Managing groups for high performance

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Developed by Nina Bernhoft



A good team performance is a crucial success factor for a project manager when managing a project to reach its objectives, according to Project Management Institute (PMI) standards in the PMBOK® Guide "Teamwork is a critical factor for project success and developing effective project teams is one of the primary responsibilities of the project manager." [1].

This article clarifies the project manager’s essential role in forming and managing a high-performance team and how to do it. A team needs to be of a relatively small size, two to nine members, with diversity in skills, expertise and or from different divisions within the company. A project manager can make use of an analytical hierarchical process (AHP) approach when setting selection criteria for putting together a team. If a project manager can form an optimal team, there will be a good flow in the Five Stages of Group Development. It is of the upmost importance that a team goes rapidly through the second and third stage, storming and norming, to get to the fourth stage, performing, where tasks get accomplished. When the team is formed right the group dynamics will be well balanced to achieve high-performance. What this means is that the team will have a moderate degree of conformity and deviance together with a balanced cohesiveness. The result will be a team that continuously challenges itself to increase its performance. The project manager can support this development with several techniques within training, team building and by creating a fitting reward system. It is not an easy task for the project manager because there are many constraints when recruiting an optimal team e.g. project budget, available resources and time. The focus of this article is on project level.´


Structure of this article

  • In the first section theories on group dynamics, group developments, difficulties and issues will be addressed and explained. This will be done by using models and theories as: Five Stages of Group Development, Balancing Conformity and Deviance in Groups, Level of cohesiveness and Social Loafing.
  • The following section highlights the parameters a project manager should take into account when creating a high-performance team: guidelines of group size, diversity and selection criteria. Further in this section methods for reassuring high-performance will be outlined, these are: training and development, team building and reward systems.
  • In the last section limitations will be discussed with a critical view on the practical usage of the tools and guidelines.

This article starts by explaining the group dynamics before forming a group in order to gain knowledge of general group developments and general issues to understand the importance of the group forming criteria.

Definition of a team

All teams are groups, but not all groups are teams. What distinguishes the two definitions is the intensity of work done together to achieve a common goal or objective, where teams work together with a higher intensity [2].

In this article the focus is on teams, because project work is performed by teams and not by groups according to the PMI standards. "The project team includes the project manager and the group of individuals who act together in performing the work of the project to achieve its objectives ... This team is comprised of individuals from different groups with specific subject matter knowledge or with a specific skill set to carry out the work of the project." [1]. Despite this statement on teams and groups, groups are more often mentioned in this article, because theories use “group” in the terminology. It is of great importance to keep in mind that group theories also apply to teams because all teams are groups.

High-performance team

A definition of a high-performance team is: "The ultimate team experience and the one that holds both the greatest challenge as well as opportunity to improve productivity is the high-performance team. Such a team is not simply a group of people." [3] All team members in a high-performance team must accept a greater deal of responsibility and accountability compared to normal groups. It is not an easy task for a project manager to recruit people that want to make that commitment since most already feel that their job requires enough. Key elements the management, or the project manager, needs to communicate to the team members are:

  • The importance of their skills and their work on the team.
  • That they will be evaluated on their performance individually.
  • That they possibly receive a reward as a team.

These key elements can work positively for the recruiting process and for maintaining a high-performance team.[3]

Group Norms

Group norms are shared guidelines or rules for behavior created by the members themselves which most members follow. This can be guidelines for working hours, dress code, how to share information or how a certain process should be performed. The project manager should suggest to the group to discuss or even to write down the guidelines in a group contract. This helps the group to create a work environment where it is known what the group expects of behavior of its members.[2] Early commitment to clear guidelines decreases misunderstanding and will increase the productivity of the team.[1]

Theories on group dynamics

Five Stages of Group Development

Despite the fact every group consists of individuals and therefore every group is different, Bruce Wayne Tuckman and Mary Ann Jensen (Tuckman, 1965; Tuckman & Jensen, 1977)[1], created a model which identifies five stages the vast majority of groups go through and is illustrated in Figure 1 [4]. Only groups or teams that have previously worked together may skip a stage[1]. The five stages of group development are[2]:

