Teams of teams: a new era for performance management

Our ability to cooperate in teams marks us out from our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees

Most organisations recognise that measuring performance is essential for making decisions around reward and staffing. But how can they use those findings to really improve the performance of individuals and teams? Tom Marsden from Saberr believes technology can play a crucial role.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem,” Einstein said, “I would spend fifty five minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes on the solution.” With this in mind, I believe we need to spend more time reflecting on the problems with performance management; otherwise we risk rushing into half-baked solutions.

There are two distinct but related problems to solve. On the one hand performance management systems exist to measure performance. But they also exist to develop people and improve performance.

Measuring performance is a backward looking assessment at year end. It’s used for reward decisions, firing people and identifying exceptional performance. The second is an ongoing, forward looking dialogue between leaders and employees. Coaching people to achieve more. These problems are distinct and there’s a natural tension between coaching and measurement that we need to recognise.

What do you do with the results?

Most companies will retain some sort of performance evaluation and a key question is what do you want to do with the results? We see a growing trend to simplify and adopt a three point scale.

Are employees excelling? In which case you may want to recognise that extraordinary performance. Are they succeeding? In which case offer development conversations on how to improve further. Are they struggling? In which case you might need to provide support or have a difficult conversation.

Measurement needs to embrace a broader context. How quantifiable and measurable is performance? Is the work done individual or collective? How has the employee developed through coaching? How has the role changed? What’s changed in the market benchmark for the role?

We need to encourage group reflection and we need to challenge managers to build an environment where people can speak their mind.

An over-reliance only on managers to rate employees is dangerous – studies show that many managers are bad raters. And we need to become much more aware of bias – ‘recency’ bias or ‘horn’ or ‘halo’ effects or a tribal bias in favour “people like me”.

The focus of the performance measurement process is to be transparent and fair. Buffer, for example, publish all salaries and an explanation about the calculations. This may be a step too far for most but it’s a signal of the transparency we should aim towards.

Making improvements

Fairness may be important in how we measure performance, but surely the main aim of a system is to improve performance? Dan Pink made famous research about our motivations.

Offering fair monetary incentives was effective when we had to perform simple tasks but, when we were doing more complex tasks, we had different drivers. These included a desire for autonomy, mastery and purpose and we need systems that appeal to those desires. How can we make that happen?


One of the answers is to help managers become better coaches. Too many managers still believe they need to tell individuals what to do. In fact we can be more effective if we help team members set goals that are motivating to them.

Many organisations are now embracing the potential of more coaching-style conversations. Research shows that there are three main barriers stopping managers coaching. Firstly, managers don’t know how to coach. Secondly, they don’t feel they have the time and, thirdly, they just don’t care enough.

Technology can help address some of these problems. Simple, in the moment education, intelligent nudging and coaching systems that can gather data and reduce administrative burdens.

Any parent with teenage children knows full well how technology can form habits. Why not use that knowledge to encourage coaching habits?

In the future, artificial intelligence will have the potential to help tailor advice. But at the moment, it’s likely that a colleague may have the greatest insight. We need to encourage those conversations to happen.

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A lot of work these days doesn’t happen alone, but in teams. Sixty percent of employees say their work requires regular coordination with 10 or more people. Two-thirds reported regular coordination with employees from different work units and supervisory levels and a similar percentage reported a need for more collaboration today than three years ago.

It’s a trend we see across industries. The military, technology, science and healthcare are all industries with a focus on teaming. Stanley McChrystal’s book, The Team of Teams, outlines the importance of autonomous teams in the army. Technology companies are embracing ‘agile’ ways of working, defined by small, effective teams.

Most important scientific research is being developed from cross functional disciplines and Nobel prizes are often awarded to teams not individuals. Real teamwork could reduce patient mortality by over 5,000 deaths a year in the NHS. Teamwork matters.

Leaders, like sports coaches, need to be able to coach teams and individuals. Imagine a football manager only being able to coach individuals one at a time. No team coaching. Crazy? But it happens at work.

Technology has changed the nature of communication. Platforms such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and Facebook Workplace emphasise team discussions. Yet our performance conversations still focus only on the individual. Why?

As organisational culture guru Edgar Schein highlights, “we have built all of our incentive and promotion system on individual performance. The result of the cultural bias is that most leaders are shockingly incompetent in running meetings or creating teams. Yet they depend on teamwork”.

The principles of team coaching are well established. Research at Google showed that teams, like individuals, crave meaning and impact. Psychological safety is also critical in groups. Team members must feel safe to take risks and to speak their mind.

We need to support managers to have a conversation about team purpose. We need teams to understand where and how they should collaborate to create team goals. We need to encourage group reflection and we need to challenge managers to build an environment where people can speak their mind.

Again technology can play a role. We’ve designed digital sessions based on what an experienced team coach might do. An online team charter can help define team identity, nudges and notifications can prompt behaviours and analysis can provide feedback on positive patterns of what is working. The most powerful thing is not advice from the artificial coach, it’s richer conversations between people.

True performance management means that we find meaning at work and that it’s aligned to organisational ‘purpose.’

Teams of teams

If we really want to impact performance, we need to go a stage further. We need to coach individuals, teams and also “teams of teams.” In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari comments that “at the level of one, or even ten, we are much like chimpanzees”. What sets humans apart is the ability to create an imagined reality out of words that enable large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively, he says.

True performance management involves large groups aligning around a shared mission or consciousness, but this will not happen if we only encourage individual conversations.

We need to encourage the cascade of goals into teams when appropriate. Teams are not order takers. They apply judgment in defining their own goals.

True performance management means desired values are more than words on a poster; teams members discuss behaviours and call each other out when required. True performance management means that we find meaning at work and that it’s aligned to organisational ‘purpose’.

All of this is happening in an environment that is fast moving and dynamic, team structures change and strategy is emergent. As Amy Edmondson points out, ‘teaming’ needs to become a verb. Discussions on purpose, goals and behaviours at work need to be practical. There’s not the time for long off-sites.

Striking a balance

Measuring performance has its uses and we should trust that the process is as fair as possible.

But, the true opportunity with performance management is to improve performance. To do this we need to recognise that most of us strive for meaning, mastery and the right balance of autonomy and community at work.

Our performance management systems need to have a strong coaching focus, but they need to recognise that collaboration and teamwork are facts of life. We should support – not disincentivise – this as we design new approaches or there’s a strong danger we will simply repeat the dysfunctional.

Our ability to cooperate at scale also marks us out from our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees. Developing a performance management system that recognises this is a significant challenge.


About Tom Marsden

Tom Marsden is CEO of Saberr.

2 Responses to Teams of teams: a new era for performance management

  1. Avatar
    Dave Thomas 31 Jan 2019 at 12:37 am #

    some good points

    • Avatar
      Steve Batty 5 Feb 2019 at 12:23 pm #

      I agree some good points.

      I particularly like the forward looking approach, which is proactive and constructive. The traditional performance management process is generally regarded as a drain on time and resources by all and designed to meet someone else’s KPI’s once or twice a year rather than truly helping the individual and team.

      Coaching/ mentoring year round is great……how best to fit this into the day to day workflow……guess we will discuss!

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