Many leaders believe a team is only as strong as its weakest link. Thus many organizations spend a lot of time working to attract the best talent, while performance-managing those that aren't operating at the standard they would like.
So if you want to build a team that consistently overflows with top performers, build a team philosophy and culture designed to enable everyone who is part of it to excel.
Sociologist Dan Chambliss spent years studying what set Olympic swimmers apart from swimmers at other levels. One of his findings was that a quick way to become a great swimmer was to join a great team.
Why great teams improve individual performance
Chambliss noted why the team dynamic made such a dramatic difference in the gains elite swimmers made:
"Look, when I started studying Olympians, I thought, "What kind of oddball gets up every day at four in the morning to go to swimming practice?' I thought, 'These must be extraordinary people to do that sort of thing.' But the things is, when you go to a place where basically everybody you know is getting up at four in the morning to go to practice, that's just what you do. It's no big deal. It becomes a habit."
In her best-selling book Grit, Angela Duckworth expounded on Chambliss's findings:
"Over and over, Dan had observed new swimmers join a team that did things a notch or two better than what they'd been used to. Very quickly, the newcomer conformed to the team's norms and standards."
To build a strong team, you've got to define in advance your norms and standards for excellence. And then you've got to work to ensure everyone on your team is equipped to meet them.
The good news is, Chambliss's research on what set Olympic swimmers apart bore out the three areas that made the biggest difference.
Focus your efforts on building a team that prioritizes these traits, and you'll quickly see notable improvements in everyone's performance.
1. Proper technique
Performing well at a skill is rarely about one task in particular. It is the sum of mastering how to effectively execute a number of smaller activities that make the noticeable difference in what you produce.
For instance, to consistently do well with content marketing, you've got to choose the right topics, craft compelling headlines, create engaging content, and select eye-catching visuals that fit your medium.
Instead of leaving it up to your team on how they go about doing each of these individual tasks, set a standard for how they must operate. For instance, your norm could be that everyone must brainstorm at least 25 headlines before publishing anything new.
This focus on skill-building at every level, coupled with feedback from you along the way will help everyone rise to a higher standard of excellence in daily work.
2. Discipline in supporting areas
When you commit to being excellent in certain areas, you have to have the discipline to operate as a group in a manner that supports growth.
For swimmers, that often means showing up to practice day after day in the wee hours of the morning, eating a diet that helps them perform better, or doing strength training to produce gains in other areas.
For your team, that could be restricting the number of meetings you have during the day to allow people time to engage in deep work. Or it could mean testing every idea with a sufficient number of customers before moving a concept forward.
3. The right perspective
Attitude is key. This is perhaps the most important aspect, but it's one that is often overlooked. How you feel about the activities you are doing impacts how well you perform them.
From Chambliss's observations of the swimmers, the difference in attitude showed up in how they felt about performing mundane tasks, such as swimming the length of a pool for two hours. Those with the right attitude often enjoyed the activity. Those who saw it as a chore often didn't perform as well.
As you're working to introduce different ways of work with your team, spend some time helping them see the value in what you want them to do, rather than simply demanding compliance.
The more your team is able to develop a perspective that your methods, and team norms are for their benefit, the easier it will be for them to develop a winning attitude about it.