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How to develop and maintain high-performing teams – PODCAST

Tune in to learn the key components of high-performing teams and receive advice on how to maintain team morale and encourage continuous growth. 

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Our in-house performance psychologist Suzie Mossman-Monk catches up with accredited sport and exercise psychologist Dr Phoebe Sanders to discuss how to develop and maintain high-performing teams.

Phoebe is currently the Culture and Leadership Advisor for UK Sport. She has worked extensively with sports teams across the UK, including England Women's Cricket and holds a PhD in Psychosocial rehabilitation amongst numerous other well-respected qualifications in the field.

The pair discuss what makes a high-performing team, why high-performing teams need psychological safety, how to facilitate and how to approach managing high-performing teams.

Listen here or read on for an edited transcript:

 

Suzie Mossman-Monk: Hello. My name is Suzie Mossman Monk and I am the in-house performance psychologist here at Clarasys. Today I'm joined by Phoebe Sanders. Hi, Phoebe.

Phoebe Sanders: Hello. 

Suzie Mossman-Monk: So Phoebe is a sport and exercise psychologist who has worked with sports people at the highest level, in a range of different sports, and most recently she worked with the England Women's Cricket team. Welcome, Phoebe.

Phoebe Sanders: Thank you so much.

Suzie Mossman-Monk: We wanted to get Phoebe in today to discuss one of the most common business challenges which we hear about as consultants and which we also experience. And that is around how to develop and maintain high-performing teams. From a consulting perspective, this is something that we face all the time. The nature of being a consultant means that you often have to form new teams really quickly both with the internal team that you're working with, say the Clarasys team from our side, but also with the client team, so we very much believe that we become a team with the client and we want to create a high-performing team alongside our clients as well.

So, I guess Phoebe, the first area I'd be keen to hear your thoughts on is how you go about developing a high-performing team, particularly if you need to do it quickly.

High-performing teams need psychological safety

Phoebe Sanders: I think I'm gonna go off-piste straight away. So I'm really sorry about this, but one of the things that has become increasingly apparent to me through my career has been that there's a real difference between a team that can perform really well as a one-off, relative to teams that can perform really well sustainably. And it's that second thing that we always looking for in sports teams. And I imagine it's the same with you in consulting. You don't just want to absolutely smash one project. You want to be able to keep going for everyone in that team to keep performing at a really high level throughout.

One of the really important things that underpins sustainable high performance is psychological safety within teams which sounds a little bit pink and fluffy. But to me, it's essentially people feeling like they're able to be themselves within that team and this doesn't mean we're a hundred per cent nice to each other, a hundred per cent of the time or that everyone has to be the same or anything like that, it just means that people feel able to bring themselves to that team. That they feel able to give really clear feedback. That communication is really clear and it's honest. Done kindly always, but that it can be honest, that people feel like they're able to try new things or they're able to make mistakes and that there won't be bad repercussions to those things. And I think that underpins so many of the really important behaviours that we see when teams are performing well and when they are able to do that over and over again, over a long period of time.

Suzie Mossman-Monk: I think it was interesting you mentioned that we don't have to be nice to each other all of the time as long as it comes from a good place. And I think one thing from our side when we are working with clients and things like that, obviously, you want to be nice, you want to be professional, but you also need to be able to challenge and you need to be able to share different perspectives. And it's important for us at Clarasys the way that we set up our teams often you'll have a range of people from different levels, different years of experience, different backgrounds and actually we want that in our teams. We want that diversity. We want those differences in how people think and the perspectives that people bring. 

I guess interested to see how you would recommend facilitating that kind of psychological safety. How do you get a team to feel like they can be themselves, they can challenge and bring some of those differences of thought and views when it is maybe stressful or in a challenging moment?

How to facilitate psychological safety in teams?

