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  • Writer's pictureRuss Powell

Three Things High Performing Teams Do Differently

Updated: Mar 16

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, psychologist Ron Friedman points to new research that suggests that the highest-performing teams have found ways to be successful by making better, stronger social connections.

The findings offer insights for business leaders on how to enable greater connectedness—even within remote and hybrid work settings—to help improve and maintain the performance of their best teams.

The bad news: it involves more than simply hiring the right people and giving them the right tools. It requires creating an environment that supports the development of genuine, authentic relationships.

The good news: it's inexpensive and it's not that difficult.

Here are a few of Friedman's findings about high-performing teams.

1 – They're not afraid to pick up the phone

I'm fascinated by this phenomenon in which telephone calls are becoming increasingly less common in the workplace. Turns out, among high-performing teams, that’s not the case. They're happy to call each other.

Friedman's research suggests that members of high-performing teams "tend to communicate more frequently in general, and are significantly more likely to communicate with colleagues using the telephone than their less successful peers."

Let's hear it for phone calls!

Friedman notes, "recent studies have found that while most people anticipate that phone calls will be awkward and uncomfortable, that’s a misperception." While, sure, a phone call may be awkward especially if you don't make them often, "they tend to strengthen relationships and prevent misunderstanding, contributing to more fruitful interactions among teammates."

This point reminds me of some of the work of Sherry Turkle, author of "Reclaiming Conversation" and a quote I heard from data visualization guru, Edward Tufte, not long ago. He said, "The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” (He was quoting George Bernard Shaw).

"The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” –George Bernard Shaw

We get so much real-time/immediate and relevant information on phone calls (and in Zoom conversations)—not just words, but tone of voice (and, on Zoom calls, body language and facial expressions)—that it just seems a no-brainer that, when there's the slightest opportunity for miscommunication, you pick up the phone and call.

In Middle Path leadership programs we emphasize that when solving problems, data-rich conversations are essential. And while, obviously, there's a place for text-based conversations, high-performing teams seem to recognize that the phone call (or Zoom conversation) offers much more data.

2 – They're more strategic with their meetings

Friedman reminds us that "poorly run meetings contribute to employee dissatisfaction, drain cognitive bandwidth, and cost organizations billions."

High-performing teams make their meetings productive—but w/ a relationship-oriented and connected spin.

For example, "they are significantly more likely to require prework from participants, introduce an agenda, and begin with a check-in that keeps team members apprised of one another’s progress."

High performing teams tend to hold meetings that require prework from participants, include an agenda, and begin with a check-in.

In Middle Path leadership programs, we strongly encourage use of check-ins at the beginnings of meetings, so I was particularly delighted to read that last point.

Friedman explains that these teams are not just thinking about the moment, they're preparing for future interactions—"by ensuring that time together is both efficient and collaborative, high-performing teams don’t just make better use of their meetings, they also set the stage for more fruitful interactions, contributing to better relationships."

3 – They're more authentic at work

It's not surprising that Friedman's study found that "members of high-performing teams were significantly more likely to express positive emotions with their colleagues." He noted that they were, "more likely to compliment, joke with, and tease their teammates."

What may be surprising however is that these teams were also more likely to express negative emotions at work. Friedman found that "they were more likely to curse, complain, and express sarcasm with their teammates."

"Why would expressing negative emotions at work yield more positive performance? It’s because the alternative to expressing negative emotions is suppressing them, and suppression is cognitively expensive. It involves expending valuable cognitive resources attempting to hide emotions from others, leaving less mental firepower for doing the work."

"Why would expressing negative emotions at work yield more positive performance? The alternative to expressing negative emotions is suppressing them, and suppression is cognitively expensive." –Ron Friedman

We've known for some time that authenticity contributes to workplace well-being and individual performance. Friedman's research suggests that it boosts team performance as well.

Of course there are times when expressing negative emotions at work is neither helpful nor appropriate. What Friedman's findings suggest is that, "to the extent that team members experience the psychological safety to express their full range of emotions with their colleagues, overall team performance tends to benefit." These teams get to be human at work.

In his article, Friedman goes further and points out that high-performing teams tend to have two other characteristics. They promote psychological safety and give appreciation more often than their lower performing counterparts.

[If you're interested in stories of the value of praise when leading, check out this recent post from Simon Sinek.]

The Upshot

As leaders, in order to get the best from our teams, it's important to enable connections, the development of relationships, and apply that in ways that benefit the business.

Friedman's study points to the value of data-rich conversations (e.g., just pick up the phone and call), the use of good meeting habits (e.g., pre-work, agendas, and check-ins), and authenticity (e.g., showing up real, including the light side and the dark side, within reason).

For more, check out Ron's article.


Please note that all courses in my Middle Path leadership curriculum were designed and developed by Chris Holmberg of Middle Path Consulting. I am a licensed facilitator.


For more insights on team and leadership development, follow Russ on LinkedIn and Twitter.

For more on Middle Path Leadership, follow the #middlepathleadership hashtag on LinkedIn.


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