As a manager, would you rather be in charge of:

  1. An adequately-skilled team that measures up to basic industry standards
  2. A high-performance team that surpasses (and often sets) the industry standard

Okay, so the right decision is pretty obvious. Even if you don’t know exactly what managing a “high-performance team” means, it’s certainly better than being stuck with a team that habitually hovers around average.

Unfortunately, Thinkwise found that roughly 60% of leaders and executives believe their teams aren’t performing to their highest potential.

Graph showing that nearly 60% of leadership don't believe their teams are performing to their fullest potential.


In many cases, failure to reach high-performing status is due to a misunderstanding of what doing so actually involves. This often causes teams to do enough to merely stay afloat — but miss the critical pieces of the puzzle that could launch them toward massive success.

That said, let’s dig into all you need to know about developing and managing a high-performing team.

What is a High-Performing Team?

The term high-performance team refers to a group of specialists who, possessing expert levels of complementary knowledge and skills, work both collaboratively and individually to help the team reach a common goal.

To be clear, “high-performing team” is a specific term reserved for teams that embody certain characteristics, exhibit certain behaviors, and achieve specific results. 

In other words, a high-performing team is not:

  1. A group of individuals working in isolation toward a common goal
  2. Multiple individuals doing the same task, in the same way, over and over
  3. A stale, loosely-aligned team that exists merely because “that’s how it’s always been”

Rather, a high-performance team is one that combines its collective talents in various ways in order to achieve much more than could ever be possible alone. 

(Though the word synergy has been beaten to death in the business world, it’s perhaps the most accurate way to describe the difference between a truly high-performing team and a team that simply “works well together.”)

As we’ll discuss, both nature and nurture are involved in operating as a high-performing team: On the one hand, all team members should come to the table with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in hand. On the other hand, it’s their responsibility (and yours, as manager) to harness these skills to create the synergy needed to reach high-performance standards.

Before we dig more into this, let’s talk a bit more about the benefits of developing high-performing teams within your organization.

Key Types of High-Performing Teams

Though all high-performing teams should share the qualities discussed above, they can come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

(Note that the following can apply to on-premise teams, remote teams, and hybrid teams alike.) 

Structural Types

First, let’s take a look at the most common ways high-performing teams are structured.

Manager-Led Teams

As the name suggests, manager-led teams are directed from the top down.

Here, managers are responsible for developing strategic goals and plans, assigning roles, and creating standard workflows to follow throughout an initiative. The team then carries out the plan according to the explicit direction of the manager. 

Throughout the initiative, the manager will monitor team progress and individual performance, stepping in to provide assistance as needed as well as feedback via employee evaluation reports so as to ensure things are running exactly as planned.

This structure is best used to accomplish routine tasks that require minimal departure from the norm. That way, managers can simply provide the necessary instructions, and allow their talented team members to get to work.

Self-Managing Teams

Though self-managing teams have a bit more autonomy, the leader is still responsible for setting the team’s overarching goals. From there, it’s up to the team to create a plan of attack — and to keep everyone on-track at all times. 

Leaders can potentially be involved in the process as equal members of the group, or as facilitators of specific processes. However, they’re typically much more hands-off, choosing instead to defer to the knowledge and experience of their employees.

Self-Directing Teams

Self-directing teams are created by managers, supervisors, and/or executives at the onset — but are then given full autonomy throughout the remainder of their existence.

This means self-directing team members are responsible for:

  • Defining both short- and long-term goals
  • Creating a strategic plan and accompanying workflows
  • Maintaining operations along the path to success

All this being said, self-directing teams are usually formed in order to solve somewhat intangible challenges, or accomplishing goals that are rather difficult to define. For example, a self-directing team might be formed to develop an innovative solution to a common problem in your industry that no other company has even recognized.

Self-Governing Teams

Self-governing teams are created, maintained, and operate on their own accord — most often for the purpose of ensuring objective oversight of a process or situation.