Phoebe Sanders: So I think it's one of those things where it's really important to get out ahead of it early. This isn't something you want to be trying to do because something's already gone wrong and the team already feels like it's disintegrating. That's absolutely not to say that there aren't really positive things you can do at that point. But I think ideally this is something you want to be thinking about before a new team is coming together. Because as you say, the complexities of a team made up of people bringing different skills, different experiences, and sometimes different wants, needs, and values, that's one of the things that makes teams so great. And why they're so much bigger than the sum of their parts. But in order for that to be the case, people need to feel able to actually bring those things, to bring those unique skills, qualities, you know, whatever else it is, and I think part of that is actually, you need to talk about these things, which I know sounds really kind of Billy basics, but I think it is one of the most important things. And where I definitely see most things go wrong on the flip side is where people actually aren't having discussions about this kind of thing. They're just either a bit scared to, or don't want to appear vulnerable, which, I mean, let's face it, most of us don't really want to at work because it's really tough and it can be really scary. But if we're not able to be a bit vulnerable, try new things, accept that sometimes we're going to fail, we just don't get better.

And I think having those kinds of conversations with the team and actually making sure that it's something everybody wants to buy into is incredibly important because for some people that might be a scary new world that they're a bit nervous about and they might need a bit of support in understanding what does it mean to be in a team that's going to operate like this? Because I think you do need to hire everybody on board with understanding, okay, what we want to be able to do is be able to be clear with each other, to be honest with each other. And obviously part of that is agreeing on ways of working and actually quite literally, how is this going to work on a day-to-day basis, but also getting that willingness from people that it means that yes, absolutely you're going to be developed and supported, but sometimes it means that you might be challenged and that sometimes that could be quite uncomfortable and that that's going to work two ways. So you might be expected to both give and receive feedback positive or negative. And that can be really, really tough and it's certainly something with teams I work with, I've seen people really struggle with sometimes. And I think the things that go unsaid are often the things that can really eat away at a team and consequently at their performance.

Suzie Mossman-Monk: And so is that something that you would proactively go about setting up before a big tournament or before a big series, a big game? Is that something that you discuss with the coach, or with the captain? Is it something that more generally you do as a wider team to kind of agree on those ways of working? How does that look? 

How do you set up ways of working in high-performing teams?

Phoebe Sanders: So it's definitely something that we try to do more and more. If I'm honest, I think sport is really backwards on this front.

I think business psychs are doing this a lot better than lots of sports psychs are at the moment. I think we're catching up. Don't think we're brilliant at it yet. And I mean, it's the same in some pockets of business as well, isn't it? That you often get people who are quite resistant to doing this kind of work because there's a bit of a sense of 'I'm doing my job, why do you want me to also talk about my feelings and how I'm going to do that job and how I feel about doing my job', which, you know, I can completely understand.

But it's definitely something we've been trying to do more and more of and a lot of it for me is just quite straightforward, encouraging that people don't just have conversations with one specific person. So there aren't kind of pockets of information that are just sitting with specific people and I guess specifically for my job, I don't really want athletes to be telling me lots of things that they aren't happy talking to the coach about. And in this sense, I'm not talking necessarily specifically about mental health, wellbeing, or performance, it can cut across all of those things but ideally, my dream scenario is that everyone in an environment feels comfortable. Sharing similar information with everybody. It's not to say that everyone has to be telling everybody everything. Cause I think that's unrealistic and sometimes unhelpful, but if it's something important and it's relevant for someone else to know so for example, it's relevant for another athlete or a coach to know, I really want to help people to have those conversations. So that, yeah, you don't end up with little pockets of information sitting with certain people, which, in my experience, can really breed miscommunication, misunderstandings and discontent.

So I think that's one of the things that I've tried to do, whether sometimes it's through kind of set pieces, like more formal kind of feedback opportunities. I mean, having sort of facilitating development conversations, essentially between coaches and athletes to set goals and things.

But sometimes it is just day to day, you know, if someone's saying to me, oh I've noticed this, this and this, and this is annoying me, and this is about someone else. Then I would much rather I can have a conversation that's about, okay, well, what can we do to help you feel comfortable having that conversation with that person rather than kind of going, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's terrible. Yeah. How awful for you. Because ultimately that doesn't really move anybody forwards. 

