Winning Team, Losing Team

How to create a high performing team

Is that not a scoreboard? YES THAT IS A SCOREBOARD!

Is that not a 67? YES THAT IS A 67!

Is that not a 43? YES THAT IS A 43!

Is that not the winning team? YES THAT IS THE WINNING TEAM!

Is that not the losing team? YES THAT IS THE LOSING TEAM!


My fellow Utah State Aggies will recognize that chant—it originates organically at the end of almost every Utah State men’s basketball game played at home. If you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing this before, take a break and check out these two short clips below:

In a basketball game, it’s easy to determine who the winning team and losing teams are–you just look at the scoreboard. You don’t really need 8,000 crazed students screaming and pointing to know. But as Aggie fans know, it doesn’t hurt to remind everyone who’s winning and who’s losing once in a while. 

However, in a work context, it’s not always so cut and dry. Yes, winning teams produce results, but in today’s world, winning is defined by much more than “points on the board.” We even have a word for winning teams: “high-performing teams.” So what makes a high performing team? In my experience, high performing teams maintain a focus on always improving the following elements: 

  1. Trust and psychological safety
  2. Commitment to each other
  3. Constructive collaboration and innovation
  4. Productive communication
  5. Efficient processes and systems

Trust and psychological safety

Timothy R. Clark defines psychological safety as “a condition in which human beings feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.” (Clark, 2020). This is the foundation on which high performing teams build. When they feel psychologically safe, team members trust each other. This doesn’t happen overnight, and there is no magic-wand that one can wave to help a team develop psychological safety, it takes the commitment of everyone involved to build this open, safe environment. 

Commitment to each other

Building on the theme of commitment, high performing teams are committed to each other. They are not always best friends, but they are always committed to both the success of the team as well as the individuals on the team. This sense of commitment drives higher levels of output as team members push each other. The success of the team is just as important to them as their own personal success. Members of the team have a vested interest in the success of the team and take ownership for their part in that success. 

Constructive collaboration and innovation

In today’s world, collaboration is all the rage. But it’s not always effective, rarely efficient, and sometimes not even necessary. High performing teams understand when and how to collaborate effectively, and when collaboration would simply slow things down unnecessarily. Additionally, innovation is needed on most teams to keep them relevant. It takes both the psychological safety and commitment we’ve already discussed for teams to be effectively innovative. Innovation involves risk and failure. Teams that learn how to fail fast and learn from those failures are those that produce the innovative ideas necessary for survival. But for most teams, innovation can’t be the end goal, results are the end goal. High performing teams understand when innovative approaches are needed, and when tried-and-true approaches will be effective and efficient. 

Productive communication

Yes high-performing teams communicate, but it’s much more nuanced than simply “over-communicate.” These teams understand how best to communicate within the team in such a way that communication is a facilitator of progress, not a hindrance. The right tools are used to send the right messages. Communication is more than 2-way on teams–it’s as many ways up/down/across as necessary to get the job done. These teams know the fine line between transparency and over-sharing, they focus on the “why” as much as they focus on the “how” and the “what.” And when conflict arises, they don’t shy away from having difficult conversations because they know the team is adhering to the principles already established above. 

Efficient processes and systems

High performing teams understand that much of their work revolves around processes. So processes are kept as standard and formal as necessary, while still retaining the necessary flexibility to get the job done. When a process is not working as intended, or when changes in other parts of the organization have rendered a process obsolete, it’s addressed quickly. The same can be said for systems. Most teams don’t have control over the systems that the enterprise has selected to use, but they ensure the systems they have to use are maximized for the purposes that best suit the team. And when those systems are not maximized, they work with the right stakeholders to improve the situation. 

We started our discussion with the analogy of a basketball team winning a game. And yet we have not since mentioned points or results. High performing teams definitely put points on the board and get wins, they simply understand that results are outcomes. The five principles outlined above are the means to the end, and the end is “results.” These teams understand they don’t always have control over the results, or the outputs, but they largely do have control of the 5 principles above, or the inputs. They focus their time and attention on the things they can control and trust that the results will follow. That is not to say they don’t think about results. Rather, they focus on creating the environment for performance to happen vis-à-vis the 5 principles above.

Whether you are the leader of the team or simply a member of the team, to improve the performance of the team, start at the top of this list and work your way down. Start by creating an environment of psychological safety. From there, ensure that it inspires commitment to and from the team. That commitment should encourage constructive collaboration and innovation. From there, think about the communication of the team and how it can be improved. Lastly, evaluate the processes and systems to ensure they are serving the team, and not the other way around. I’m confident that as more leaders and team members employ these 5 principles they’ll see performance improve and will have the results to prove it.