March 21, 2024

Characteristics of High-Performing Teams

Leadership Development

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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All teams — even well performing ones — hit a wall once in a while, particularly as we consider the complex team dynamics in a healthcare environment. Building high-performing teams is increasingly difficult in our industry, and so is sustaining that performance long-term. Whether you’re a new leader, have a new team, or need to get a team unstuck, the following practices will help you accelerate improvements in building effective healthcare teams.

A 3-legged foundation for high team performance

There’s no shortage of research on characteristics that make up high-performing teams. Though study methodologies vary, decades’ worth of studies reveal three common elements: shared understanding and purpose, psychological safety, and constructive conflict. Let’s look at each in turn.

Shared understanding and purpose: It’s essential for each member of your team to understand how their expertise and job duties contribute to the bigger picture — that is, the mission and success of the organization. Though it may sound like common sense, it’s not always common practice.

To get there, team members need to understand the following areas about themselves and their teammates, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) advises:

  • Assigned tasks (roles and responsibilities)
  • Context (how tasks fit into organizational goals)
  • Communication preferences (how people like to interact)

Notably, team members must also feel their work serves a greater purpose. “Knowing the reason behind their work’s importance isn’t enough — employees also want to know who their work is serving,” reports the HBR. One way leaders can do this is by regularly sharing stories of the team’s or organization’s impact on real people. “Stories [that connect the team’s efforts to the people who benefit from it] wield the strongest influence on our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, including our desire to contribute to a team,” the authors advise.

Psychological safety: Put simply, psychological safety happens when team members feel comfortable taking risks and asking tough questions. As the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality puts it, “the term embodies individual confidence in the belief that speaking up will not result in embarrassment, rejection, criticism, or punishment from others… For example, a healthcare worker who feels enabled to voice concerns about controversial topics or safety issues may stimulate group learning that, in turn, lowers the chance of future medical errors.”

Psychological safety is also essential for sustained progress. Research shows that organizations that reward risk and tolerate failure progress faster than those that don’t. “If people are criticized for failing, they’re less likely to take risks; in a crisis, this can be fatal,” researchers warn.

Healthcare leaders can cultivate psychological safety by rewarding curiosity and experimentation, and encouraging questions — particularly “why” and “what if” questions. Just as important, leaders should model psychological safety by exhibiting vulnerability and trust

Constructive conflict: High-performing teams cultivate vigorous dialogue, welcome diverse opinions, and communicate their differences in ways that invite dialogue rather than provoke debate. “The best teams excel in constructive conflict around ideas,” wrote Eric Norwood, a MEDI Leadership coach, in a previous post. “This kind of conflict is never focused on the other person, but on the other idea. It’s a search for truth, for the best path forward together,” he explained.

One study found that individuals in higher-performing teams contributed a greater proportion of oppositional comments than individuals in lower-performing teams. “This type of interaction stimulates more in-depth discussion and critical analysis of ideas,” the authors write: “Team members of high-performing teams value differences of opinion and perspectives, and are able to provide and accept feedback.” 

What leadership skills are essential for fostering high-performing teams in healthcare?

In our work with executive healthcare team leadership over the years, we’ve identified a set of expanded leadership competencies needed to manage the rising ambiguity, uncertainty, and risk in healthcare. The full set of expanded competencies are beyond the scope of this post, but you can read more about them below:

For now, we’ll focus on Teams Thinking: a competency that describes an unconventional way of thinking about teams. That’s because in addition to fixed, structured teams, Teams Thinking also considers dynamic teaming: all those times when people in your organization need to pair up “on the fly” to solve a problem or seize a timely opportunity.

A Teams Thinking leader is able to sustain high performance by practicing the following:

  • Embracing interdependence, intentionally developing trust and respect among teams.
  • Facilitating inclusive, interactive, and collaborative learning.
  • Assembling, developing, and aligning diverse teams equipped with the capabilities necessary to lead the organization.
  • Encouraging teams to explore conflicting points of view as a way to ensure solid decision making and aligned execution.

Building your Teams Thinking “muscle” into a habitual practice requires four things from you as a healthcare leader:

  • Become skillful in cultivating trust.
  • Establish and manage team norms and commitments.
  • Build skill in constructive conflict and collaborative decision making.
  • Develop skills and efficient systems to communicate and stay connected.

(Need a deeper dive into Teams Thinking? Here you go.)

How can executive coaches help build high-performing teams in healthcare?

In our work with teams and leaders in healthcare, we’ve found that teams are never static, just like the conditions affecting their work aren’t static. Rather, teams go through specific and predictable stages. The challenges your team is facing today may indicate they’re entering a new phase. The key is to recognize the stage your team is in and lead accordingly.

Often, leaders come to us because they’re stuck — and when you’re stuck, it’s tough to pull yourself (and your team) out of quicksand without an outside lever. To that end, MEDI Leadership coaches use a proven team development framework that helps leaders make sense of ambiguity and chart a path forward. (You can learn the basics of that framework here.)

It’s worth noting that five times as many high-performance organizations use coaching, compared to lower-performing organizations, reports the Institute for Corporate Productivity.

Building high-performing teams takes time, work, and focus. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel and make mistakes that could be prevented with the guidance of a seasoned expert who’s been down that road before. 

Is executive coaching for you? And is now the right time? We’d be glad to help you explore what’s possible and clarify next steps. Drop us a note and we’ll connect you to an expert.

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About the author

Deena Fischer, MA, ACC

A certified executive coach, Deena Fischer, MA, ACC leads business development and operations for MEDI Leadership.

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