Executive boards, for example, are self-governed teams that oversee all areas of an organization's operations. A company might also create a self-governing team to manage certain aspects of the company, such as diversity and/or inclusion.

To this extent, self-governing teams’ goals usually revolve around determining the best course of action for the company to take in a given scenario. From there, an action team will be formed to get the job done in full.

(Self-governing teams can also be used to objectively investigate workplace harassment and other such issues.)

Thematic Types

Regardless of governance type, high-performing teams can be formed in different ways for a variety of purposes.

Work Teams

Work teams are established to facilitate and perform specific tasks or ongoing operations within an organization.

Work team is a broad term by design, as it can refer to any group that may form or be formed for any number of purposes. For example, a work team may be created to create marketing copy for a company. A separate work team may also be created to develop a specific marketing campaign’s assets.

Remember, though:

The term work team is actually short for high-performing work team. In other words, a marketing team (etc.) is not a work team by default — but only if its members adhere to the high-performance standards we’ve discussed.

Cross-Functional Teams

Cross-functional work teams bring members of multiple teams together, combining their knowledge and skills to complete tasks that are usually rather wide in scope.

For example, a cross-functional team tasked with identifying audience pain points might consist of marketing and sales managers, along with customer service & support team leads.

Project Teams

Project teams are formed with the sole intention of completing a singular, one-off task.

Depending on the task, project work teams may be made up of individuals within a given team, or they may be cross-functional in nature. In any case, they’re short-term arrangements that are designed to dissolve once the task has been completed.

It’s important for members of project teams to be flexible and adaptable — and able to quickly build rapport with one another in order to just as quickly get to work.

Management Team

Management teams consist of the leaders of multiple departments and are created to conduct strategic analysis and planning for the organization.

Management teams, then, are either self-directing or self-governing. Typically, they’re created in response to a systematic issue that needs to be addressed at the foundational level. From there, the management team can communicate actionable goals and instructions to the appropriate work team(s).

Impact of Becoming a High-Performing Team

Again, you probably don’t need to be convinced that high-performing teams are overall better for business than average-performing teams.

(It’s in the name, after all…)

Still, it’s worth taking a look at the more explicit ways in which your high-performing teams will positively impact your organization.


1. Increased Profitability

First and foremost, businesses with high-performing teams are simply more profitable.

As Thinkwise’s data shows, nearly half of organizations with high-performing teams show general increases in profit. In contrast, only 44% of those without textbook high-performing teams can say the same.

Incidentally, this increased profitability stems from the many other benefits of “going high-performance”, such as…

2. Strengthened Team Culture

As we’ll get to, members of high-performing teams are likely immersed in the company culture as it is.

And this immersion and engagement will only get stronger as they work with other dedicated members of their high-performing team. Essentially, becoming more integral members of their specific team in turn means becoming more integral to the organization as a whole. 

What’s more, in nurturing your high-performing team members, they will in time begin to exhibit the exact qualities that represent what your organization is “all about”.

3. Increased (Talented) Employee Retention

With a stronger team culture will come a general increase in staff retention rates.

For one, team members will be more aware of — and celebrated for — the value they bring to the group. This will be reflected not just in the responsibilities they’re given, but also in the autonomy they’re allotted while accomplishing these tasks.

Secondly, members will also be challenged more regularly — and will again be celebrated for innovative (and often controversial) statements and actions. These continuous opportunities for professional growth will keep your talented employees engaged and pressing forward with your organization for the long haul.

Characteristics of High-Performing Teams

We’ve already hinted at some of the key characteristics exhibited by high-performing teams.

Now, let’s define exactly what these qualities are — and why they’re vital to the creation of a high-performance team.

Relentless Commitment to a Common Goal

To begin with, high-performance teams are created with a clear and specific goal in mind.

And it’s essential that all team members:

  1. Keep this overarching goal top-of-mind at all times
  2. Work to achieve this goal as effectively and efficiently as possible.

High-performing teams never act simply to check a task off their to-do list — and they never get lulled into just “going through the motions” to get things done. 

