What high performing teams do

High performing teams realise the importance of cognitive diversity, they value and appreciate difference, and so they fill their teams with people with different expertise, different backgrounds and cultures. The most exceptional teams recognise that this alone is not enough and they go a step further…

Over the years of my sporting career I was lucky to work with coaches from the UK, Hungary, Bulgaria, France and a French Canadian. My sports psychologist was British but had lived in Australia for half of his life. Our Physio was of Egyptian heritage, my nutritionist worked mainly with track and field athletes, so he was from a different sport and therefore a different perspective. We had a vast mixture of cultures, experiences and expertise; admittedly this was more by coincidence than by design, but as I reflect now I realise that it was an essential part of our success.

If we can create teams filled with a wide variety of knowledge and experience we produce a team with a broad understanding and this optimises the team’s chances of success. The problem is, we like to surround ourselves with people who we identify with, in appearance, beliefs and perspective and we value having our own ideas reflected back to us by the people around us. But actually it inhibits success. No matter how smart the individuals in the team are, if they all think in similar ways, they will overlook important factors.

Cognitive Diversity

Generating new ideas and ways of doing things demands more than just intelligence and skill, it demands diverse perspective and opinions – people who will ask different questions and make different assumptions. The more diverse approaches the team has available the greater their chance of generating the most effective solutions and ideas.

So we know we must work in diverse teams to disrupt our homogenous thinking but what if the people in those teams have brilliant ideas but don’t feel able to put them forward for fear of being rejected or they disagree but don’t feel comfortable objecting?

Unfortunately many people feel this way about their workplace, and particularly women. Sadly the global pandemic has worsened the problem and results from a recent Catalyst survey found that nearly half of female business leaders face difficulties speaking up in virtual meetings and 1 in 5 reported feeling overlooked or ignored during video meetings.

Psychological Safety

The theme of International Women’s Day 2022 is #breakthebias  and we can help do that by creating psychologically safe environments at work. In terms of our Resilient Leaders Elements framework, this will involve greater awareness of self and others as well as a deep focus on leadership presence.

People will only be vulnerable and their authentic selves if they feel that they are in an emotionally safe environment – a culture where people believe that they won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up and challenging ideas.

According to Dr Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, there are 4 things that people need before they will feel free to be vulnerable and share their diverse thinking:

  1. A feeling of belonging – you need to feel safe to be yourself and accepted for who you are.
  2. You need to feel safe to engage in learning by asking questions and to feel safe to take risks and experiment and make those inevitable mistakes.
  3. You need to feel able to speak up and make a difference by feeling safe to use your skills and abilities to put forward ideas and make a meaningful contribution.
  4. You need to feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there is an opportunity to change and improve.

We can all increase our awareness of others and how we are making them feel. We can also put serving leadership at the heart of what we do and prioritise others and the environment that they work in, because this has real business implications – we know that without those diverse voices and opinions we don’t reach the most effective solutions or generate new ideas that make a real difference.

There are 4 key ways leaders can help create psychological safety:


  1. Make it a priority – talk about it and connect it to the higher purpose of promoting greater innovation and team engagement.
  2. Make it your responsibility to bring in those quieter voices, ask for their opinions and show empathy when someone is brave enough to challenge the status quo.
  3. Show you value new ideas – even the fledgling ones that need more time. Show curiosity for new ideas and rather than pointing out what won’t work, point out the strengths and value of a new idea, it will motivate people to keep bringing them forward.

I worked with a French Canadian coach for 3 years of my sporting career and one of his favourite sayings was ‘there is no such thing as a dumb idea.’ He was so welcoming of new ideas and suggestions that he would actually get cross if we didn’t speak up and put them forward!

  1. Embrace healthy conflict – by this I don’t mean negative interpersonal mean spirited arguments, I’m talking about productive debate focused on important concepts and team decisions.

Some of the best sporting teams I’ve been on had wonderful healthy conflict – really heated team meetings, where people are arguing about race plans and training strategies, questioning and challenging ideas, putting forward ideas and everyone was fine with it, because it wasn’t personal, we were debating issues that were important to the team and our success. Most importantly there was trust – we knew there was positive intent, it was done in service of the team and making our boats go faster. We were all pulling in the same direction, and that’s important in a kayak … otherwise you get nowhere!

So if your team and organisation are all about innovation, generating new ideas and the most effective solutions (and which high performing teams aren’t?!) then you absolutely need diverse teams who feel able to ask questions out of left field and brainstorm out loud. You need people who don’t hold back their opinions and who feel comfortable sharing, debating and arguing and creating possibilities and opportunities which are bigger and better than you can create individually.  That is what high performing teams do.

So what steps can you take to create a psychologically safe environment and work towards breaking the bias?

If you would like help with this on your team or generally want to improve team performance then please get in touch, high performance is our passion.


Resilience Management
Resilience Management

Published: Friday 11 March 2022
Written by: Anna Hemmings, MBE, OLY.