What Makes a High-Performing Team

It turns out people are the most challenging part of any business. Each individual has a different personality, communication style, values and working methods. Often, these are hard to align without actively coaching the team members.‍

Building a high-performing team is much more complex than we credit it. To assume you can create a billion-dollar tech startup just by hiring the best of the best is hugely misguided. The true secret lies in teamwork, a competitive advantage that is still largely untapped. Teamwork is hard to achieve, it can’t be bought, and it can’t be attained by hiring an intellectual giant from the world’s best business school. It requires courage, discipline, and emotional energy that even the most driven executives don’t always possess.

Its impact is so broad that it’s virtually impossible to isolate it as a single variable. As tricky as teamwork is to measure and achieve, its power cannot be denied. When people come together and set aside their individual needs for the good of the whole company, teams can accomplish what might have looked impossible on paper.

The question remains, what makes a high-performing team? At Unicorn Labs, we’ve designed a six-level pyramid to help any group achieve high performance.

The first foundational step is psychological safety. This term refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences when taking risks and being vulnerable in front of teammates. Essentially, it means each individual feels safe in their mind. Teams with a high sense of psychological safety know they can trust each other and that they won’t be condemned for making mistakes.

Team members are comfortable admitting mistakes, sharing ideas and feedback, and encouraging others to take risks. Teams who are at this level operate at high capacity. They are more productive, make better strategic decisions, and have a greater capacity for innovation. As a leader, if you want to be able to push back on ideas, but you feel like your team can’t take criticism or feedback, it’s perhaps because you are missing psychological safety.


The second level is empowerment. A team of empowered employees moves quickly, is dependable and has exceedingly high standards. Empowerment comes when teams can make decisions on their own. This is only possible when each individual understands their role, the job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance. When team members clearly understand how their contributions affect the team, they become more responsible and dependable for their respective sandbox. Dependability is a core element of high-performing teams. With increased dependability, decision-making moves to the lower ranks, removing unnecessary hierarchies within your startup and empowering teams to create and innovate faster. 


The fourth step is all about the leadership culture. To create a “leadership culture” on your team, leadership must be viewed as fluid. Fluid leadership eliminates hierarchies, is dynamic and can change when necessary. To this extent, each team member is allowed to lead from their strengths, innovate and create impact. Leadership fluidity makes room for team leadership and allows the manager to shift their attention from day-to-day management towards coaching and skill development of the team members. When managers begin coaching, they help unlock hidden potential. Coached teams don’t rely on the team leader as the primary source of accountability; they go directly to their peers. If your team is not helping each other improve, you may lack this level. Additionally, a leadership culture reinforces the first four levels of high-performing teams.

"A combined sense of deep personal meaning, direct impact, and recognized contribution is the number one motivator for individuals to take innovative risks and push themselves to produce their best work."

Employees need a sense of purpose in the upper levels of high team performance. Meaning individuals need to feel their work is contributing and making a difference in the team and the overall company. It’s important for people not to feel like they are just a screw in the machine. Recognition and reward — beyond financial awards — play a significant part in helping team members understand their impact. A combined sense of deep personal meaning, direct impact, and recognized contribution is the number one motivator for individuals to take innovative risks and push themselves to produce their best work. When team members feel valued, they act more productively, generate a higher quality output of work and turn their focus on overall team goals.

Here is where the irony comes in. When building a team, most entrepreneurs believe vision is the first step. They flip the pyramid and think, “we can’t get people if we don’t have a common goal.” But the reality is that a startup’s goals and vision adapt; they change with time. That’s why an all-encompassing vision is the last piece of the puzzle to making a high-performing team. A clear and inspiring vision motivates employees to do their best to uphold the organization’s values and goals. But building purpose is not as simple as carving a mission statement in granite; it’s a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and learning. Managers and founders must create a high-purpose environment, remove ego leadership, and embrace adaptability and change as necessary. An all-encompassing vision drives the organization’s behaviour, creativity, commitment, engagement, and determination.

Teams that trust one another, empower each other to make decisions, engage in conflict, coach for growth, and can set aside their individual needs and agendas to focus exclusively on what is best for the team. High-performing teams have all these qualities; a vision glues them together.

When these six steps are combined in the right way, they create a unique place. A place where teams thrive. A place where innovation is easy, where creativity flows, where there’s a real sense of community. A place where high-performing teams are built.

Fahd Alhattab Fahd is a millennial workplace expert who teaches new managers how to lead...