Figure 1: Five Stages of Group Development. Inspired from "Essentials of Contemporary Management" [2].
  1. Forming is the first stage. In this stage members of the group try to get an understanding of each other, align their expectations regarding behavior, norms and clarify what to accomplish. In this stage the project manager's responsibility is to ensure, that each member of the group feels valued in the group.
  2. The storming stage is known for the appearance of disagreements and conflicts. These are mainly based on the question of who should lead the group and if some members do not meet the demands of another group member. Here the project manager needs to make sure that the conflicts do not escalade.
  3. During the third stage, norming, the group members have come to a consensus about their achievements and they have created strong ties with one another which gives them a good foundation for performance.
  4. The performing stage is where the group members accomplish tasks. In this stage the project manager is of great importance to ensure continuous motivation and effectiveness. The performing stage is where high-performance teams differ from normal groups regarding the intensity and deliverables [4].
  5. The last stage, adjourning, only applies to groups that disband. During the adjourning stage the project manager has to initiate celebration of success and reflect upon best practices. For future purposes reflections can be captured in reports with lessons learned and pros and cons.[4]

Conformity and Deviance in Groups

Figure 2: Balancing Conformity and Deviance in Groups. Inspired from "Essentials of Contemporary Management" [2].

Conformity is a persons behavior and actions to fit social standards and norms in groups. This happens for several reasons. One reason is the behavior to achieve rewards and avoid punishments. Another reason is when a member copies another member's behavior because the person likes and or admires the other group member. Another reason is to behave according to what the group has incarnated as being the right and proper way.

Deviance happens when a member does not conform to the norms in the group which signals that the group cannot control its members’ behavior. Groups often respond to such behavior in three different ways. One is to convince the deviant to change his or hers behavior in order to conform to the group by presenting consequences. Another way is simply to expel the member where the third way is to adjust the group norms and to adapt to the deviant’s behavior.

Balancing conformity and deviance is important to achieve high-performance within a team, as Figure 2 demonstrates. Too much conformity will result in behavior that is not critical towards the group norms and processes. The consequence is that dysfunctional norms are allowed and not corrected or replaced with better and more functional norms. The right amount of deviance will make group members reflect on the group norms and behaviors and change them when needed. On the other hand, too much deviance also results in low performance hence the group cannot control its members and therefore does not succeed to create a good working environment.

Looking back at the definition of a high-performance team this phrase "opportunity to improve productivity" [3] captures the theory of balancing conformity and deviance, because a high-performance team will make sure to challenge themselves and one another to keep on top of their game.

The project managers can help guiding the team to find the right balance. There are three ways the project manager can be of help.

  1. The project manager can encourage and support suggestions from a group member about changes in procedures or norms. This together with explaining that conformity should not outshine the need of change and improvements.
  2. Secondly, the project manager should let the group members know, that there are always ways to improve group processes and opportunities to replace norms to get a higher performance level.
  3. Thirdly, project managers should encourage groups or teams to review their norms and processes regularly and make changes if needed.

Critical issues that prevents high-performance

Figure 3: Three Ways to Reduce Social Loafing. Inspired from "Essentials of Contemporary Management" [2].

Level of cohesiveness

Group cohesiveness is the degree of which group members are loyal or attracted to their group and is seen as a positive development regarding group dynamics. When there is too much cohesiveness groups tend to be less effective due to non-work-related talks for example during meetings. Groups with high level of cohesiveness will also have trouble acting towards organizational goals if it is at the expense of achieving group goals. Too low cohesiveness leads to too much deviance that results in the group not being able to complete tasks [2].

Social loafing

Social loafing is a tendency where an individual performs less in group work compared to working individually. Social loafing lowers the group performance and should be eliminated. [2].

Figure 3 presents three ways of reducing social loafing. Transparency of individual contributions reduces social loafing, because it is harder for the individual team member to "hide" in the group. When a project manager makes sure to emphasize valuable contributions it will reduce social loafing because there is a bigger motivation to contribute. The group size is of great importance to reduce social loafing because it will support the ease of transparency in the group.

Forming and managing an optimal team

Figure 4: Factors leading to cohesive groups and results of that, inspired from Essentials of Contemporary Management [2].

An important element in group performance and effectiveness is the moderate level of cohesiveness which has already been mentioned. Figure 4 demonstrates which elements support cohesiveness and these factors will be explained in this section. The outcome in this model is leveled participation in the team work, leveled conformity and focus on common goal accomplishments.

Group size and its diversity


There are several advantages in keeping the size of the teams relatively small, somewhere between two and nine members, due to the following examples:

  • The group members interact more with each other and coordination of dividing tasks gets easier.
  • Members of smaller groups feel more committed, motivated and satisfied as demonstrated in Figure 4.
  • It is easier to share information and communicate.
  • It gets easier, especially for the project manager, to see and acknowledge individual contributions.[2].

