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High-performing teams: How to evaluate team dynamics fairly.


High-performing teams: How to evaluate team dynamics fairly. High-performing teams: How to evaluate team dynamics fairly.

Key Takeaways

  • Adaptability may look different in diverse teams, requiring receptiveness to different perspectives and approaches.
  • Trust and psychological safety can be more challenging for marginalized leaders who may not conform to traditional leadership norms.
  • Diverse teams may face different challenges when seeking feedback, potentially perpetuating stereotypes and hindering growth opportunities.
  • Managing stress effectively is vital for high-performing teams, but it's important to acknowledge the external societal factors that may affect team members' emotional well-being.
  • To fairly assess team behavior, organizations should address biases, establish clear evaluation criteria, incorporate feedback mechanisms, adapt processes regularly, distribute authority among all team levels, consider work pace and space, and audit the work culture.

The world of work is rapidly changing, with the seemingly volcanic emergence of AI, the tense dynamics created by return-to-office mandates, and DEI commitments that are suddenly in flux. Operating as a high-performing team is likely harder to achieve and more essential now than ever.

As Aquent's Talent Insights Report highlights, high-performing teams exemplify corporate excellence through a combination of trust, shared purpose, and adaptability. They're consistently agile and excel in creativity, innovation, and problem-solving, able to navigate today's ever-changing business environment with unparalleled proficiency. They are beacons of what is possible when the conditions feel impossible.

Yet, beneath this outward interpretation of success lies a crucial question: Are we evaluating members of high-performing teams equitably? And if not, how does that influence our definition of what is considered to be “high performing?” 

These questions probe the foundations of team dynamics and equitable recognition, challenging us to reflect on our assessment practices and consider whether they truly reflect each individual's contribution, irrespective of their background or role.

This blog explores how different groups may be measured against the recognized characteristics of high-performing teams as outlined in the Talent Insights Report.

Defining high-performing teams

High-performing teams are more than a grouping of skilled individuals. They operate on a foundation of trust and psychological safety. They can respond to evolving challenges with agility because they understand that any setbacks experienced are merely learning opportunities. They are consistent and transparent with communication, preferring honest dialogue to isolated silos. They're adaptable, purpose-driven, and inclusive. 

Aquent's Talent Insights Report identifies eight specific behaviors that high-performing teams exhibit: 1) Adaptation and Innovation, 2) Motivated by Brand Purpose, 3) Foster Trust, 4) Promote Psychological Safety, 5) Exchange Information, 6) Seek Diverse Opinions, 7) Manage Stress, and 8) Embrace Feedback. It's important, however, to consider how these team traits can be interpreted and experienced differently across diverse groups. Let's look more closely at a few of these characteristics. 

Exercising adaptability

The ability to adapt has been a make-or-break factor for many organizations. Markets are ever-evolving—to be stagnant means to reduce market relevance. To survive and innovate, companies must lean into adaptive practices. Adaptability in a team with varied cultural backgrounds, however, might look different compared to more homogenous groups. Adaptability in diverse teams will require increased receptiveness to different perspectives and approaches, openness to learning about and valuing different experiences, and the willingness and skill to navigate potential conflicts that may arise due to differences. 

Team leaders should remain cognizant of how the bend toward adaptability can be sharper for some than others. For example, if team members need to adapt to a fast-paced work environment, how does that affect perceptions of performance for team members whose strengths lie in thoughtful contributions at a different speed? If team members need to adapt to an executive's communication and work style preferences, how does that affect performance perceptions for those with differing preferences? Genuine adaptability requires high sensitivity, empathy, patience, and commitment to find common ground and work collaboratively toward a shared goal. 

Building trust and psychological safety

High-performing teams promote psychological safety as vital for fostering an environment where creative problem-solving and strategic thinking thrive. This is undoubtedly a necessary element for healthy workplaces, but the ease of access to psychological safety can vary, particularly for marginalized leaders who often find themselves in workplaces shaped by dominant cultural norms that they may not share. For example, if you find yourself in a C-suite where you are the first or the only executive with your identity and background, you might soon find yourself navigating an invisible line of authenticity, especially in workplaces shaped by dominant cultural norms. Even if authentic leadership is encouraged, if your version of authenticity is not represented, it may call you to question what may be considered too authentic, and, as a result, cause you to not fully trust the environment.

Psychological safety means feeling comfortable so you can show up with genuine authenticity, embrace moments of vulnerability, and be received with support in response. For many on diverse teams, it is not just about personal expression. It also involves an embedded challenge to longstanding norms of expectations and performance, historically defined by a predominantly white and male leadership narrative. That ask is taller. The risk can be higher. The load can be heavier.

As we commit to building trust and psychological safety in our high-performing teams, we must acknowledge and empathize with the unique challenges faced by marginalized leaders. The path to psychological safety can be steeper for some, and the most effective teams deliberately foster cultures that lower that climb.

Cultivating cultures of feedback

Embracing feedback is another marker of a high-performing team, serving as a fundamental tool for growth, innovation, and team cohesion. However, this aspect of team dynamics becomes more complicated when considering the gender and racial disparities that exist when receiving quality feedback. 

In my book, “Untapped Leadership,” Tammy, a senior manager for an electric utility, shared a poignant example. Tammy, who identifies as an Asian woman, illustrated the complexities leaders of color face in receiving and utilizing feedback. Despite efforts toward diversity in her workplace, she felt pressure to adhere to traditional, male-dominated norms to be seen as an effective leader or, if rephrased, to be perceived as a high performer. 

