Steps to a High Functioning Team


Everyone wants to be part of a high functioning team.

It feels great to be part of a group that is accomplishing great things. Yet, “high functioning” can be hard to achieve. Recently I had the privilege of facilitating a strategy session for a municipal executive team. The Town Manager has a clear vision that the team will lead the organization to be “best in class.” This vision is driving everything they do and how they do it.

After spending two days with this group, I was reminded of some foundational principles for building a high functioning team.

Get Out of Their Way

The Town Manager is very clear about the “best in class” vision. He’s committed to it and he reinforces that vision every time he speaks. He also recognizes team members when they support the vision. What’s most interesting, however, is that once the group gets to work around the vision, he steps back. I watched him consistently assess the team’s conversations from afar. He would literally step away or stand behind the group when they were in the throws of work. When they needed some direction or clarification, he would physically step up and provide it.

Great leaders work hard up-front to establish a clear end state and then trust the group to find the best path forward.

Tackle Conflict Head On

The team was highly productive because they weren’t afraid of conflict. In fact, they tackled it head on. When a team member didn’t agree with the direction the group was headed, they spoke up. When two members appeared at odds about the priority of a project, the two talked directly to one another while the rest of the team listened in and monitored. At times, fellow teammates would reframe the issue and ask how the two saw the conflict. In the end, the two conflicting people agreed that the conflict needed to be resolved and that it was critical to the team’s success. ¬†Eventually they successfully resolved the issue during a break.

It wasn’t always comfortable, even for me as the facilitator. The team members, however, recognized that pressing through the conflict, rather than avoiding it, was the only route to a better solution.

Team First

Early in the session we discussed the concept of “team first.” When the team embraces “team first,” they are putting the needs of the team before their individual and/or respective department’s needs. “Team first” means that members recognize their actions reflect the entire entity and that they are in it together. There are no silos, no competition for resources, no lobbying for individual causes. Instead, the focus is on the longer-term vision and what is best for the entire organization.

This kind of selflessness is rare and comes about by carefully selecting team members who are willing to look beyond themselves. Team first is only sustained when each individual feels as if his or her contribution is valued and respected. The resulting collaboration leads to outcomes that can’t be accomplished with the team members have their own agendas.


The first thing I noticed about this team, before anything else, is that they have a lot of fun! From the moment members arrived, they were congratulating each other for successes at a recent Council event, joking with each other about past meetings, and referring to respectful inside jokes that were clearly a reflection of their trust of one another. Throughout the two-day event, we laughed as much as anything else.

When the event was coming to a close, the Town Manager said, in a joking way, “Marnie, this was the most grueling thing I’ve ever done!” He was right. The group worked very hard to create a vision and goals that will drive their work for the next 18 months. Their path forward is clear and the team is motivated to succeed.

If you are building a high functioning team remember that it takes time, attention, and some hard work. At the same time, it can be one of the greatest joys of working in an organization. Camaraderie, support, and appreciation are the natural outgrowths of a team that works well together.

What have you done lately to help your group move toward becoming a high functioning team?

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