The secret of high performance teams

Urban life 14 February 2013 Carsten Sørensen

Efficiency optimisation, profit maximisation, cost reduction. When managers measure business performance it's usually all about the numbers. However, studies show that the way employees interact and communicate in teams has great influence on their work satisfaction and productivity. Ramboll reveals the secret of high performance teams.

10 mins

More than 400,000 employees have participated in the thousands of surveys conducted by Ramboll Management Consulting in the last few years and the message is clear: Extremely satisfied employees equal highly productive businesses.

The interesting part is that there’s always a high degree of job satisfaction in organisations and teams where the performance level is really high. This is simply the place where employees are happy.

Since the happiest and best performing employees feel at home in teams, this is a clear-cut chance to dig deeper into the nature of group behaviour. What characterises the dynamics of a successful team?  Why is it so important to be a team player? And how do we fine-tune performance?

At Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Human Dynamics Laboratory, researchers have examined similar teams within banks, call centers and hospitals to find the secret formula for high performance. To their surprise, the key to success was not the substance of group discussions nor their individual intelligence, skill and personality. It was the manner in which they communicated.

Coffee breaks worth $15 million

The researchers studied a bank’s call center to help the manager figure out why some teams got brilliant results, while other teams, seemingly identical, struggled to perform. Rather surprisingly, the teams showed completely different ways of interacting. Dollar productivity varied very widely between groups, and one-third of these variations could be traced back to the members’ level of energy and engagement outside formal meetings.

To test this insight, the manager reluctantly synchronised the employee’s coffee breaks to allow more social time between teammates. As a result, the average handle time for calls dropped 20% for low-performing teams and 8% total for the entire call centre. Now, the break schedule has been changed for 25,000 people and the productivity for 10 call centres is expected to increase by $15 million. Positive group dynamics were instrumental in a development which saw satisfaction levels rise, sometimes by more than 10%.

It’s not a question of lobsters in the cafeteria or tough performance goals. It’s a simple fact that the greatest potential for gains in productivity lies in the creation of a culture where people are especially happy to go to work.

The satisfaction and productivity within high-performing teams can become an inspirational example to follow. Appreciative Inquiry is a mindset which allows organisations to use successful experiences from the past to realise their visions for the future. Managers tend to focus on areas where there are obvious weaknesses they feel obliged to fix, but “the task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths, making our weaknesses irrelevant,” as management thinker Peter Drucker put it.

The three Es: energy, engagement and exploration

To enforce high performance, it is highly relevant to look at the essence of the best performing teams. MIT researchers discovered that the most flourishing teams let everyone talk and listen roughly the same amount of time, face each other and not only the leader when talking, are energetic and explore other teams to bring back relevant information.

Three major aspects of communication influence team performance: energy, engagement and exploration. Energy represents the amount of exchanges between members, engagement reflects the distribution of energy within a team while exploration is the level of interaction with other teams. The most productive teams prove to have a well-balanced energy level where nobody dominates the conversation and nobody is left alone and silent in the corner. And especially for the creative teams, exploration outside the team is crucial to get fresh insight and innovative sources of inspiration. 

A study published in 2009 decoded the communication in 60 business teams discussing the annual strategy. It became obvious that high-performing teams are more positive and that there is a reasonable balance between talking about customers and co-workers and the team itself. Low-performing groups seem to argue a lot more. They focus narrowly on their own tasks and are not as curious about others. 

High-performers lose the blinkers

Ramboll Management Consulting has examined around 40,000 business teams during the last couple of years. The successful ones all seem to care not only about themselves, but acknowledge their role in a wider perspective. 

You have to develop a culture where everyone realises that they contribute to the bigger picture. Members of low-performing teams are often afraid to step out of their own group, because management measures their contribution to one particular team. Team leaders must motivate employees by clarifying their role in the company strategy, and encourage them to help other departments. 

Ramboll surveys show that one particular incident often decides whether a team will flourish or not. Low-performers have often experienced an unjustified sacking of a team member or enduring harassments. High-performers have perhaps seen colleagues getting promoted, leaving the team behind but inspiring the rest of the group to perform better and improve their own chance of following their professional dreams. 

A recent example is a Ramboll satisfaction survey of 500 workers in the Norwegian postal service, Norway Post. The results were explicit: the existing satisfaction and performance levels were untenably low. Therefore, Ramboll consultants initiated an Appreciative Inquiry process, where management shifted from a problem-oriented approach to an appreciative style that involves the employees, focuses on their strengths and inspires them to break negative patterns of interaction. As a result, 80% of the employees are now more satisfied, sickness absence has decreased and customers feel more welcome. 

Five keys to leading performance 

High performance has indeed become a science. This can all seem slightly fluffy, so to make the heavy knowledge more digestible, here is a list of advice on how to create the most successful business team, based on research from MIT and learning from thousands of surveys conducted by Ramboll Management Consulting:
  • Use language as a force.

    Communication is key. Everything is not about maximizing, optimizing and streamlining. Be energetic, listen with enthusiasm and involve everyone in an appreciative manner.
  • Engage your team in the company story and strategy

    Strong teams are characterised by a high information level that keeps them engaged in the organisation as a whole. Weekly briefings are preferable.
  • Keep a strong focus on creating a strong culture

    Strong determination is vital to develop a high performance culture, as a lack of focus can destroy any ambition.
  • Be visible and take the lead when it comes to exploration outside the team

    The leader must show the way forward and put the meaning of team work into a wider context.
  • Be enthusiastic about your team members ambitions, development and learning

    Maintain a positive feedback culture and let your employees use their strengths.



    Pentland, Alex (2012): The New Science of Building Great Teams, Harvard Business Review.
    Losada, Marcial; Heaphy, Emily (2009): The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams, American Behavioral Scientist.