This subtle expectation of conformity extended to the feedback she received, which often focused on minor perceived deficiencies rather than a commitment to develop her strengths or unique leadership qualities. Tammy observed that this standard not only affected her, but also impacted how other employees who deviated from the company's conventional model were evaluated and developed within the company.

Tammy's experience highlights a critical aspect of team dynamics where feedback is not just about performance improvement but also about navigating the nuances of cultural expectations and stereotypes. Black women, for example, are nine times more likely to receive non-actionable feedback than their white male counterparts, affecting their leadership opportunities and earnings over time.

While intended to be constructive, feedback can inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes and create an environment where some feel compelled to suppress elements of their identity. Tammy's experience echoes the broader challenge for marginalized leaders—managing the delicate balance between authenticity and the professional necessity to conform to dominant leadership styles. This suppression strains their authenticity and limits their potential to bring their full selves to their roles. It can create scenarios where, at face value, a team may appear high performing, but when looking more closely, some are inhibited from operating at their fullest potential.

For high-performing teams, the importance of providing quality feedback cannot be overstated. Feedback is essential for personal growth, skill development, and career advancement. However, the quality and nature of feedback can vary significantly depending on the recipient. The challenge for high-performing teams, then, is not just to ensure that feedback is given but to ensure that it is equitable, substantive, and devoid of biases that can hinder professional growth, particularly for marginalized groups. 

Managing stress

Managing stress effectively is an essential component of high-performing teams, recognizing that undue pressure might achieve short-term goals but can harm productivity, morale, and engagement in the long run. This understanding becomes even more critical when considering the additional societal burdens some team members may carry as they enter the office or log into the virtual meeting room. Women, who often are responsible for a larger share of caregiving duties, may have juggled multiple urgent priorities before work. Leaders of color may witness the news of systemic violence against their communities and carry those images into the workday, with the mental health toll caused by George Floyd's murder in 2020 serving as an example. These common scenarios often add an invisible but heavy load in professional environments that extends beyond one's list of work responsibilities.

It is essential that high-performing teams not only temper workplace-related stress but also recognize and support the unique challenges faced by their diverse members. It calls for a reevaluation of how teams and organizations address emotional well-being, especially in the aftermath of societal traumas that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. High-performing teams should strive to create a culture where the emotional and invisible labor of women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and the many others facing unseen challenges is acknowledged, creating environments where all can contribute at their best. 

Ultimately, stress management within high-performing teams must extend beyond the traditional understanding of workplace pressures. It should encompass a holistic approach that acknowledges the external societal factors and life circumstances that affect many of us, knowing that the “check your bags at the door” model is antiquated and unrealistic. 

Ensuring a fair assessment of team behavior

Assessing team behavior fairly requires recognizing each team member's unique contributions, especially those from underrepresented groups, which is crucial to ensure equitable and holistic evaluation. Implicit biases in traditional assessment methods can lead to overlooking certain strengths or misdiagnosing underperformance as an individual issue rather than examining the systemic issues that could be fueling it. To counter this, we must value different perspectives and focus on a team's collective output, considering the varied contexts in which team members operate.

Here are some strategies for fair evaluation when fostering high-performing teams:

  • Acknowledge and address bias: Recognize that biases, often unconscious, can skew evaluation processes. Implement training and awareness programs to help team leaders and members recognize and mitigate their biases. Be cautious of defining “high performance” through a narrow lens of productivity.
  • Outline clear criteria for evaluation: Develop objective criteria for evaluating team members. These criteria should be transparent, equitable, and relevant to the team's goals and the individual's role.
  • Ensure robust feedback mechanisms: Implement a robust feedback system that allows for both upward and downward feedback. Establish open and consistent communication processes where team members can express concerns and suggestions, closing feedback loops with transparent responses.
  • Review and adapt regularly: Review your evaluation processes and criteria to ensure they remain fair and relevant. Be ready to adapt them based on feedback and changing organizational needs.
  • Diffuse power and authority: Encourage team members at all levels to share power by allowing them autonomy in their work processes and decision-making. This involves moving away from micromanagement, which erodes psychological safety and trust, and toward a partnership leadership model.
  • Mind the work pace and space: What can often be forgotten when striving for high-performing teams is that it requires time. Give initiatives space to develop and create environments conducive to open discourse and innovation. Recognize the consistent and unwavering commitment that building trusting relationships requires.
  • Audit organizational work culture: Examine how work and leadership styles and behaviors are valued and rewarded within the organization. Consider whether contributions or approaches may go unrecognized, and redefine what is considered core to the organization's culture.

The call to action for organizations is clear: high-performing teams can be fortified by adopting holistic and equitable practices that ensure thoughtful evaluation of team performance. By implementing these strategies, organizations can guarantee fairer and more inclusive high-performing team environments, recognizing and harnessing the full potential of all team members.

We have to begin with the understanding that the nature of every team member's experience and contributions will be different. By institutionalizing these practices and commitments, companies can ensure that, as team compositions shift and the ever-changing realities of work continue to upend, they can almost guarantee that their teams will continue to outperform. 

Image of Jenny Vazquez-Newsum
Jenny Vazquez-Newsum

Jenny Vazquez-Newsum, Ed.D. is a leadership facilitator, author, consultant, and Founder of Untapped Leaders, a leadership development organization and consulting firm specializing in uncovering overlooked capacities on diverse teams. Over the past two decades, Jenny has worked with over 500 leaders from more than 200 organizations ranging from established executives at large corporations to high school students beginning their leadership journeys witnessing the untapped capacities that exist across all stages in career paths.Jenny is the author of Untapped Leadership: Harnessing the Power of Underrepresented Leaders, out June 2023, and holds a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Southern California, an M.P.A. from New York University, and an Ed.D. from the University of California – Los Angeles.


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