New research on beliefs of High Performing Teams

We have completed a short research project into the beliefs of three High Performing Teams (HPTs) in a large software organisation. Our research indicated that four beliefs were universally held: clear and public accountability, trusted competency, give and take and outcome optimism. Five other beliefs were largely or partially held suggesting that an HPT may have between 4 and 9 key beliefs.


By Ken Thompson and Cindy Andruss, February 2006

1. Background and Introduction

In a earler article, The seven beliefs of high performing teams, I suggested that members of High-Performing Teams (HPTs) share a common set of beliefs.

Research shows that an individual or team's beliefs can have a massive impact on their performance [1,2].

To develop this idea further, for the last 3 months we have been conducting a joint applied research project with a large software development company.

The project identified a number of HPTs within the software organisation. We surveyed those HPTs to determine their beliefs.

We carried this out by asking them questions in ten areas of belief. These ten areas had been determined as possible HPT key belief areas from a review of the relevant literature (see References at end of this article).

We conducted two surveys: the first (using Microsoft Excel) included twenty questions, which allowed us to cover the 10 areas with two questions per area. This allowed a positive and a negative question to avoid 'leading' the respondees into the perceived correct answers.

In the second questionnaire (administered via ZapSurvey), we used just ten questions and administered the questionnaire a couple of weeks after the collection of the first survey responses.

There were no significant differences between the results produced by the long (20 questions) and short questionnaires (10 questions).

The ten areas we explored were as follows:

  1. clear and public accountability

  2. trusted competency

  3. give and take

  4. total transparency

  5. shared glory

  6. meaningful mission value

  7. outcome optimism

  8. success in spite of

  9. work is its own reward

  10. simply the best

We worked with three teams and obtained responses for 10 representative members across these teams

The bulk of the team members were based in the US and with the rest in Europe

The teams considered that they were quite active users of 'virtual team technologies' (60%)

The major output of the 3 teams was software products.

All three teams were considered HPTs by their organisational executives

2. Summary of the research results

The 3 teams all held in common the following beliefs:

- Q1 (clear and public accountability) - 100% agree
- Q2 (trusted competency) - 100% agree
- Q3 (give and take) - 100% agree
- Q7 (outcome optimism) - 100% agree
The 3 teams strongly did NOT hold the following belief:
- Q8 (success in spite of) - 100% disagree

The 3 teams generally held the following beliefs:
- Q4 (total transparency) - 80% agree
- Q9 (work is its own reward) - 80% agree

The 3 teams partially held the following beliefs but to a lesser extent:
- Q6 (meaningful mission value) - 50% agree
- Q5 (shared glory) - 60% agree
- Q10 (simply the best) - 40% agree

To review the questionnaire and responses

Note the questions were all on the standard 5-point scale: to convert them to a single percentage for simplicity we ignored the midpoint % ('not sure') and subtracted the combined low points (4 and 5) percentages from the combined high points (1 and 2) percentages. Eg 1=60%, 2=10%, 3=10%, 4=20%, 5=0% translates to (60+10) - (20) = 50%.

3. Conclusions we can draw from these results

There are 4 beliefs that were universally held in these HPTs, 2 that were mostly held and 3 that are partially held.

So, from this research, it looks like there are 4 to 9 beliefs of HPTs in this organisation.

There is one belief that was universally not held "success in spite of".

This is very interesting in itself because some of the literature on HPTs, for example, [3] pages 67-69 and [4] pages 207-208, had suggested that such teams need to perceive a common enemy - our research does not bear this out within this organisation.

This short research project shows that within the culture of this organisation there is definitely a set of four strongly held beliefs and five generally or partially held beliefs.

Q1 (clear and public accountability) - 100% agree
Q2 (trusted competency) - 100% agree
Q3 (give and take) - 100% agree
Q7 (outcome optimism) - 100% agree
Q4 (total transparency) - 80% agree
Q9 (work is its own reward) - 80% agree
Q6 (meaningful mission value) - 50% agree
Q5 (shared glory) - 60% agree
Q10 (simply the best) - 40% agree

However we are unable to say to what extent these beliefs apply to all HPTs - i.e., do they apply outside this organisation and do they apply outside software teams.