A small team is not always the ideal solution, because if the team is too small it has fewer resources like skills, knowledge and experience. One of the issues that a good group size prevents to a certain degree is social loafing. It gets harder for a member to "hide" and not deliver if he or she is deviant to the group norms [2].


Diversity is a key word when forming a team. The diversity can be measured in expertise, experience, knowledge and skills and or as a composition of members from different divisions e.g. marketing, production, engineering and finance. One of the strengths is avoidance of groupthinking. Groupthinking is when the team faulty strives for reaching an agreement at the expense of a more correct appraisal which is more likely to happen when there is a lack of diversity [2]. A balanced diversity in groups has many good side effects. The chance of getting a more balanced cohesiveness is higher when the team members do not have the same background or the same colleagues. The same applies to having a moderate level of deviance in the group to keep challenging the norms without it getting out of hand.

Communication is key to good team work. A tool to strengthen the communication skills in a team is to make use of the Belbin Team Roles. This tool describes interpersonal skills which provide a better foundation for good communication as stated on the official Belbin website: "Belbin can provide the language to ensure that individuals and teams communicate and work together with greater understanding."[5]

Selection criteria

Selection criteria are often used when forming a project team. A method is to use a multi-criteria decision analysis tool. The criteria can be used to rate or score potential team members. The criteria should be weighted according to the relative importance of the projects need, e.g. with an Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP)[6]. Examples of criteria that can be used to score possible team members are:[1].

  • Skills: Determine if the person has the required skills to use specific tools, give the right training or push through an implementation.
  • Knowledge: Verify if the person has relevant knowledge from previous similar projects.
  • Competences: Verify if the person has the right competences and experiences to contribute to reach the project's objective.
  • Attitude: Determine if the person's personality or work attitude fits the other team members to create a cohesive team.
  • Availability: Identify if the person is available to work on the team during the project timeline.
  • Cost: Verify if the cost of adding the person to the team is within the project budget.

By using this method it can clarify the selection process for the project manager of whom to choose for the high-performance team.

Manage a high-performance team

Training and development

Training is performed so team members acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be effective performers, whereas development is team members building knowledge and skills in preparation to take on new responsibilities and challenges.[2] In the following both are addressed as training. Formal as well as informal training should be included in the project budget and is a method to enhance the team members competences. Formal and planned training can be necessary when there is a lack of needed skills. Unplanned and informal training takes place as a result of observations and conversations. It is the project manager's responsibility to spot and arrange this. Training methods can both be performed in classrooms, online, computer-based, on-the-job training from one to another team member, mentoring and coaching [1]. Training is an attractive offer for employees because they will be more valuable in the company and for future projects.

Team building

Team building is used to improve goal setting and to develop more effective relationships. Team building can also clarify roles and responsibilities [7], which can help speeding up the process in the Five Stages of Group Development going faster through the second step Storming to the third step Norming which leads to performing.

Team building can vary from a 5-minutes informal activity at a team meeting to an off-site professionally facilitated experience. The informal activities helps building trust and establishing good working relationships. The professional activities are mostly designed to improve interpersonal relationships [1]. Team building activities will produce more cohesive groups and might motivate individuals to change their behaviour to support group goals and norms [7].

Continuous team building is crucial to project success. Team building is essential during the initial stages of a project, but it is a never-ending process. A project environment change is inevitable. To manage the changes effectively team building activities should be performed. The project manager should monitor team functionality and performance to determine if there is a need to take actions to prevent or correct team problems during the project life cycle.[1] To ensure high-performance in a team, the acquisition of interpersonal skills are important to create or maintain good communication in the team. Interpersonal skills can often be obtained through team building on a regular basis. The outcome of team building is that members become:

  • More open and sensitive
  • Authentic with one another
  • More experimental and flexible
  • More spontaneous, more helpful and concise. [8]

Reward systems

In the description of high-performance teams the project manager is encouraged to evaluate team members individually and to make a reward system, either individually or team based, pending on the desired effects. Team members get motivated if they feel valued in the team and the appreciation can be shown by giving rewards. Important to address is that rewards given to any individual will only be effective if it satisfies a need valued by the individual. There are many forms of rewards and recognitions, it depends on what the team members value and what their norms are e.g. taking cultural differences into account. Money used as a reward system is very measureable and tangible. But more intangible rewards can be just as effective if the team members are more motivated by the opportunity to grow within the company, get new professional skills or end up getting more responsibility. A good strategy for a project manager is to give the team recognition and rewards throughout the life cycle of the project rather than waiting until the project has ended.[1].


