Many people assume that high-performing teams result from the strong direction of powerful, visionary leaders, but that simply doesn’t tell the whole story.

Building great teams isn’t something leaders can do on their own. Leaders are powerless to demand top-notch performance from a team that refuses to take an active, participatory role in the team’s development.

Team members can’t sit idly by and wait for their leaders to bestow great teamwork upon them. Instead, a team’s members must act as a cohesive unit to support the team’s vision, direction, and purpose—and as individuals, they must be empowered and inspired to take personal responsibility for the team’s success. Working in teams is an active process, one that requires the concerted effort of each member in order to be successful.

A high-performing team functions much like the human body: Each organ serves a unique purpose in the whole system, but every organ works interdependently with the others. Each organ is essential, and none is more important than another.

The body can only reach its highest potential when all of its components are working together at their peak level of performance; if one organ fails, the body will compensate for a time, but without active intervention, the system will eventually shut down.

Constructing a team that can be relied upon to work on behalf of the team’s collective goals takes hard work, and making sure that the team works together well is not the leader’s responsibility alone.

While it’s true that team leaders typically set basic team-member expectations, establish baseline ground rules for working together, and explain the overarching purpose and direction of the team, it is up to the team members themselves to learn how they’ll work together most effectively. Simply put, the leader helps the team envision the goal, but the individual team members must figure out how they will reach it together.

Initially, some team members may feel uncomfortable taking ownership of the team’s success, especially if they’ve worked under highly directive, command-and-control-style leaders in the past. Team members in these situations have often been discouraged from taking initiative in this area, having been taught that it is not their job to think more broadly and take more responsibility—only to do what they’re told.

RunnersThis style of leadership indicates insecurity, a lack of trust, and a need to hold onto power and control—and unfortunately for leaders of this type, these micro-managerial tendencies actually make their jobs harder. Formal authority has very little to do with how well a team runs.

It’s the internal processes, mutual respect, empathy and understanding, open communication, and careful synchronization of team members’ talents, skills, and responsibilities that allow a team to develop into a high-performing machine.

The list of solid team practices and ideas for encouraging team members to take active role in the team’s development is nearly endless. Here are a few ways that team members can act independently of the leader and feel truly empowered to develop their own high-performing team:

  • Create team-member expectations and working agreements; respect the parameters of those requirements, but be willing to revise them if something isn’t working.
  • Openly share relevant knowledge, information, and training with one another.
  • Actively gather data and understand the business; apply what you learn to the team environment so that potential issues can be anticipated early.
  • Get to know one another’s individual strengths and weaknesses; use this knowledge to capitalize on the team’s existing strengths and compensate for and overcome any team weaknesses.
  • Assume that team members have positive intentions; don’t villainize others or jump to conclusions about underlying motives.
  • Courageously confront issues and offer solutions for resolving them; don’t wait for others to provide solutions to team problems.
  • Manage your own and others’ time effectively and understand your teammates’ project deadlines, priorities, and constraints.
  • Focus on process improvement; seek ways to accomplish the work in better and more-efficient ways.
  • Ensure better alignment between team members by designing a process for communication and workflow that is used consistently across members’ roles and responsibilities.
  • View each assignment as an opportunity to learn something new; find opportunities to cross-train and share in one another’s knowledge and experience.
  • Recognize the accomplishments of individual team members and celebrate their successes as a team.

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About the Author
Emily Hodgeson-Soule
Emily Hodgson-Soule has worked with CMOE since 2009 and is the Director of Program Design and Development. She holds a Master of Professional Communication (MPC) degree with dual emphasis in writing and multimedia. Emily works closely with CMOE’s client organizations to assess their internal training and development needs and provide learning solutions that fulfill the requirements and the strategic goals of each organization.

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