A practice guide for coaching exceptional teams

We have worked hard to help people be better team members and leaders to be better at supporting their teams. Yet the team is clearly an organism in its own right. Team performance is in the spotlight. We know that team behaviours determine performance. How might the science and practice of team flow help us deliver results without compromising personal wellbeing and resilience?

The Context

First, when a team works well, it achieves extraordinary results. For those who have been part of an effective team the experience is ennobling and the memory is rich. An outstanding team can change the fortunes of an organisation or mission. They have enormous value and they are rare. Many, including MIT and Google, are asking what exactly determines team performance. McKinsey estimates that it is reasonable to expect a doubling of team productivity with a small lift in flow.

Second, as millions of jobs – manual, process and professional – fall to machines and artificial intelligence, good teams are one of the last bastions of human dominance. Those who can work well in teams have a greater chance of finding sustainable roles in society.

Third, working in a highly functional team is massively rewarding. From our hunting and gathering days, human work has often been done in teams. We are designed for teaming. We have survived and thrived as a consequence of the attributes required – self-mastery, empathy and perspective taking. Not surprisingly, to be on a good team is enjoyable, engaging and meaningful. We can become much better coaches of our teams.

Clarify thinking and assumptions

Performance traps: business is in the very early stages of applying the performance sciences. We frequently fall into the trap of performance as “always on”. Long days, missed meals, compromised sleep and abandoned families. Elite performers in sport, combat, arts and chess do not make this mistake. Teams who deliver the goods do not compromise on their foundations. They work in intense bursts and know how to rejuvenate fully. Their coaches (they all have coaches – often a coaching team) help make it possible. Teams must use science and deliberate, purposeful practice to succeed.

Second, elite performance is achieved through flow – not a desperate grind. McKinsey found that executives in flow achieve a five-fold lift in output. What we forget is that a day of flow requires at least a day of rest. Elite performance absolutely depends upon structured recovery, rest phases and careful preparation and conditioning. Teams must learn how to call downtime and enjoy “play-time”.

Third, there is too much focus on psychological safety. I don’t buy it. High performing teams are intense, demanding and vigorous. Read up on Apple, Nike or professional firms. Someone who needs psychological safety will not thrive. Resilience is a far superior mantra. Each individual must be confident that they can bounce, show courage, connect and create. They must be able to trust that team-mates can and will demonstrate resilience. If we focus on resilience, candour, respect, empathy and social skill follow. If we focus on psychological safety, people demand sympathy and justify withholding the truth. We want to think of our colleagues as resilient. Not vulnerable!

The Solution

To coach a team to exceptional performance requires deliberate focus on core skills. These are the skills we believe will accelerate team development in order of priority:

Personal Mastery: every team member must have the basic skills to take care of their life. Wellbeing – physical, emotional and cognitive – is essential. Make sure your teams have the basic skills, metrics and support to cultivate their resilience. Exceptional teams will endure periods of extreme pressure and must know how to maintain themselves through it and take the necessary time to recover and rejuvenate after bursts of intensity. Teams must learn how to support each other. In a pressure-cooker world, personal mastery is tough. Support of each other can make a big difference. Stay fit, sleep consistently, eat well and maintain the ritual. Daily stand-up meetings must be used as a personal check-in before addressing business.

Tactical Calm: every team member must be able to calm and focus through pressure and conflict. Conflict is necessary to extract creative problem solving. When a team member has emotional outbursts empathy, trust and creativity collapse. Teams that can maintain the calm, focused and connected state can thrive through chaos. Just as athletes and soldiers have specific training in how to stay calm in critical moment, so must teams. Pause, breathe out, stay curious and open, and respond calmly and firmly.

Empathy: a range of studies now shows that empathy is the single best predictor of contribution to team performance. We must be specific with our training of empathy. We can build empathy through very specific practices. At the base it requires a degree of cognitive empathy. Teams must increase their emotional literacy learning how to recognise, name and express the different emotions skilfully and appropriately. Second, teams must learn to pay attention and tune into the feelings (affect) of each other. Third, they must practice perspective taking. Learn to explore and express diverse points of view.

Build time in Team Flow: the flow state is super-charged and is the state of exceptional performance. In flow the brain is functioning in a very special condition – focused, immersed, connected and accelerated. Flooded with dopamine, endorphins and anandamide, thinking stops and real-time, accelerated processing takes over. Flow become more likely when teams engage directly and face-to-face. Communication is concise, direct, candid and expressed in short bursts. All team members contribute evenly. No one dominates.

Remember that flow is exhausting. Celebration, rest, rejuvenation and careful conditioning must follow before attempting to deliver another burst of flow.

After action review: well tested in military and team sport, we can apply this to our teams. After key actions, stop, reconnect and review performance with candour. What went well and what can be improved? How can we improve this next time? What specific actions can we each take to prepare, practice and execute next time around?

Time to practice: high performing teams create a culture of deliberate practice. Set specific development goals, make time to practice with support and use coaches to provide specific feedback and skill rehearsal. The focus must be on “how to execute like experts”. Research what experts actually do and learn to master these skills.

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