Focus is needed just as much as ability to create peak performing teams

When building teams, many organisations focus mainly on ability, technical skills, and experience. However, it takes a lot more than intellectual prowess and technical expertise to produce great team performance, as we are reminded by four-time Olympic gold medallist, Simone Biles, and the U.S. women’s gymnastics team at the Tokyo games.

Biles exited the team final due to mental health concerns and, despite potentially impacting their success, her team mates fully supported her decision and spoke out against media criticism.

Their response proves personal motivations and social-emotional talents such as resilience, learning agility and perseverance also play a crucial role, but are rarely prioritised and assessed when hiring or assigning members to new teams.

So, what can we learn from this young team of gymnasts when it comes to building successful and supportive teams?

These four assessment and development principles enable organisations to build teams that are motivated, resilient and agile to sustain peak performance in a fast-changing and increasingly demanding world.

Measure underlying motivations

In today’s rapidly evolving and uncertain business environment, companies need highly motivated people and teams who can drive outstanding and sustained performance.

Just like in an Olympic team, members of business teams are motivated by a broad range of underlying needs and drives.

These include new social connections, ambition and advancement, recognition, competitiveness, the need for autonomy and the opportunity to contribute to a bigger purpose, to name just a few.

Understanding people’s career motivations enables leaders to drive teams to perform and “go the extra mile”.

A rigorous assessment of career drivers should occur when hiring externals or selecting internal candidates to join a team.

Behavioural interviews should include questions such as: “What energises you the most about working in your current/most recent team?” and “What have you valued most about working in teams in the past?”.

Scientifically validated assessments can also identify underlying motivations and values that go beyond generic traits measured by traditional personality tests.   

Once these motivations are understood, team leaders can adapt their leadership style to motivate individuals in a way that suits them best and optimises their effectiveness.

For example, if an employee has high esteem needs and is motivated by recognition, the leader knows to praise them for stand-out effort.     

Don’t underestimate the importance of social, emotional, and other soft skills   

Most team hiring decisions still exaggerate the importance of technical expertise and skills at the expense of softer skills.

In designing an assessment process for team roles, it is therefore important to measure social, emotional, and other so-called “soft skills” that are vital for effective collaboration, teamwork, and the overall wellbeing of the team.

Perseverance, collaboration, learning agility and empathy are increasingly important and predictive of high performance across a diverse range of team roles, yet are often missing criteria in the team selection process.

Poor team fit can also lead to a person-team mismatch which can cause issues such as poor morale, reduced productivity and high turnover.

To mitigate these risks, hiring managers and HR should spend time determining the type of personal qualities that align well with the team. This includes considering how well a person’s beliefs, values and motivations complement the team.

Ensuring team fit is not a case of selecting individuals with a similar background, outlook, and style. To build inclusive and cognitively diverse teams, identify people with complementary talents, motivations and thinking styles.

New hires should bring new talents and fresh perspectives. However, it is important that they are motivated by the overall purpose and broadly aligned with the wider team’s values and expectations.

Promote support and safeguarding

Everyone has different stress triggers and responses to pressure. While positive stress enhances peak performance, too much can overwhelm even the top performers, undermining their focus, self-confidence, physical and psychological wellbeing.

It is therefore vital to create a safe space for people to share their vulnerabilities, fears, and mental health challenges, when they are ready to do so.

A safe team environment enables team members to feel listened to and supported, without judgement or inappropriate positivity, which dismisses fears with comments such as “you’ll be fine on the day” or “just “push through it”. It also gives them an opportunity to ask colleagues for help and guidance.

Crucially, it ensures people never feel isolated and left to cope on their own, as we have seen with Biles. She felt safe enough to step back from events, preventing potential risks to her emotional and physical wellbeing.

This deep self-awareness and courage are commendable. Fortunately, like Ben Stokes who recently decided to take an indefinite break from the England cricket squad on account of mental health, she is surrounded by a supportive team who have given her the reassurance and confidence to make such a bold decision.    

Prioritise resilience and mental health

Biles’ decision and voice in the media will help dismantle stigma around mental health, which still exists in high performance contexts such as sport or business. However, the tide is turning and has been accelerated during COVID-19.

Human-centred workplace strategies will improve mental health, morale and engagement while reducing costs associated with absence, unwanted turnover and employee disengagement.

Most importantly, they will accelerate the creation of high-performing, agile and resilient teams that give the organisation a winning margin in an increasingly competitive and dynamic environment.


By James Brook, founder of TalentPredix