Ground rules for a high performing team


Andy Stuart


In today’s rapidly changing business environment teams are required to react quickly to change in order for companies to stay competitive and be more relevant in the marketplace. The agility of teams is determined by many factors including the maturity of the team, the ability of the team to work well together and the overall alignment of the team with the strategic goals of the company. In this paper we will discuss a process for developing a set of ground rules for the team that will work equally well with new teams and mature teams, and will help the team raise their performance and deliver results aligned with the company strategy.


High performing teams collaborate to deliver outstanding results consistently. High performing teams do not come about by accident. The performance of the team is built on a foundation of mutual trust and respect, an understanding of the individual behaviors in the team, and an alignment on a common purpose. Many teams are less effective than they could be due to team members not building this foundation in the early stages of team development. High-performing teams on the other hand take the time to get to know each other individually, take action to build trust across the team, work together to set clear goals, hold each other accountable for meeting these goals, and have a clear set of ground rules that define the required behaviors for the team. They recognize that in order to achieve and maintain high performance levels, the ground rules they define should be created by the team in a collaborative manner.

This paper provides an overview of a simple four step process to help any leader develop a solid foundation for their team by creating a set of ground rules that help drive a results-oriented culture within the team. The four steps are:

  • Step 1 – Forming the team.
  • Step 2 – Overcoming storming through understanding individual behaviors.
  • Step 3 – Defining the team vision.
  • Step 4 – Determining ground rules for the team.

Forming the team

As a team comes together there may be pressure for the leader to take charge and set the ground rules and expectations immediately. While this may be effective in the short-term it does not help in building the team cohesiveness required for a high performing team. When the team comes together it is best to spend some time on introductions and getting to know each other better and then immediately ground the team on where they are in the team development life cycle. As defined by Tuckman, the team development lifecycle has four stages: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. In the model, ground rules are established in the forming stage, but if you can minimize the time between Forming and Norming, it is best to establish ground rules in the Norming stage. In this stage people are more willing to think from a team perspective rather than an individual perspective. The goal of early team formation activities is to move from Forming through Storming and into Norming as soon as possible.

Exhibit 1 – Tuckman’s stages of team development

Tuckman’s stages of team development

Overcoming storming through understanding individual behaviors

Confusion and misunderstandings arising during the storming stage of the team development lifecycle often occur due to a lack of knowledge of individual team members motivators, stressors and default behaviors. Thus, individuals rely on their initial perceptions and judgment to determine if someone is trustworthy. This can lead to people being defensive, overly critical of others and can actually create coalitions in the team that break the team cohesiveness. Exposing team members to behavioral models may help overcome this problem and drive a better understanding of each others behavioral tendencies. There are many behavioral models that can be used to evaluate team members behaviors or personality types. For this paper we will focus on the DiSC theory developed by Dr. William Marston. The DiSC model theorizes that everyone has a dominant behavioral style and understanding each other’s styles helps team members interact more positively. Understanding the positive attributes and negative attributes of each style helps team members engage more effectively.

The four styles are:

  • Dominance – direct, results oriented, firm, strong-willed, forceful. Can be seen as intimidating.
  • Influence – outgoing, enthusiastic, optimistic, high-spirited, lively. Can be seen as overly optimistic.
  • Steadiness – even-tempered, accommodating, patient, humble, tactful. Can be seen as indecisive.
  • Conscientousness – analytical, reserved, precise, private, systematic. Can be seen as halting progress due to over analyzing and slow decision making.

Exhibit 2 – Marston’s DiSC Model

Marston’s DiSC Model

In order for the DiSC assessment to affect team performance, all team members have to recognize the basic fact that you cannot force someone to change their behavior, but you can change how you interact with them to influence their behavior. The real value of using the DiSC model is that all team members understand their own default behaviors, motivators and stressors and understand the impact this may have on relationships with team members of different styles. With this understanding team members change they way they interact with each other to ensure positive working relationships.

Defining the team vision

As the team moves into the norming phase of the team development lifecycle, default behaviors are understood, roles and responsibilities are clarified and the team starts to gain a sense of camaraderie. At this point the team is ready to develop a common understanding of their purpose and how they contribute to the overall success of the company. The team need to have a good understanding of the company strategy and how their results will align with the strategy.

