‘The research behind high-performing teams and how to lead them in schools’ – my researchED talk

Teams are fascinating to me, perhaps because I spent a chunk of my early career dismissing the value of teamwork. Inefficient. Unproductive. Too many voices.

Then, as I began to lead teams, from an English department, to a tutor team, to a learning and teaching team, and many others, I began to revise this view. We are better together. The problem is, we often don’t expend much time, effort, or thought into transforming our teams from a bunch of people who meet together at set intervals, to cohesive groups that achieve great things.

In fact, I can’t think of any leadership course I’ve done in the last 10 years that has explored team work, or high-performance teams. Too much time spent on what makes a ‘leader’. Leader vs manager. How to have a difficult conversation to get what you want. Don’t get me wrong, all of these things can be useful (to a point), but the missing ingredient was how to tangibly bring disparate groups of people together and make them a team.

What’s more, there was little to no acknowledgement that teamwork is a highly nuanced, well evidenced area of our working lives. It was all team building without any aim or substance – bowling and yoga style.

After spending two years reading research, talking to teams across sectors, and visiting a lot of schools, I am a full ‘teams’ convert (no, not you, Microsoft).

I have written some blog posts about different areas of teamwork, and am investing my time now in writing a book, The Power of Teams, and am in the privileged position to speak to schools and conferences sometimes about how they can enhance their own teamwork.

On the 25th March, I presented at researchED Birmingham. It was a wonderful day. I met some delightful, knowledgeable, passionate educators, and learnt a lot from the sessions I attended. My talk was titled ‘The research behind high-performing teams, and how to lead them in schools’. I will be presenting this again at Warrington and Kent, and delivering the sequel at Cheshire on the 8th July. Stay tuned.

Here is a quick summary of the talk, and a PDF of the slides.

I start by discussing the research I’ve seen regarding high-performing teams across a range of sectors. We know how unique school teams are, for example you might be a member of 4-5 teams at your school, while Jerry in the Google Finance HQ might only be in one – the finance team. But we can learn a lot from teams cross-sector, simply because human behaviour, while context dependent, is still applicable and relatable across different industries.

Common traits of high-performing teams:

  1. Vision and purpose
  2. Belonging and trust
  3. Ambitious, clear team goals
  4. Role clarity, mental models, and systems
  5. Communication, candour, conflict
  6. Review and evaluate
  7. Team diversity and characteristics
  8. Learning culture
  9. Enabling organisational conditions

I’ve created my own teams ‘model’, which I explore more in The Power of Teams. The model provides five area of teamwork that can yield high-performance: Belonging, Alignment, Operations, Development, and Dynamics.

I believe that all are important and vital to the team’s ongoing success; yet, my personal view is that belonging is the foundational layer. Teams can have a vision and aims, put some systems together, and do good work, but it will always be limited without a sense of belonging and trust. How do teams really establish and work on their ‘persistent problems’ if there isn’t enough psychological safety to share openly, challenge each other, and frame conflict in a health way?

Build Belonging:

Teams should prioritise how they build trust and psychological safety. Some ways to do that include:

  • Offering belonging before performance
  • Understanding that belonging is not a fixed state
  • Creating a story for your team – who are we, why are we here, what do we do
  • Creating a culture of psychological safety where the team can speak openly, do not fear failure, discuss mistakes as learning opportunities, and use this sense of trust to create ambitious goals

The talk finishes by looking 4 areas of teaming to consider for your school teams:

Knowledge and mental models: teams should spend time auditing and codifying the knowledge they require, possess, and want to possess. Then, work out a way to share and increase this knowledge, which is an ongoing, ever-present part of team life. This knowledge can be applied to create mental models of what the team does and how it does those things, so that members have ultra role clarity.

Communication: agree communication methods and times with your team. Make sure your comms isn’t just a list of jobs and dates, but includes developmental and reflective elements, too.

Meetings: don’t waste people’s time. Meetings should feature learning, discussion, sharing of expertise.

Learning culture: a team should see one of their remits as being to learn. We learn together. We coach each other. We relentlessly pursue knowledge and improvement, together as a group. We debrief and review. We don’t just do stuff and complete tasks.s

So, there it is, a summary of my talk. I hope it’s useful. I’d like to think that speaking about it in-person is a superior experience.

You can catch me presenting this talk at:

researchED Warrington

researchED Kent

And a new talk about teams at researchED Cheshire

Pleased find the slides here:

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