3 Characteristics of High Performing Teams

High performing teams

This is a guest blog written by Nikhil Paul, CEO of We R Human a consultancy focused on improving team performance.  

“Houston, we have a problem,” uttered pilot Jack Swigert of the Apollo 13 lunar mission.

This triggered a hair-raising few days as the astronauts fought to survive against rapidly decreasing levels of oxygen and power, while the NASA engineers on earth scrambled to find a solution to safely bring them back home. 

At a time when employers are facing the daunting challenge of defining characteristics of high performing teams and building culture in a hybrid work environment, I can’t think of a better metaphor for getting your remote teammates to work well with their office counterparts than  how the Apollo astronauts in space worked hand in hand with their engineering teammates at mission control.

They say that character and culture are revealed under moments of intense pressure, and the story of Apollo 13 is just that. It’s a flawless example of a high performing culture being thrust into action, especially given the distance between teammates. 

 The question is, how do we build our own high performing culture with our hybrid teams? One of the best ways to seize and shape our group’s culture in a positive and effective way is to build our Culture Covenant. 

What is a Culture Covenant? 

A Culture Covenant is an agreement between teammates of their top to-dos, values, and behaviors that they’ll focus on practicing and implementing. It’s a tool that’s meant to not only solve the team’s biggest culture dysfunctions and people problems, but also a process by which teammates can feel heard and have hope, no matter how bad things get. 

In fact, whenever I work with my clients, we don’t talk about setting goals until we forge the team’s Culture Covenant. It’s often a common characteristic of high performing teams. 

To build one, we must start by looking at our team’s top challenges in three fundamental areas. I call it the 3 pillars of a high performing culture. Around each pillar, we discuss what problems we’re facing, identify root causes, and brainstorm a culture law to help stop that behavior or curb the problem. In explaining each pillar below, I’ll also share examples of my favorite Culture Covenant laws that my clients came up with for that area. 

1. Trust & Respect

The foundation of every great team is a “bed of trust” and a “wall of respect.” The “bed of trust” is to help catch people when they take big chances and fail. And the “wall of respect” is to help give teammates space, permission and time to share their thoughts, ask for favors, and try new ideas.

People not only need to trust each other’s intentions and be vulnerable, but they also need to respect each other’s experiences, perspectives, and contributions. By trusting and respecting one another, the team lends itself all the good-will they need to start effectively collaborating with each other.

Here are some of my favorite phrases to operate by that inspire trust and respect:

  • “Trust & advocate for each other when they’re not there”
  • “Always assume positive intent” 
  • “We care & celebrate each other’s success & efforts”
  • “No asshole policy” 
  • “Value your own worth”

2. Conflict & Commitment

At the heart of every great team is a good fight. If the team has built enough trust and respect among its members, then they should be able to facilitate constructive conflicts without getting derailed or getting personal. Teammates should not feel threatened by pushbacks from each other because they must realize that it makes them better. The best ideas come from vigorous debates and the most growth comes from meaningful feedback.

The last critical part to any challenging conversation is to end it with a strong commitment. Never let a good fight go to waste. Once a team has debated or offered feedback, then the individual or the team has to commit to a clear choice, action or principle, and stand by their promises or decisions.

Here are some examples to help create a safe space for conflicts and commitments:

  • When frustrated with team, pause & be curious 
  • No snippy emails but if really hurt, call that person directly
  • During a crisis solving conversation, insert positive reinforcement & trust my team’s intentions 
  • Give & expect extreme clarity to each other
  • Start with I, End with We

3. Communication & Accountability

The final step in building culture and your characteristics for a high performing team is to create systems for helping team members focus, communicate clearly, and hold each other accountable, especially when they’re so far from each other.

Start with meetings. So much of the inefficiencies teams have stem from the way they meet. To achieve a great team meeting, learn to have the right amount of intention, structure, and facilitation.

Once the team has chosen a path, they also need to have clear expectations on how to follow up. They must decide on how people should clarify and update one another. 

Lastly, the team needs to define their project process, especially around how to identify roles, determine goals, and define success. By problem solving their biggest pain points in executing a project together, we’ll be able to go from managing our team to our team managing themselves. 

Here are some examples:

  • Every meeting starts with a clear goal and an empowered moderator 
  • CC executives in your emails to hold them accountable
  • We always prioritize being in-sync with each other
  • At every weekly meeting, all OKRs and tasks should be re-prioritized
  • If you need something urgent, put it as a short email subject

Tying it all together 

Don’t get fixated on the words. These team voted operating principles can range from being detailed and action oriented to being sappy and short. As long as it means something to the team, that’s all that matters. 

Focus less on wordsmithing and more on getting buy-in from your team. The key here is to keep bringing up your culture’s creed every week, by rewarding and recognizing those who act on it and gently chiding those who don’t. 

The more emotionally invested your team is in this process of building their Culture Covenant, the more they will come together as a unit and start taking ownership of creating a high performing team. 



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