Date posted: 09/04/2021 10 min read

How to build a high-performance team

Forget KPIs and bonuses. If you want to drive productivity, you need to jettison outdated ideas of what motivates people.

In Brief

  • Clear goals and directions can actually allow staff members more freedom and greater work-life balance and flexibility.
  • The rewards that leaders often use to try to drive performance are not genuinely effective.
  • As a leader in a meeting, listen to hear and not to respond; talk last and own your mistakes.

By Johanna Leggatt

Dave Sewell has seen first-hand how poor leadership can devastate workplace teams. Some six years ago, the New Zealand-based neuro-leadership researcher and author of Safe Leadership: Beating Stress to Drive Performance ran his own business consultancy. But he was forced to drop two clients in two months because of bullying behaviour.

“One of my clients was particularly horrific and shamed his international sales manager in front of me and his executive team. He called her names and she broke down in tears,” says Sewell.

“I pulled him out of the room and told him he couldn’t behave that way, and he told me that he was the CEO and he could behave how he wanted.”

“I pulled him out of the room and told him he couldn’t behave that way, and he told me that he was the CEO and he could behave how he wanted.”
Dave Sewell, leadership coach

That bruising encounter prompted Sewell to embark on a new career as an executive leadership coach. His focus was on improving the relationship between leaders and their teams, allowing employees to achieve genuine work-life balance, and boosting a team’s agility and resilience.

“I realised that many of the leadership practices around today are based on operational factors, such as how to delegate properly, how to communicate effectively, and how to manage your day,” he says.

“But I had not come across a leadership program that tells you how to talk to an upset employee, how to stop upsetting your employees, and how to create a psychologically safe environment where your employees aren’t scared to share their opinions.”

Safe leadership equals great teamwork

Sewell devised a nine-month program for New Zealand workplaces to help managers connect with their teams via his concept of “safe leadership”.

“When someone is under threat or afraid [of their boss], they don’t look after the team, they tend to look after themselves,” says Sewell.

“When someone is under threat or afraid [of their boss], they don’t look after the team, they tend to look after themselves.”
Dave Sewell, leadership coach

“Conversely, a safe leader allows all team members to say basically what’s on their mind at any given time. It’s really as simple as that.”

As Sewell notes, a psychologically safe team is significantly more productive than one that’s scared of getting in trouble.

“It’s actually highly prudent from a bottom-line perspective to be psychologically safe,” he says.

“If you have team members that don’t harbour grudges, that are openly making suggestions and giving feedback without fear, then the team is really humming along.

“Lots of great conversations and work happens when people are happy.”

Clear goals allow more flexibility

This doesn’t mean Sewell endorses laissez-faire management; in fact, he argues that teams thrive on clear goals and direction.

“In the close to 200 companies I have worked with during the past decade, almost none of them had offered clear enough outcomes for each of their employees or teams to achieve each day,” he says.

Sewell explains that clear expectations and boundaries – somewhat ironically – allow for enormous freedom, agility and greater work-life balance and flexibility.

“If the company knows what each employee needs to achieve from an outcome perspective, it really doesn’t matter if that work gets done at six o’clock in the morning or 8pm at night,” he notes.

What are the right drivers?

Late in 2020, Scott Wagenvoord, CA ANZ’s regional manager for New Zealand’s South Island, asked Sewell to join forces with Carl Davidson, director of strategic insights agency Research First, to talk to CA ANZ members about building high-performing teams.

The duo dispelled numerous myths about what is required for improved team productivity, Wagenvoord says.

“Members will often say they need more headcount, but I have an absolute belief that you can build capacity within your existing headcount if you build a high-performance team.

“We have technology that will provide efficiencies, we have offshoring for more transactional work. So when it comes to productivity, perhaps we can look within our four walls and ask, ‘Am I running the most efficient and the most engaged team that I can?’”

Davidson defines high-performing teams as those that achieve the “goals they set for themselves without doing damage along the way to the people in the team or to their clients”.

“And this ends up being the most economically rational thing a company can do,” he explains.

But there is a common mismatch between the mechanisms leaders use to try to drive performance in organisations, and the things that are genuinely effective, says Davidson.

“Almost everything we think of as driving high performance in a typical organisation actually works against sustainable, long-term performance.”

For example, some managers think providing extrinsic rewards for professionals, such as a financial bonus, is highly motivating.

“In fact, it will do the opposite,” says Davidson, who notes that most high-performing professionals are already inherently motivated to do a good job.

“Most professionals care about their craft, they care about performing well for the people around them, and if you set them up to compete with one another, you will undermine the team dynamic as well as their performance,” he says.

Aim for a collegial atmosphere

How to build a high-performance team

Davidson advises managers to create an intrinsic reward culture that “supports and acknowledges performance, rather than sets out to reward it”.

“I am not saying that people should not be paid well – they should – but there is research that says that once people reach a certain level, money ceases to be as motivating for them,” he explains.

Importantly, this intrinsic reward approach doesn’t have to be a formal procedure for it to be effective.

“An environment with lots of laughter, a bit of levity and liberty, is much better than what we were all taught to believe: that we need to treat performance as a serious thing driven by KPIs,” Davidson says.

Sewell adds that a raft of outdated assumptions work against our in-built tendency towards congenial collaboration.

