This is a question that often gets batted around during leadership training sessions.  And to answer it, I often share the results of a Google study called Project Aristotle, which was completed a few years back.  It’s often surprising learning for a lot of leaders, because the key finding was that what matters the most for team effectiveness is less about who is on the team, and more about how the team works together.  Or in other words, when it comes to high performing teams, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

This isn’t to say that technical competency isn’t important.  Obviously, people have to have the right level of skill and competency to be able to do the job they’re in.  But having the brightest and best technical experts doesn’t necessarily equate to success.  We see this often in sports – the teams that are typically the most successful in making it to the championship are the ones the work the most effectively together, not just the ones that have the biggest and brightest stars. So the bottom line is that cherry picking a group of A players won’t necessarily translate into success.

So all this begs the question – If it’s not so much about who is on the team, how do you build a high performing team? 

Here’s what the Project Aristotle analysis found, and it boils down to 4 key components:

Psychological safety

The belief in a team that it is safe to speak up, share opinions and make mistakes.  Is your team environment one where only a few voices dominate, where ideas get dismissed, ridiculed, or shot down?  Are mistakes penalized with blaming or shaming language?  Or maybe there’s an unspoken power dynamic, where folks are jockeying for position.  All of these are signs that your team lacks psychological safety, and as the leader, you set the tone for what is and isn’t acceptable behavior.


To what extent are roles and responsibilities clear in your department?   Are they documented and current?  When you delegate a task, how clear are you on the outcome to be achieved and on what your expectations for success are?  As a coach, I hear all the time about situations where a coaching client delegated a task, only to end up with a pile of crap on their desk a week later.  It’s not enough just to tell someone to do something – a good accountability conversation is one where the manager is clear about expectations and confirms that understanding in the conversation.  Are you having regular performance conversations where you give feedback on what’s working and what could be better, or are you avoiding tackling poor performance?

Meaning and purpose

This isn’t a nice to have or an airy-fairy thing.  The bottom line is that human beings are ultimately motivated by something greater than just a paycheck.  And this is critical in the context of high performing teams, because in these types of teams folks routinely go out of their way to give discretionary effort.  They’re connected to the work not just on an intellectual level but also on a spiritual level, they know why it matters and they are routinely reminded by their leadership of the difference they are making in the organization and in the world.  This is different than sharing a kpi report on whether your team has hit the coveted target in any given quarter.  These types of things often fall on deaf ears, sound empty, and don’t speak to the spiritual aspect that is so important.

Alignment and clarity of outcomes 

Do we all have a shared understanding of what good looks like for our department?  How clear are we on the strategic priorities and what we will do and won’t do as a unit?  This is important because other people’s priorities have a tendency to creep in, just like scope often does on a project.  Let’s say you can answer these questions for yourself.  Fantastic!  But just because they’re clear in your mind doesn’t mean they’re clear to your team.  Do you routinely meet as a group to talk about these things and confirm alignment?  I remember back to my time in internal audit when I would show up to a site and ask the question, “What does good look like?”  For ten times of asking I’d often get ten completely different answers.  The audit finding would literally write itself.

Coaching questions for thought:

  • If I were to do a self-assessment of my leadership for each of these areas, how would I rate my team on a scale of 1to 5, 5 being high?  What evidence could I point to to support each of these ratings?
  • What are my strengths and what are my learning edges?  What actions do I as a leader want to take to support my team in becoming better?

Shelley Pernot is a career and leadership coach who is passionate about helping her clients develop clarity, confidence, and compassion for self.  She is particularly adept at working with high performing women who are hard on themselves.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!