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How to build a top performing team

Team buildingEdward Kiledjian2 Comments


As a manager, you will be judged on the performance of your team so it is in your best interest to build the best, highest performing team possible. You have undoubtedly heard the aphorism “Nice guys finish last” coined by Leo Durocher in 1939. This is a golden truth that you should recite every morning while enjoying your morning cup of coffee.

I had the privilege of working for a GE company under a CEO who had been indoctrinated in the Jack Welch system of management. A saying I heard over and over was “we are here to make money, not friends”. This approach may seem harsh at first but it has proven to be very efficient.

Let me spend some time describing how I interpreted this framework and my preferred method of implementing it.

What is corporate niceness
Corporate niceness means many things. This can be interpreted as:

  • employees not providing honest feedback
  • complacency related to efficiency
  • being more concerned with keeping people happy than being efficient and productive
  • sugarcoating everything to keep people happy
  • making sub-optimal decisions because you don’t want to upset people
  • conflict avoidance
  • etc.

I’m not sure if my sarcasm is coming through but it should....

Team Development
Bruce Tuckman defined the stages in group development as:

  • Forming -- This is the first stage where the team is assembled. Individuals have a desire to be accepted by others and thus try to avoid conflict. This is where people try to define roles and responsibilities, define team capabilities, team structure, etc. People may look busy but are not actually very productive yet.

Members are fairly autonomous and group efficiency does not exist yet. You will see your experienced and mature members starting to model desired behaviours already. Bruce recommends his “team development model” to be shared with the team as a catalyst.

In this stage, members are building their impression of each other and may start to build friendships.

  • Storming -- This is the normal second stage where ideas compete for consideration. This is where the real important decisions are made about leadership, independence and teamwork. You will start to see members challenging each other’s ideas.

The mature employees will be the ones that guide the team out of this stage and into the next one. Lacking strong mature employees or not having enough may mean your team gets stuck here forever (not what you want to happen).


Some members will handle this very well while other conflict averse ones will find it painful. As a manager, try to instill tolerance as a value and let this process take its natural course with your guidance. Stay professional and make sure people understand the buck stops with you. PERIOD. Let them manage their internal issues under your supervision.


Getting stuck in this phase means the team will be a low performer, with low motivation and overall toxic.

  • Norming -- This is the stage where the team has agreed on leadership, their general team goal and go-forward strategy. Understand that in order to have this united view, many other ideas have to die. Some people may not like the fact that their idea was not the “winner”. Overall though, the team now works towards the one goal.
  • Performing -- This is the stage few teams reach but this should be your goal. This is where you produce a high efficiency team that finds creative ways to reach the team goals. Members understand that they succeed together or they fail together. They are inter-dependant.

In this stage, the team operated without the need for supervision. They are each motivated and have the knowledge to perform their jobs with the utmost efficiency. The team will handle conflict internally very well.


Some managers can’t deal with this phase as the nature of their participation changes. They are no longer the master of the team but a value adding participant. The team is equipped to make important decisions on its own.


If your team has reached this point, do everything you can to keep it intact as-is. Even the slightest change in leadership can destabilize it and bring it back to the storming phase.

More Nice team bashing
Where do you think nice teams fit in? They like the comfortable non-confrontational stage of forming. They will do everything to prevent moving into the storming phase.

Now to avoid and break-up nice teams, you need to identify these pansies.

Remember that everything they do is meant to keep things positive. So if they provide feedback, it is only done when positive. Their lack of planning is camouflaged as staying focused on task.
They avoid conflict internally and with other teams so they are the proverbial yes-men. Saying yes all the time means you can’t prioritize. They avoid conflict at all cost even when it festers negative internal emotion.

My GE experience
To the external participant, our GE team seemed hostile, brutal, unfriendly and unworkable. But it wasn't. It was a finely tuned machine of utter productivity. Unlike the external view, we weren’t the anti-nice team. Some people found the push for absolute honesty too much but it made for a better team. The values we were all expected to share was personal performance, team performance and truthfulness.

The real anti-nice is an anti-employee culture that encourages individuality and constant conflict to “weed out the weak” and keep people on their toes. We were far from this. What made us different? The mindset.

First, we hired the best possible people who met our expected personality profiles. We wanted strong leaders who were confident in their abilities without being cocky or arrogant. We wanted people who were solid enough to accept and provide constructive feedback without getting offended.

They had to understand work-life balance. This meant they could intelligently say no and knew how much to accept before being put in an unworkable situation. These employees were happier, more motivate and much more creative. No one was “over-worked”.

They were prepared to accept accountability for their work and that of their colleagues. These were star performers who understood that the team made them stronger, more efficient and therefore helped them succeed.

These people were solid enough to accept constructive debate and were well-equipped to handle conflict. Conflict wasn't avoided or encouraged. It was just handled and then they moved on.

In a well oiled team, you will notice that different people play different vital roles. You will have people who specialize in conflict resolution, others will work as mentors or be detail-oriented and keep the team’s work in top shape. Some will bring huge amounts of energy and encouragement, others will take on the role of protecting the team from external threats, etc. Let each person find their role and let them thrive. These various specialties are what will make the team great.

Your job as a manager
So what is your role in all of this? Critical.

You are responsible for the selection of the right people and ejection of wrong hires quickly. Install values of patience, respect, honesty. See yourself more as a coach and mentor. If you find yourself doing too much “management stuff” then you probably need to revisit your team membership.

Clearly communicate that truthfulness and honesty are absolute requirements. No sugarcoating, no protecting, if there is an issue, raise it and find a solution.

Provide employee feedback. Your team should be mature so do it honestly, do it quickly (when in response to a situation), be open about your interpretation (do not criticize or judge until you have heard both sides of the story) and do it in private. Teams that don’t make mistakes are teams that don’t take chances. Teams that don’t take chances aren’t challenging the status quo enough. Accept mistakes and move on.

Manage conflict. If your team is mature, they will be able to handle conflict efficiently without needing escalation. Usually the team will coach junior members, but if that falls on your shoulders, here are some guidelines. Any conflict must be framed based on the purpose. What is the nature of the conflict and is it really worth it? Make sure the motives are clear and honest. Encourage people to respect one another and allow each person an appropriate amount of time to explain and speak. We are not children and they should not be boiling in their seat thinking of their comeback. Guide the conversation to ensure it stays factual and to the point. Explain that conflict or disagreements are normal and should not be taken personally. Help them find some common ground upon which they can build their agreement.

Remember that you too must adhere to this rule. Everything you expect of your team, they expect of you.