“One of the big myths is that bosses can’t be friends with staff,” says Sewell.

“I am not saying that they have to go and drink with employees, but you can and should be friendly towards staff.”

“Once people reach a certain level, money ceases to be as motivating for them.”
Carl Davidson, Research First

Another collaboration myth is the notion that the “punishment comes before the reward” and that some team members are simply not “team players”.

“Some leaders will tell me that a certain employee is toxic, and I tell them that there is no such thing as a toxic employee,” says Sewell.

“I tell them that that employee is clearly stressed because you, as the leader, have not figured out what is actually wrong and helped remove that stressor.”

How to make a meeting really work

Most professionals at some point have endured soul-sapping meetings that achieve very little. To avoid this, it’s important that teams establish processes to train the group’s focus on what truly matters.

Wagenvoord reports a great “a-ha moment” for CA members was Sewell and Davidson’s concept of working in periods of focus rather than blocks of time, and then tailoring these focus periods to the team members’ work cycles.

“Some people are early-morning people, others are late-morning, so we need to look at where staff members’ strengths lie, and at what time they work best,” says Wagenvoord.

“In general, 3pm is most people’s low point so it’s best not to organise a team pitch for important business at that time in the afternoon.”

Davidson says employers can “hack” meetings so they energise the team members rather than deplete them.

“Have meetings standing up to ensure they don’t go on for too long,” he advises.

“And make sure it’s really clear what the meeting is about beforehand and who is agreeing to what afterwards.”

It’s also worth establishing rules about how people should behave in meetings.

“For instance, if someone suggests an idea, you are not allowed to say it’s dumb and you are not allowed to say no to it. You have to say, ‘yes and’ so you accept the idea and build on it.”

Hierarchical politics are likely to influence teamwork and, again, this is where rules can help.

“You can have a rule that the most senior person in the room speaks last,” Davidson suggests.

“You can have a rule that the most senior person in the room speaks last.”
Carl Davidson, Research First

“Or when a decision needs to be made, people could write down their preference before [the senior person speaks] and, therefore, they will not be swayed by the politics in the room.”

The ‘in group’ versus the ‘out group’

Teams cannot be successful without a strong sense of belonging and this is where the psychological notion of the in-group and the out-group can be leveraged.

“People are tribal in nature, and it’s important they bond through a leader or a shared vision for the company,” says Davidson.

“You can set the company up against the competition or against the world as the out-group and use that to bring the team in the in-group together and bond them.”

As companies grow, managers need to ensure there are “sub-sections” within larger departments so people can still feel part of an in-group, says Davidson.

“These subsections can have no more than about 150 people, so that you don’t feel faceless, so you actually feel like you belong and contribute.”

Creating a shared vision, or alignment of goals and priorities, is pivotal to creating a high-performing team, notes Wagenvoord.

“That way everyone is doing their bit of the puzzle, and the strength is in building the overall picture of how everybody contributes.

“This will, in general, deliver a better outcome, both for the individual – as they’ll feel like they’re contributing – as well as to the overall success of the team,” he says.

It’s also important managers close the loop for team members at the end of a project.

Wagenvoord says: “It’s about taking the time to say, ‘Hey, that was really great, and here are some of the outcomes we achieved; here is the feedback.’

“Rather than just immediately chasing the next carrot, it’s about taking the time to both celebrate the successes and then take stock of anything we learned.”

Handling conflict in teams

Team conflict can pose a significant threat to productivity, whether it’s tension caused by an ill-timed remark or professional rivalry.

Sewell says the best way to manage interpersonal team conflict is to uncover the root cause of the problem.

“Ask yourself where the stress is and what is putting them into that defensively aggressive position,” he says.

The next step is to identify the stressors for each team member involved in the conflict to identify the common denominator.

“Then you bring everyone together and find a consensus around what the stressor is – maybe too much work for one person or a bad client – and remove the stressor,” says Sewell.

Davidson recommends applying a mnemonic tool from personal psychology, which works well in teams-based conflict.

Known as HALTS, it “encourages people to take a moment and ask whether they are hungry, angry, lonely, tired and whether the sun is shining, because all of those things are going to affect your mood and how you feel about the world,” he says.

“So when somebody says something you don’t like, rather than your first thought being ‘that’s a really dumb idea and they’re a moron’, instead it could be that you know you didn’t get enough sleep and are irritable.”

But if one person tends to dominate the meeting, and thereby the team, Davidson recommends a zero-tolerance approach.

“If it’s a pattern of behaviour, it comes down to being honest and calling it out,” he says.

How to be a ‘psychologically safe’ leader

  • Listen to hear and not to respond.
  • Talk last.
  • Harness the collective intelligence of those around you before contributing your ideas. A psychologically safe leader may not share their ideas if the team comes up with better suggestions.
  • If you’re in the C-suite, offer a strong vision and direction for the team.
  • Hold the team accountable with clear expectations on what each team member needs to do for success.
  • Commit to increasing the skills of your team members and encourage staff to rise through the ranks.
  • Acknowledge a job well done and say thanks.
  • Own your mistakes.

Source: Dave Sewell,


Safe Leadership: Beating Stress to Drive Performance

Find out how to leverage your brain’s own reward hormones to help you deal with stress and maximise your team’s performance by becoming psychologically safe leader.

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