Rather, they approach every task intentionally and strategically to ensure that their every effort brings the team closer to achieving its goal. Moreover, teams and team members will always look for ways to create more value for the organization on top of what was expected.

It’s this nearly innate striving for excellence that sets high-performing teams apart from their “happy where we are” competitors.

Complementary Knowledge and Abilities

High-performance teams are intentionally designed to create synergy (ugh!) between colleagues whose skills complement one another.

The ultimate goal here is for all team members to bring their unique backgrounds, knowledge, and ideas to the table. All this will then meld with — and eventually transform — the group’s organizational knowledge and overall abilities over time.

As a simple, more practical example, consider the various roles involved in developing a marketing creative:

  • The copywriter knows which words to use, and how to use them
  • The illustrator creates a familiar, yet engaging image
  • The designer puts both of the above together to create an effective advertisement

Here, each party can provide insight to the others regarding their creative choices, how to best leverage the created assets, and more. Though still responsible for their own tasks, each member can adapt their approach even further based on the knowledge they’ve gleaned from the others.

This complementary knowledge also makes for more informed decision-making (which we’ll return to momentarily). A vast collection of varied knowledge and experiences is needed to go beyond the status quo and achieve that which no other team has before.

(In contrast, a group of like-minded individuals, no matter how talented, will eventually find themselves unable to think outside the box — which will keep them from achieving high-performance status, altogether.)

Shared Leadership and Decision-Making

In some capacity or another, all members of a high-performing team should share leadership and decision-making responsibilities.

Firstly, all team members should generally be apt to take charge, provide guidance, and otherwise do what’s needed to help the team succeed. This goes back to the importance of focusing on the team’s goals over the individual’s — and acting on this in real-time whenever necessary.

In a more official capacity, all team members should actively participate in making the “big picture” decisions that will have a major impact on the group. Even in manager-led teams, the process of making decisions should always involve gathering input from all stakeholders.

Communicative, Collaborative, and Innovative

High-performing teams are also highly communicative and collaborative.

(Otherwise, they would never be able to put their complementary skills to good use!)

Individually, team members should be more inclined toward working with others in various capacities. This doesn’t necessarily disqualify introverts and the like; rather, it means putting all team members in a position to communicate and collaborate with each other effectively.

Of course, these skills are needed to actually accomplish tasks and achieve your team’s big-picture goals. But your high-performing team members should also aim to collaborate in more innovative ways that go beyond the scope of the task at hand.

Finally, high-performing teams are masters at conflict resolution — which relies heavily on open and honest communication. Ideally, your team will eventually get to a point where conflict is actually welcomed, as it serves only to strengthen the alignment between all members.

How to Effectively Develop a High-Performing Team

With all of the above in mind, it’s important to understand that building a high-performing team doesn’t happen overnight.

No matter how talented, dedicated, and driven your team members may be, it will take time and intentional effort for them to truly become the powerhouse you’re hoping for. 

Along their path, your future high-performing team will go through four stages of development:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing

Here, we’ll explain each of these stages in detail — and discuss the best practices to follow as you nurture your team’s evolution.

Some Notes Before Getting Started

Before forming a team of any kind, there are a number of things you can do to make sure everything gets started on the right foot.

Most importantly, you need to nail down exactly why the team is being formed in the first place. In defining both the operational and business cases for the initiative, you’ll ensure that forming a team is absolutely necessary to accomplish the tasks at hand.

(Otherwise, you’re liable to form a directionless committee with little idea of what they’re supposed to be accomplishing.)

You’ll also want to have a clear idea of the roles that will exist within the team — and which of your employees best fit these roles. While this list will likely include your top performers in different areas, don’t overlook those “under the radar” employees whose niche specialties might come in handy.

Finally, now’s when you’ll determine the structure of the team. This, again, depends largely on the issue and overall situation — and may occur more or less organically in certain circumstances. In any case, it’s vital for team members to understand the group hierarchy from the get-go to avoid major problems down the road.