Suzie Mossman-Monk: Yeah that makes sense. And I really like that. What you were saying there around not having pockets of information just sitting with individuals or a couple of people within the team. I think that's where either miscommunication shows up or people start making assumptions around how other people are thinking and feeling and things like that. 

I guess keen to know from your side. So you've obviously worked in some high-pressure situations and times when maybe the team hasn't been performing as well from an output perspective, how does that shift the dynamic? And, you know, if a project isn't going well or timelines are being missed from a business perspective, what do you tend to see I guess? I imagine that those individual conversations maybe get a bit noisier, but also how would you counter that in a situation that is quite challenging, stressful or high pressure?

How to deal with high-pressure situations

Phoebe Sanders: So I think one of the things that I see a lot is people kind of revert to their kind of default setting. So if there's someone who tends to not share things very often, they will stop sharing. You know, if it's someone who can get a bit kind of louder and a bit more aggressive they will probably start doing more of that. And that's where I think some of the more helpful behaviours that we see like that good communication and those things can start to slip away and the helpful conversations start to disappear, I think is when you start to see comments thrown around that are sort of labelled as feedback, but actually, you know, it's people sometimes kind of pointing a finger at someone else or just venting and actually not stopping to think about, okay, is this going to help to move the team forwards? And I'm absolutely not saying that people should sacrifice themselves in aid of helping the team. But I do think it's super important that people can take a moment to think, what does the team need from me now?

And sometimes that might be, you know what, I need to take a bit of a step back personally, and look after myself a little bit, cause actually I'm not in a position to give what I need to give to the team right now. And that's totally valid. And sometimes that can be absolutely the right thing to do, but sometimes it might be 'okay, I've gotta do something I don't really like, or I'm a bit annoyed at someone else' and sometimes you might have to suck it up. There are absolutely some brilliant times to go and have a quite direct conversation with someone, but there are also some terrible times to do that. And when we ourselves are really emotional, we rarely have the constructive conversation that we want to have or certainly, I don't, if I'm really emotional, that's not when I do my best thinking or my best communicating. 

So I think we've gotta remember in high-pressure situations, we get stupid. We do not do our best thinking. As I already said, we don't do our best communicating. So I think the best way to deal with that is to plan in advance so to understand when things get really tough, where do I go? What do I start doing? And also understanding what the other people around you start doing. So the rest of your team, where do they go? If things are getting a bit grotty for them, what might I be seeing from them, what might I be hearing from them, but then also what can we do to support them?

And it's something that particularly through COVID and kind of off the back of that, we've spent a lot of time doing with the team is planning ahead of tours and going through all of those questions with them. So going okay, like what do I look like when things are great? What do I look like when things really aren't great?

What are the things I can be doing to support myself? What are the things that other people can be doing to support me? Cause you know, whilst I don't think we should all be completely relying on other people to prop us up. I think there are some really important things that we can do to self-manage.

Equally, if we're working as part of a team, you know, we should have each other's backs and we should be looking out for those things. And it's about knowing the people around you, isn't it. And knowing actually what's gonna be helpful for them. And I think doing that planning ahead to make sure, okay, we all understand each other. We understand what this could look like if it starts to go south, and also understand when that is likely to happen. Cause I think if you have a heads up that it could be coming, it's so much easier to keep a check on yourself and go, okay, am I showing up as the person I want to show up as? Is there anything I need? Is there anything that the people around me need to help us get through what we've recognised is going to be tricky and we recognize what we're gonna do to mitigate that?

Suzie Mossman-Monk: Yeah, nice. I really like that you need to understand yourself enough to know what those behaviours and maybe the unhelpful behaviours that perhaps show up under pressure in those situations, but also what that looks like for the people around you. And actually, I think sharing that at the start of a project, when you're setting up a team, for example, certainly from Clarasys perspective. I think that's something we encourage. And I guess if we're working with client teams it's something to look at as well. Can you share that with your client team so that actually as a team together, you know what that looks like? And I also like that piece of actually let's be conscious of when some of these things might show up. So we know over the life cycle of a project, there are likely to be pinch points that are more stressful, are more challenging, can be more difficult and actually being aware of those pain moments and challenges before they happen and ahead of time is really helpful.

