills performance
Conventional wisdom says that meeting quarterly goals is a measure of success. Ironically, the number-one inhibitor of high performance is short-term thinking—living for today at the expense of tomorrow. To meet quarterly financial goals, companies are cutting staff and budgets, resulting in overworked, frustrated employees.
On the day they announced their IPO, the founders of Google vowed to concentrate on the long term. “Outside pressures too often tempt companies to sacrifice long-term opportunities to meet quarterly market expectations. We request that our shareholders take the long-term view,” wrote Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Google encourages employees to spend 20 percent of their time working on whatever they think will benefit the company in the long run.
Balancing the short and long term is perhaps the leader’s single biggest challenge. Not all leaders have the fortitude to sacrifice short-term results. However, they can collaborate with their teams to attain an intelligent balance.
Senior leaders need to engage members of high-performing workgroups in discussing the challenges that face the company and the financial targets the company proposes for the workgroup. Are the goals achievable? How will meeting the targets affect future as well as current performance? Once senior managers and workgroup leaders agree on realistic targets, the group should decide how to achieve them. Across-the-board cuts may not be the answer.
Reason 2: It’s the environment, not the leader
Conventional wisdom says that the leader is the most important factor in achieving a high-performing workgroup. However, the workgroup environment is the most important factor in driving high performance. No single personality or style defines an effective leader. Effective leaders create an environment that values people (treating smart people as if they are smart), optimizes critical thinking (minimizing emotional responses by matching words and actions), and seizes opportunities (creating learning environments that turn challenges into opportunities). They create environments where people want to go to work every day.
You can stop this dependence on leaders by making the group responsible for creating a high-performance culture.
One way to do this is to conduct a 360-degree feedback process to evaluate the environment, gathering input from the group’s leader, members, and customers, as well as other workgroups. The group should discuss what it can start, continue, or stop doing to drive results and make the workgroup something people want to be a part of.
Reason 3: It’s the workgroup, not the individual
Conventional wisdom says that hiring and nurturing high-potential individuals will drive high performance. Individual performance is influenced by the environment. You can put your best workers in the wrong environment, and they will not do their best work. Leaders need to develop high-potential individuals by providing training and mentoring, helping them plan a career path, and placing them in high-performing workgroups where “B” players becoming “A” players.
If you have people who care more about looking good than helping the group look good; who do only what will advance their own careers; or who define “winning” as beating their teammates, they will destroy the high-performance culture. High-performing groups accept that “we are in this together.” Leverage the skills of group members by playing to their strengths—not only their functional skills, but their natural abilities. This enhances the group’s ability to collaborate effectively.
Reason 4: Even top-performing groups have room to grow
Conventional wisdom says that the best way to improve performance is to eliminate low-performing groups. Even high-performing workgroups could do better. In fact, the best way to increase performance is to increase the performance of those groups already at the top by encouraging members to “speak the unspeakable,” pass the ball to the right player, and practice respectful communication.
By instituting a process for high- and average-performing groups to collaborate on solving problems and overcoming barriers, you increase performance.
Reason 5: Your employees can solve your problems
Conventional wisdom says that if you’re facing a tough challenge, get outside help. While consultants can provide valuable insight, first consult your own people. They know the company well, and they usually can figure out how to solve the problem. Offer “amnesty” to employees for telling the truth about what needs to be done.
If you have the courage to defy conventional wisdom and sacrifice short-term results to attain long-term goals and trust that your people have the secrets to success, you will likely attain high performance.
Recommended Reading on Building High-Performance Teams
- “The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization” by Jon R. Katzenbach, Douglas K. Smith
- “Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni
- “Ten Commitments for Building High Performance Teams” by Tom Massey
- “High Performance Team Coaching” by Jacqueline Peters, Catherine Carr
- “Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams” by Peter Fretwell, Taylor Baldwin Kiland
- “A Team of Leaders: Empowering Every Member to Take Ownership, Demonstrate Initiative, and Deliver Results” by Paul Gustavson, Stewart Liff