1. Forming a Solid Team

Throughout the Forming stage, you’ll be looking to:

  • Get all team members aligned toward achieving a common goal
  • Define performance standards and milestones for both the group and each member
  • Establish standard operating procedures for integral processes

Creating alignment starts with the collaborative creation of a team mission statement and charter. This doesn’t have to be too in-depth, but should make clear what the team’s purpose is, what roles are involved, and all other foundational information about the initiative.

From there, the team will define the key performance indicators and other milestones they’ll be striving to achieve. Setting SMART goals (again, collaboratively) for the group and individual team members will add more clarity to their assignment — which will further strengthen their alignment from the start.

With clear goals in mind, the team can create standard workflows, procedures, and protocols to follow in order to keep things running smoothly. In all cases, establishing clear lines of communication — and developing SOP for using them — is key to staying connected as a team.

Once all this groundwork has been laid, your team can start working productively — and begin evolving into the high-performing team they’ll soon become.

2. Weathering the Storms to Come

As the team begins to fire on all cylinders, they’ll almost certainly face a fair amount of friction along the way.

And it’s their ability to handle this friction that propels them toward “high-performing” status.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of enablement: If your talented team members haven’t been given the means to perform to their highest capacity, they simply won’t be able to. Open access to all available tools and resources is essential.

(You need the right knowledge base software to ensure your team’s collective knowledge is readily accessible, as well.)

Team members should also feel comfortable making their voices heard as they bring suggestions, and even problems, to the table. While enabling open communication is important, you should also have a protocol in place for certain scenarios — especially when it comes to conflict resolution.

Along with these standard procedures for conflict resolution, you’ll need to reinforce the idea that conflict can (and should) be good for the team. In fact, the biggest challenge at this stage is to accept conflict as a natural part of working as a team — and to begin approaching all disagreements as opportunities to learn and grow together.

This is where the “storm” can be most impactful: 

Groups that fail to address and overcome conflict productively will always face blockers to becoming the high-performing team they could be.

The good news?

If you’ve been fostering trust within your team members up to this point, this so-called storm will be nothing more than a light breeze.

3. Creating a New Normal

Once it’s become clear that your team can weather most storms while still keeping a steady pace, you should start to settle into somewhat of a routine.

(Remember: Handling friction will have become part of this routine, by now — and usually won’t throw things too far off course.)

Of course, there’s no guarantee that things will stay this way. Unfortunately, it’s quite possible for teams to revert to their previous mode of operation — especially if the “new way” isn’t continually reinforced by leaders and members alike.

Solidifying the “new way” as the way of doing things involves:

  • Consistent monitoring of individual and team performance
  • Proactive and responsive celebration of growth and achievement
  • Making ongoing improvements to workflows to better enable team members

Employee training (as well as leadership team development) may be necessary over time — both formal and informal. Ideally, you’ll be able to address team performance issues as they arise, providing guidance and further resources to team members as needed while simultaneously keeping things moving in the right direction.

4. Performing as Planned

This stage is basically an extension of the previous, with all team processes now running exactly as you’d intended from the start.

At this point, you’ll need to start thinking about what you’ll do once you reach your initial goals.

In some cases — such as with project teams — it will already have been decided that the team will disband once the initiative is complete. In these instances, you’ll want to hold retrospectives or post-mortems to review the experience as a whole. This will help with individual development and future team planning — and can open the door for more collaboration moving forward.

Other teams may continue on past the initial goalposts — especially if their efforts have led to major growth for the company. Here, you’ll start the process over, using your new normal as a baseline to improve upon.

Some key things to consider in such cases:

  • Do you need to add or change group members, or tweak member roles at all?
  • What information and/or knowledge can you reuse and build on throughout this next initiative?
  • What’s needed to better enable your team members and the group as a whole?

Zooming out even further, think about how your overall approach to developing high-performing teams has impacted your organization and business. While you’ll have already uncovered a number of advantages to high-powered teamwork, there will always be more ways to use teams for the enrichment of the company.