Workplace Culture

How to Build High-performing Teams and Gain the Ultimate Competitive Advantage

By Janice Smith

Oct. 5, 2018

Trust is key to a functioning workplace and to high-performing teams. It also, however, is on a steep decline. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer found a 37-point drop in trust across all institutions in the United States.

But the study also had some surprising findings about trust in the workplace. Some 72 percent of respondents said they trusted their employer to do what is right.high-performing teams

That’s good news for leaders as they seek to nurture trust and build effective teams. Trust is frequently seen as a “soft” pursuit that can be furthered with social events, mission statements and the like. In truth, trust flows from a hard approach that prioritizes a clear overarching strategy and a commitment to transparency.

Trust is invaluable in effective teamwork. Workplace expert and writer Patrick Lencioni said it best. “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”

Business leaders can build the teams they need to get that competitive advantage by investing in high-performing teams and giving them the tools they need. They must support them on their journey through deliberate practices grounded in art and science. These three steps are proven approaches to building effective teams.

Craft a Shared Vision That Inspires

The best teams are grounded in a sense of purpose and are inspired by a shared vision. Helping teams discover their unique purpose jump-starts teams into the honeymoon phase, reminding them why they commit their nights and days to each other and their clients.

Crafting a shared vision helps teams begin imagining new possibilities and renews a sense of focus and passion. Watching a team go all in is priceless; it’s every leader’s dream.

Engage the Right Mix of People

Once a team is fully engaged in their “why,” they need to discover how to work together to bring their vision to life. The right mix for a team is a diverse group of committed and passionate people with a shared vision and deep investment in each other’s success. As individuals, they bring their own unique experiences, skills and perspectives. But the magic happens when they come together to solve the most complex problems.

The right mix is much more than a collection of individual superstars. In fact, a focus on individuals undermines team-building.

Practice the Behaviors That Lead to Success

Leaders can craft a beautiful shared vision and recruit the right mix but it’s how the team behaves together that matters most. Lencioni got it right in his bestselling book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” What differentiates great teams from dysfunctional teams is their ability to practice five winning behaviors that drive collective success.

A leader’s ability to model these behaviors — and expect nothing less of the team — are essential to success.

The five winning behaviors are trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and a focus on results. Each of these plays out in team-building.

Trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good. When trust exists, team members have each other’s back and feel free to express their ideas, listen respectfully to the ideas of others and build a shared solution to a problem.

The second winning behavior is conflict. Great relationships require productive conflict to grow. Teams that have a foundation of trust appreciate that conflict is nothing less than the pursuit of the best possible answer.

Third, team members must be committed. Commitment is a function of two things: clarity and buy-in. Great teams make clear and timely decisions and move forward with complete buy-in, even from those who disagree with the decision. Not everyone needs to agree. They just need to know that their opinions have been considered.

Accountability is peer pressure at its most productive, inspiring people to deliver on their promises to one another. Accountability includes a willingness to challenge others on their performance or behaviors that hurt the team’s efforts.

Finally, there must be a focus on results. Teams must focus relentlessly on achieving clearly defined outcomes. Results-oriented teams collaborate seamlessly, make sacrifices for the good of the team and share in their failures and successes.

The trust necessary for team-building doesn’t come from trips to adventure parks, happy hours or “trust falls.” Instead, it is based on a clear overarching strategy from the team’s leader, coupled with the development of a shared vision, the right mix of people and winning behaviors. By maintaining a focus on achieving real results, leaders and their teams create positive solutions to hard problems. That reinforces the trust they feel in themselves, their team and their employer, creating a virtuous circle that leads to an unbeatable competitive advantage.


Janice Smith is the Global Director of EY’s Highest Performing Team Center of Excellence and the Americas Director of EY’s Leadership and Team Coaching. Comment below or email

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