I think it's interesting what you said about needing to know yourself and having those kinds of honest reflections on yourself and what that might look like. Do you encourage people to speak to other people to gain that insight? Is that something that you help people with? How do you get people to understand what their behaviours might be when they are stressed or in a difficult situation?

How to get people to understand certain behaviours that show up during challenges?

Phoebe Sanders: You know what I think that's something that we can all be supporting the people around us with. Like, I don't think you need to be a psychologist or someone who has, you know, a similar kind of job title to be able to help people to do that and go through that process or to do it ourselves, you know, this job obviously lends itself to doing more of that kind of work because you have to qualify, I think you end up more self-aware than you ever wanted to be. Which can be both very helpful and also very unhelpful. But I think essentially all people need is some space to reflect and, you know, I don't think it needs to be a particularly formal process. I know there are lots of lovely models, which will tell you, you need to think about this and this and this, but I think ultimately it's just about, you know, after significant discussions or moments when you notice that you are experiencing a bit of emotion, like positive or negative, or as you said, after certain points in a project you might actually want to do, this is almost like a set piece of like, at this point, we're going to reflect. But I think sometimes just taking a moment to go, okay, am I showing up as I want to show up? And actually what are some of the things that led me to behave the way I did in that particular interaction, whether you feel like actually, you nailed it and it was great and you were completely authentic or whether you think actually I was authentic, but maybe the other person didn't come out of that feeling great.

And just actually taking the time to understand what's driving you. Throughout your life, what are the things that are really important to you? Those big underlying values. What's really important for you there? Because that can tell you an awful lot about how you behave in different situations and why certain things will really push your buttons, but they might not push your colleagues' buttons.

I think understanding that is really important, but then also, you know, as you alluded to recognizing throughout a project, tournament, whatever it is what are the different kinds of dynamics at play? What are the things that might be boiling you up? What are the things that are bringing you down and how might those things be showing up in your day-to-day work?

Suzie Mossman-Monk: Yeah, I think it's interesting. You kind of said around that self-awareness piece. So I'm a psychologist, a performance psychologist at Clarasys and for me, I do a little check-in each morning just to see how I'm feeling and that really helps me to be aware of how I might show up. So what are some of the potential more unhelpful behaviours that may be closer to the surface that day? Whether that is okay. I'm actually just knackered. So, you know, I might be a little bit shorter with people today.

My fuse might not be as long as I would want it to be. And that can really help as you say, to really then consider, okay how do I want to show up? Let's make sure I put my best self forwards today.

You mentioned values there. And I think understanding what's important to you is obviously really important to help you to move towards the behaviours that align with those things. Would you encourage teams to share their values with each other, to gain some of that insight? 

Should teams share their values with each other?

Phoebe Sanders: Definitely. But I don't think it'd be the very first thing I would do. I think sometimes it's a lot safer for people to start with goals because I think that can often be a lot easier to align can't it, particularly if you're all working on a project together, you would hope that people at least have a similar sort of idea of what you're hoping to get out the project. Obviously, that might look slightly different for slightly different people, but I think that's usually a more straightforward area to start with, 'cause it's easy to agree and often people feel a lot more comfortable going, what are we trying to achieve? Cause that's the kind of nuts and bolts of what we do every day. Isn't it? 

Values, I think are super important, but if it's not a place that people have gone before, I think it can sometimes feel quite exposing and confronting to have people going okay, well, what are the things that are really important to you? Like what's guiding you through your life. That's a big question. But often starting from the goals can then be really helpful for you to almost reverse engineer it and go, okay, so if this is something I want to achieve, what's underneath that? What is it that's important about that to me? 

Suzie Mossman-Monk: Yeah.

