Managers: The Key to Building High-Performing Teams

Kathleen O'Donnell
February 5, 2024
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What does it take to build a strong team? This question is more critical now than ever: Recent Gallup research showed a significant drop in employee engagement in 2023. And with that lower engagement comes lower performance levels, as 50% of employees were “quiet quitting” in 2023, too.  

With this concerning drop in engagement, as well as a workplace culture where managers are increasingly expected to do more with less and the talent market remains tight, companies can’t afford to waste one more minute or a single dollar on low performance. 😬

This puts a lot of pressure on managers to find and create high-performing teams (it’s not solely a function of your HR team during the hiring process). All leaders must understand the role they play, how employee recognition fits into the picture, and how they can reimagine the right way to create a group that is stronger than the sum of its parts.

--> Also check out: Manager's Toolkit for Building High-Performing Teams

happy employees

How to define a high-performing team 🙋

What comes to mind when you think of a high-performing team? One that knocks ALL of its goals out of the park? Are strong teams the ones who set the bar higher and higher each year? Or is it the “other team” you think about…the one full of over-achievers and know-it-alls?

Let's all agree that strong employee performance isn’t a sign of perfection, but rather a blend of healthy attitudes and actions. 

SHRM explains that a "high-performance work team" refers to a group of goal-focused individuals with specialized expertise and complementary skills who collaborate, innovate, and produce consistently superior results. And Harvard Business Review notes that trust is an essential component of high-performing teams as well—not only between managers and their reports, but also between colleagues. 

These definitions provide some clues that describe a shared vision and way of thinking. High performance elevates the group over an individual, right? But how do you make sure everyone feels included, challenged, and recognized? This can be quite an issue for managers, executive leaders, and company culture enthusiasts to figure out—especially in the era of hybrid and remote work where everyone is not in the same space all the time. 


Bonusly manager stat

Managers hold the key to high-performing teams

To build a high-performing team, you need to start with the team’s managers. No one else has as much direct impact on individual employees’ engagement and performance. But managers have been overworked and undertrained, especially with the sudden shift to new working models. 

In fact, 70% of managers in that Gallup survey said that they’ve had no formal training in how to lead a hybrid team. And McKinsey research found that managers are spending less than one-third of their time on talent and people management, even though that’s one of the areas where they add the most value to their organizations. 

It’s clear: companies need to help managers get admin tasks off their plates so they can train, coach, and develop their people into high-performing teams. Managers should be trained and empowered to help all of their employees thrive, build connections with the organization and each other, and do the work that they love. And, of course, to recognize and reward employees for their hard work—and encourage peer-to-peer recognition too.

--> Also check out: Manager's Toolkit for Building High-Performing Teams

Employees tug of war with trophy

Why employee recognition matters ☝

Employee recognition remains one of the top factors for why employees stick around and stay motivated, but it can be overlooked by many companies. A Brandon Hall Group study found that having a strong recognition culture meant that employees are 79% more likely to give their employer brand a high rating. In addition, employee retention is likely to increase up to 3x for these conditions.

Much of the drop in engagement that Gallup found ties back to employees feeling less connected with their company’s purpose, and also less likely to feel like someone cares about them as a person, compared to 2020. Employee recognition can help bridge those gaps by connecting daily work with a larger purpose and ensuring employees feel both appreciated and recognized

Good managers share the credit and look for ways to make team members shine. High-performing teams spend time dreaming big and drilling down to every detail. What happens when personal and team goals are met and the recognition falls flat? Think of ways to help inspire each team member by combining individual and team goals in a visible format. That way, the team can celebrate and lift each other up to achieve their performance metrics.

Remember, it can be unnatural for every employee to be their own cheerleader 📣. Team leaders should encourage easy ways for employees to claim their work and space that matches their personality. Finding positive ways to reinforce good performance and collaboration helps build a culture that gives everyone a chance to participate and thrive.

What high-performing teams want 🙌

If you ask managers what they believe motivates high employee performance…many convos lead to compensation. But that’s actually not the biggest factor for employees—recognition, relationships, and role clarity are more important for most people. 

SHRM describes the following needs for high-performing teams:

  • A deep sense of purpose and commitment to the team's members and to the mission
  • Relatively more ambitious performance goals than average teams
  • Mutual accountability and a clear understanding of members' responsibilities to the team and individual obligations
  • A diverse range of expertise that complements other team members' abilities
  • Interdependence and trust between members

Harvard Business Review shared a joint study from Ignite80 and Front, which concluded that members of high-performing teams reported receiving more frequent appreciation at work—both from their colleagues (72% more) as well their managers (79% more).

And Gallup found that a manager having one meaningful conversation per week with each team member develops high-performance relationships more than any other activity. Plus, employees who have not received meaningful feedback from their managers in the past week had the largest decline in knowing what’s expected of them at work—and that is the biggest driver of disengagement. 

Good job benefits, competitive pay, and healthy company culture are all factors for attracting and retaining top talent and high performers, but they’re not the whole story.  

Be sure your team is also building a framework for regular manager conversations and feedback, employee recognition, and personal development. This helps establish trust with each employee and a roadmap for success and progress.

--> Get the free and fun Ultimate Retention Checklist for Managers ✔️

Ways to recognize top-performing employees 📋

No matter the size of your company, there are ways to scale employee recognition and make it a priority. Think of a few ideas for managers to share good performance in both micro and macro groups. Maybe you have a shoutout section in your all-hands meetings, or a team survey to drop a name for getting a project over the finish line. Morning standup meetings with your department are also good times to share praise and recognition for a job well done. Be sure to keep in mind the qualities of effective recognition! 

Besides words of affirmation, organizations are finding effective and scalable ways to reward their teams. Have you ever considered implementing a recognition program to motivate your employees? Many of the top-rated places to work are seeing great benefits from implementing solutions and processes for high-performing teams. Boosts in employee engagement, increased collaboration, and well-organized feedback loops are just a few improvements that can have a BIG impact!



The takeaway

If you are looking for ways to engage your workplace and build high-performing teams, capture more data from your people on what matters most to them and how to act on it. From there, you can make informed decisions on the steps and solutions to implement an employee recognition plan, which will help maintain high performance across your organization.

Great teams aren’t born—they're made by thoughtful and empathetic leaders. Fixing the current epidemic of disengagement and quiet quitting is a big task, but with the right recognition and engagement strategy, you can get it done and reap the rewards. 

--> Also check out: Manager's Toolkit for Building High-Performing Teams

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