4. Future directions in this Research

There are three areas where we would like to develop this research further:

1. How universal are HPT beliefs?
2. What is the difference between the beliefs of HPTs and lower performing teams?
3. To what extent can the beliefs of a team be used as a predictor of performance?

1. How universal are HPT beliefs?

We would need to administer the HPT questionnaire to a much bigger sample of organisations in different
- Geographies
- Organisational Types
- Sectors

2. What is the difference between the beliefs of HPTs and lower performing teams?

The big question is: "are there some of the 4 to 9 beliefs that make the difference between high performance and average performance in a team?"

Obviously, it is difficult to get access to teams in organisations that are not considered high performing.

One way we could address this is by applying the web-based questionnaire, say to readers, to ask them to identify the beliefs they held in a) the best team they ever worked on and b) the worst team they ever worked on and to analyse the differences.

There are a number of possibilities to be explored here (and also none of the following may be true!)

* Does a higher 'Belief Level' overall lead to better performance?
* Do 'red flags' on any of the 4 to 9 key beliefs damage performance?
* Do specific beliefs make the difference to certain aspects of performance?

3. To what extent can the beliefs of a team be used as a predictor of performance?

As part of the project, we developed a performance assessment scorecard to allow the executive who constituted the high-level organisational customer for each team to comment objectively on their performance in the following categories:

1. Product Quality
2. Deadline/Schedule Performance
3. Effort/Cost/Resource Usage
4. External Relationship Mgt
5. Team as Staff Learning Environment
6. Innovation
7. Flexibility/Unexpected Change Mgt
8. Business Awareness
9. Senior Exec Liaison
10. Other

If we were able to apply the HPT beliefs questionnaire and this HPT Performance Scorecard to a wider number of teams and projects, we could determine whether there was any 'belief-performance link'. If there were such a link, it would be possible to use the HPT beliefs questionnaire pre-project with a newly formed team as a predictor of potential project issues.

The logic is that where belief issues arise it may indicate that the project staff perceive something to be missing in the project they are just about to undertake. It may be difficult to point this out in their organisation. Alternatively, they may not even know what is missing, just that they do not 'feel right' about the team.

Alternatively, such beliefs may not be predictors but tell us more about the general attitude of the individual team members.

If belief issues were identified in the HPT questionnaire, the next step would be to facilitate a gentle team discussion, which must be expertly facilitated to be totally supportive and non-threatening, to see what the team members perceive to be missing and what would make them alter their beliefs about the team. This would give the organisation the opportunity to address the issue before the project was impacted by it.

Such a diagnostic could be very complimentary to other quantitative predictors of team/project performance such as the DICE Method described in The Hard Side of Change Management by Hal Sirkin, Perry Keenan and Alan Jackson of Boston Consulting Group.


1. Frankl, V., 1984. Man's Search for Meaning, Simon & Schuster

2. Seligman, M., 1990. Learned Optimism - How to change your mind and your life, Free Press

3. Lipman-Blumen, J. & Leavitt, H., 1999. Hot Groups - Seeding them, feeding them and using them to ignite your organization, Oxford University Press

4. Bennis, W., 1997. Organizing Genius - The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, Nicholas Brealey Publishing

About the authors

Ken Thompson was formerly the European IT Manager with Reuters in London and Managing Director with VISION Consulting in Belfast. At VISION, Ken spent over 10 years successfully delivering services to clients in the Financial Services, Government and the Small Business Sectors. Recognized as a leading expert in the growing area of Virtual Enterprise Networks, Ken also helps distributed business teams in medium and large-sized organizations become successful through a unique approach to team design and working practices. Ken is the founder of - a research blog dedicated to how organizational teams can learn from nature's best teams.

Cindy Andruss is currently an instructional designer and writer with a high-tech company in California. She works from her home office where she develops and designs asynchronous training products for internal and external customers. Cindy enjoys putting her creative energy into designing effective learning environments especially where virtual collaboration can play a key element in the learning process.

If you are interested in participating in any of the follow-on topics from this research then please contact Ken Thompson or leave a comment on the article. We are particularly interested in organisations who can provide access to teams with all levels of performance not just HPTs

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