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Alistair Shepherd



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Performance management: how to get the best from your team

How to improve team performance by 22% in just six months.

Performance is about more than technical skills – teamwork, engagement and leadership have as much, if not more, influence on business outcomes. Saving managers time in the process of managing their team by automating basic tasks and helping them become better coaches has enabled one company we work with to improve their team’s performance by 22% in less than six months. Today I’ll take you through their journey.

Step one: assess where you are today

If you want to track progress, it’s important to have a clear starting point. A quick survey will help you establish what’s most important to work on. Not only will a survey help find the right a starting point, it also signifies to the team that you’re investing in their engagement and wellbeing which means you’ll get their buy in throughout the process, as long as you take action quickly.

To improve team performance it’s important that key habits are woven into the working week, reinforcing and creating structure that drives performance.

Google’s Project Aristotle, a two-year study into team performance, revealed that the highest performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety. So, we started by gaining some insight into levels of psychological safety in the team. We also looked at how well the team think they’re performing and how aligned they are with the company and team purpose. The following questions are a good place to start.

  • How well do you know each other as a team?
  • How important is knowing each other to getting the job done well?
  • Does your team have a clear and compelling purpose?
  • How good is the team at using its purpose in day-to-day work?
  • How well does this team perform overall as a unit?
  • How likely are you to recommend this as a team to work in?                                  

Step two: educate your managers on what makes a great leader        

While company leaders need to be the catalyst for performance improvement, it’s not always possible for them to lead change in every team. Instead they need to educate and empower their managers to lead.

A robust leadership development programme is essential to performance improvement in every organisation. Even small businesses that might be under the impression that they don’t have budget or capacity for leadership development should be investing. Why? Becoming a manager is one of the most difficult shifts people will make in their careers. It requires a new set of skills and a huge shift in demand on a person’s time.

With these additional demands it’s easy for managers to work on operational priorities, however this won’t make a good leader. According to HBR, great leaders create a safe and trusting environment. To do this, managers need educating on how to cascade goals, build trust and create a meaningful purpose for their team. For this to be possible they need the time and support of the senior leadership team and the tools to develop.

Our client began their performance improvement journey with the executive team. Expert facilitated coaching sessions enabled them to agree on strategic priorities and how they would review the progress on an ongoing basis. The same coaching was then rolled out to every manager in the business, enabling them to take practical steps towards improving team performance. CoachBot, our digital tool enabled this roll out of coaching at scale in a way that had never been possible before.

Step three: practical steps for managers

The next step is to equip managers with the tools to help them grow into good leaders. They need to be educated on the proactive steps of how to build trust and set goals and guidelines. While it’s the people within the team that will foster a safe and trusted environment, the right tools can help facilitate sessions, help busy managers save time and ensure continuous improvement.

Step four: create trust with one-to-ones

One-to-ones are a staple for most managers but with large teams they can be time consuming and difficult to manage. It’s important for managers to remember that they are an essential part of their role. A regular feedback cycle means issues are addressed in a more timely manner and improvement is made at a faster pace. Meetings should be a two-way check in, where both people can add to the agenda.

An example of how changing the structure of a one-to-one can lead to an important actionable outcome comes from Anand Sanwal, the CEO and founder of CB Insights. He used to open up his one to ones with a generic, ‘how’s it going?’ but he found the answers he was getting were not very substantive. So, he added a more structured agenda to the meetings and asked more specific questions. As a result, he found one of his best performers was feeling overwhelmed, which led to them redefining their role.

Some changes that can help to manage and improve your one to ones:

  • Timely reminders to ensure both parties contribute to a shared agenda.
  • Suggested coaching questions open up and structure the conversation.
  • Shared notes keep track of what was discussed and any agreed actions.

Step five: cascade goals

Ideally teams will be involved in setting their own goals but sometimes goals are mandated by the organisation and it might not be possible to get your team involved in setting them. In this case it may feel difficult to get the team enthused so it’s important that you create your own sense of alignment to the goal.

Defining outcome and action measures can help you do this, as your team will have a clear idea of how their daily work activities and tasks contribute to the goal. Working together to agree on expected team behaviours can be a good place to start the process of defining outcomes and actions. It creates trust and enables employees to work towards team and company goals with the knowledge that trying something new is allowed and encouraged. A meta-analysis of 112 studies (nearly 8000 teams) confirmed a positive relationship between how much team members trust one another and the achievement of team goals.

Step six: create a meaningful purpose

Having a clear purpose can improve performance because it helps with prioritisation, motivation and working as a collective. According to the CIPD it helps build a personal attachment with the organisation and results in better performance, engagement and satisfaction. Again, if managers can lead their team to set their purpose collectively it becomes more meaningful and motivating. You can start to define your team purpose by finishing the sentence ‘we exist to…’.

Overall, to improve team performance it’s important that key habits are woven into the working week, reinforcing and creating structure that drives performance. Using tools that provide time saving templates can help new and experienced managers drive continual change. At the end of the process take another look at the questions you asked at the beginning. If your team has improved their psychological safety, if they are clearer on shared objectives and more comfortable sharing challenges, then performance improvements will follow.  

Interested in this topic? Read The reality of performance: no team is an island.

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Alistair Shepherd


Read more from Alistair Shepherd

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