As a project manager there are limitations associated with forming and managing a team taking all the guidelines into perspective.

  1. In the organization: Project managers may not always have every employee at his or hers disposal when forming a team, according to the PMI standards. Reasons varie from collective bargaining agreements, internal or external relationships, use of subcontractors up to matrix project environment. There are many constraints such as economic factors, low competencies or already assigned resources to other projects within the company. Failure to acquire the necessary team members for the project can affect budgets, customer satisfaction, project schedules, quality and risks. Insufficient teams can decrease the probability of success or could in worst case scenario result in a project cancellation. These limitations should be considered and planned in the start-up phase of the project. If there is any unavailability of required skills or competences, the project manager has to reflect on the impact of the project budget, schedule, quality, risks, training plans and other project management plans [1]. In case it is not possible to compose a team from the available resources, the project manager may need to hire new employees dedicated specifically to project work. Other examples of putting together the right team is when the management choose to hire a consultant team to do the project. This is often done when it is known: that the time issue is too big of a obstacle, the expenses of hiring new employees are too high or that the resources for a project are not available in the organization.
  2. Belbin Team Roles: Belbin suggests to put together a team based on their behavioral strengths and weaknesses in the workplace [5]. It can be a big challenge to match team roles, skills and available resources. Another issue when forming a high-performance team is to determine whether these team roles, skills and resources meet the project requirements in an optimal way. A research has been done to answer the question: "Belbin role diversity and team performance: is there a relationship?" [9]. This research showed no relationship between team role diversity and team performance. Therefore this article suggests to only use the Belbin's Team Roles for improving communication skills in relation to interpersonal skills, better known as “soft skills” or behavioral competencies [1].

Annotated bibliography

  • Essentials of Contemporary Management, Sixth Edition

Chapter 11 - This chapter, Effective Team Management, explains how different elements of group dynamics influence the functioning and effectiveness of groups and teams. E.g. to have a balance of conformity and deviance and a moderate level of cohesiveness, why and how to reduce social loafing in groups.

Chapter 12 - Building and Managing Human Resources, discusses training and development options that ensure members to effectively perform their jobs. It also explains why reward systems are such crucial activities to encourage high levels of motivation and performance.

  • A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Fifth Edition

Chapter 9 - The chapter, Project Human Resource Management, gives guidelines and background knowledge on group developments e.g. the Five Stages of Group Development. The chapter also explains the management of a project team with training, team building and recognition and reward systems. Limitations when acquiring the right resources in a team is also presented in this chapter.

Chapter 2 - This chapter, Organizational Influences and Project Life Cycle, is defining projects, project work and project teams.

  • How to Create a High-Performance Team, Quarterly 16.3 (2005)

This article defines, discusses and considers high-performance teams and the importance of team member selection, development, training and communication.

  • The theory and practice of change management, Fourth Edition

This book, across chapters, defines what team building is and how it strengthens teams.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 Project Management Institute. (2004). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK guide). Newtown Square, Pa: Project Management Institute.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 Jones, Gareth R., and Jennifer M. George. Essentials of Contemporary Management. McGraw-Hill Education, 2015. Print.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Harris, PR 1986, 'Building a High-Performance Team', Training & Development Journal, 40, 4, p. 28, Academic Search Elite, EBSCOhost, viewed 20 February 2018.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Abudi, G. (2018). [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Feb. 2018]
  5. 5.0 5.1
  7. 7.0 7.1 Hayes, J. (2014). The theory and practice of change management. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  8. Philip R. Harris, Dorothy L. Harris, (1989) "High Performance Team Management", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 10 Issue: 4, pp.28-32
  9. Batenburg, R., Walbeek, W. van, Maur, W. in der. Belbin role diversity and team performance: is there a relationship? Journal of Management Development: 2013, 32(8), 901-913

Reading suggestions to related wiki articles

  • Project Team Roles and Responsibilities, Spring 2018 [1]
  • Belbin Team Roles, Spring 2018 [2]
  • How to successfully go through the Five Stages of Team Development, Fall 2016 [3]
  • Group Dynamics and Personality Types, Fall 2014 [4]
  • Designing Project Teams, Fall 2014 [5]
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