Phoebe Sanders: Because much as I think we all like to be invested in our work, you know, winning a tournament is just winning a tournament. It's pretty unlikely that people are doing that just because they want the medal. The medal represents something for them and it's about understanding okay, what is it, that goal, that thing that you're looking to achieve or attain, what does that represent to you in terms of what's actually really important to you? Cause probably it's not a piece of shiny metal on a string. It's probably something underneath that, around continuous improvement, for example, or kind of achieving potential. You know, there are all kinds of really interesting things that you can explore if you take a goal as a starting point. And I think for a team that often feels like a safer way in because like I said, while psychological safety is really important, I think if we go at these things too hard, too soon, people can really back off and we can achieve completely opposite of what we're trying to do cause people start going, okay, you've gone too far. That's too invasive. And people then start to really shut down. And you almost create the problems that you're trying to avoid. Cause I think there's a real art to checking out with people where do we feel comfortable going today and making sure that everyone buys into that.

Suzie Mossman-Monk: And I think particularly, I suppose, so the dynamic from our side when you have your Clarasys team, maybe, and then when you are trying to link up and create a team with the client, I think that's really helpful to focus on the goals. So what are we trying to achieve as a team? What outcomes that we are looking for? And then you can, as you say, go slightly lower level, so then maybe you have your line manager or your engagement lead, whoever's leading the project. You might speak to them about more personal goals. So actually this is what I would like to get out of and align with them on those kinds of things. So as you say, it's not too invasive upfront, it's a conversation that you can build on.

And I liked the way that you kind of spoke about reflecting on those things as well at certain points. So actually after a pinch point on a project, taking a look at, okay, what were we trying to achieve? How did it go? What could we do better in the future? Having those kinds of proactive points of reflecting, sharing, and learning both with the internal team and also with a client team as well is really helpful. 

Okay. So thank you so much for your insight, Phoebe. I guess if you had to sign off and say, if there was one thing that would help a team, to be high performing or to continue to be able to be high performing over a long period of time, what's the one thing that you can say to people to focus on?

What one piece of advice would you give to develop high-performing teams

Phoebe Sanders: I think it almost links back to the point I made right at the very beginning - understanding are we trying to be a high-performing team right now for a short period of time, or actually, are we looking for this to be sustained high performance? Because I think the behaviours that that then drives are really different.

We've all seen people who push really hard for a specific project or to win something and then end up kind of burning out afterwards. Cause actually the behaviours that it leads them to are just not ones that they can sustain. And I think what I'm always looking for is that really healthy approach to going, okay, well actually we're looking to do this over a period of time. This is about being as good as we can be for as long as we can be and recognizing that within that, there are going to be some peaks and troughs. And I think if people can come to a project or come to a team, understanding that that's what we're looking for and that there's actually, going to be some bumps along the way, but actually that helps us to perform better. I think that feels like a much healthier way to look at performance than going, right, we're gonna go at this really hard, come what may.

Suzie Mossman-Monk: Yeah. Nice. And I think the key thing that I've learned from this is to be proactive about this stuff. Get ahead of it, don't just wait until you're in the thick of it and suddenly things are starting to fall apart. Have these conversations upfront. So when you're forming that team, let's understand what some of those stress behaviours look like.

Let's work out how we can support each other when we're in a good space, rather than waiting as we say until things are maybe a bit more challenging.

Phoebe Sanders: Definitely. And also being aware that some people are gonna be a bit resistant to having these conversations and that that's okay. It's rubbish talking about things that we are bad at or things that we have done badly, or areas of weakness or things that scare us. Broadly people don't want to do that, and that's okay. And I think it's really important to support one another through having those discussions because as you say, I think that enables us to support ourselves and one another so much more effectively, further down the line. But, you know, I make it sound really easy cuz now I'm not surrounded by all the people I have to do this work with this really easy to sit in a nice room and say, oh yeah, just do this, this and this.

Like it's always a bit bumpy, it's always a bit rocky. And you know, the reality is there's going to be people who buy into this more than others. And that's ok.

Suzie Mossman-Monk: And I think, yeah, as long as you've got the right intentions and you're trying to do this stuff as much as possible, that at least sets you up in a better place than perhaps you're just not thinking about it at all. So thank you so much, that was very helpful. 

Phoebe Sanders: Thank you so much for having me.

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