How to build sustainably high-performing teams

Success in the world of Formula 1 requires intricate coordination of technical teams, says the co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training

How can HR leaders focus on high performance while prioritising health and wellbeing? Maybe it’s time to take inspiration from elite sportspeople.

Disappointingly, the world of organisational research is somewhat lacking. I discovered this while researching sustainable performance for the book I co-authored, Rest. Practise. Perform

Performance is often poorly defined, and academic findings are generally hard to apply. Inspiration is needed from elsewhere.

Read more: That tricky grey area: what sets great leaders apart?

Like the business world, elite sport involves complex systems of human dynamics and processes, aiming to produce high levels of performance. Unlike many businesses though, people at the top of their game in sport know how to balance top performance with health and wellbeing.


Our research for the book looked at examples from football, Formula 1 and tennis; elite sports that work in very different ways. Obviously, teamwork is key to success in all of these sports: the synchronicity of football players on the pitch; the intricate coordination of technical teams in F1; and in the solo performance-led world of tennis, players are supported by a variety of roles off court. 

Valuing teamwork is a key lesson and an everyday priority in the working lives of HR professionals. But there are other tangible learnings that senior leaders can draw from the sports world, to build and improve performance and avoid making performance errors. 

Define what performance means

In elite sport, the definition of performance is clear: the match or race itself. Everyone understands their contribution. For example, in F1, each role is skilfully sequenced so that the car and driver are in the best shape possible for the big race.

Read more: Creating a high-performance workplace by tapping into discretionary effort

Naturally, defining performance in organisations is more ambiguous. But too frequently clarity becomes an unfortunate casualty. 

Time, energy and money are wasted because employees feel unclear about their role, or about how they fit into the business. 

Lack of clarity can come from good intentions, and a desire to provide people with autonomy. But research shows that people with high levels of autonomy are more prone to burnout. The sweet spot is where people know what to do but are given freedom in how to do it. 

Helping leaders to get clear on exactly how their teams’ work contributes to the overall business goals, what ‘good’ looks like and clarifying the freedom and autonomy boundaries are all ways in which HR professionals can support leaders to avoid this error.

Invest in collaboration

Collaboration in professional tennis extends beyond the player alone; synergy between coaches, nutritionists, sports psychologists and hitting partners creates a comprehensive support system that is vital for success. Most businesses are also the sum of many parts.

Read more: Building a winning team: What HR can learn from sport

You will probably have key roles in your organisation but your team will include many other vital members; service staff, engineers, delivery drivers and cleaning staff all make important contributions. Leaders frequently talk about the importance of good collaboration but rarely invest the time and energy to set their team up for success. 

Good collaboration is also most needed when the pressure is on, like in the world of elite sports. So work needs to be done when the pressure is off, to build the foundations for success later.

One aspect of collaboration that leaders frequently need support with is in making the most of team building activities, to ensure that these go beyond surface-level exercises and develop deep levels of trust and coordination. 

Build key skills

Specific skill building in negotiation and conflict resolution is a key lever. These are under-taught but critical skills. Ensuring that clear processes are in place for resolving disagreements and tensions may seem obvious, but it pays dividends when a team is trying to collaborate during an intense period of work.

When supporting leaders to create an environment which allows people to flourish, stay healthy and achieve high levels of performance, coaching leaders on how to correct errors by prioritising teamwork, clarity and collaboration will establish good foundations from which achieve success.

By Karen Meager, co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy, and co-author of Rest. Practise. Perform: What elite sport can teach leaders about sustainable wellbeing and performance