To ensure the team vision is aligned with the company objectives and focused on the right things, the following steps should be taken:

  1. Review the company objectives, how success is measured and determine where the team can make the most significant impact.

    As an example one company objective is to lead the industry in the Net Promoter Score (NPS) metric. NPS is a measure of customer loyalty and is calculated by asking a very specific question “Based on your experience with ABC how likely are you to recommend this company to a friend?” The question is scored on a sliding scale from 0 to 5 or 0 to 10 where the top scores are defined as Promoters and the lower scores are defined as Detractors. Promoters are people who will promote your company to friends and Detractors are people who will provide negative views of the company to friends. The NPS Score is the percentage of Promoters minus the percentage of Detractors as shown in Exhibit 3 below.

    Exhibit 3 – NPS Scoring

    NPS Scoring

    An understanding of how success is measured by the company is crucial; without it, the team may not understand how their efforts will influence the company performance. In this case the objective for the company is drive actions that will increase the number of Promoters and decrease the number of Detractors to drive an overall improvement in NPS.

  2. Once the company level metrics and success factors are understood, the team identifies the outcomes they will drive that will affect the company level metrics. For example, the Quality organization needs to understand the impact of Quality on NPS. Typically, as an NPS company, there will be a periodic customer survey to help identify the key drivers of loyalty, which should provide the weighting of Product Quality versus the other drivers. Exhibit 4 shows a pareto of drivers for a fictinional consumer electronics product. The biggest driver of customer loyalty is identified as the the quality of the products that the company ships to customers. Customers are more likely to repurchase a brand if their current purchase works for the full expected life of the product with no issues. Knowing that Quality is the number one driver of NPS, the quality department’s vision may be “Customers are loyal to ABC company because of industry leading product quality.” This is a very simple vision that can be measured quantitatively with competitive research. Any team within the quality organization would ensure that their day-to-day objectives deliver outcomes that improve the quality of their products with the ultimate goal of being the best in the industry.

Exhibit 4 – NPS Drivers

NPS Drivers

Determining ground rules for the team

Once the team is aligned on the overall vision and objectives, it is time to document the governing ground rules. All members of the team must buy into the ground rules in order for them to be effective. Creating the ground rules in a collaborative environment is one way of maximizing buy in. Ground rules ensure that the team has a set of governing practices that can be used to baseline behaviors and ensure that the team functions as a high performing team. Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (year) provides a team assessment exercise to help identify areas of team dysfunction and offers insights into how a team can overcome the dysfunctions. The five dysfunctions covered in the book are:

  • Absence of trust,
  • Fear of conflict,
  • Lack of commitment,
  • Avoidance of accountability, and
  • Innatention to results.

The ground rules developed by the team should provide guidelines to ensure the team environment is safe. Building trust enables healthy debate giving all team members the opportunity to voice their opinions, and encourages commitment to goals of which the team is accountable and will strive to deliver.

The exercise is Lencioni’s book is straightforward in that it asks all team members to score a set of questions related to a specific dysfunction on a score of 1-3. An example is shown below in Exhibit 5.

Exhibit 5 – Survey Questions from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Survey Questions from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

When the survey is complete each team member will have a score for each dysfunction as shown in Exhibit 6 below.

Exhibit 6 – Scoring table from The Five Dysfunctions exercise

Scoring table from The Five Dysfunctions exercise

In new teams the answers to many of the questions will be rarely (1) or sometimes (2) as the team members may not have had a lot of time to get to know each other or engage in specific areas that are covered in the survey. This is good as the team members will select those low scoring areas as areas of focus when developing their ground rules and will have a healthy conversation around each area. Areas scored high and not identified as problematic should still be discussed by the team to determine which behaviors should be reinforced. This ensures the specific dysfunction does not cause future problems when new team members join the team.

Upon survey completion, the team conducts a brainstorming exercise to identify the causes of the dysfunctions and mitigation strategies to ensure that the dysfunctions do not impact team performance. For teams less than 15 people standard small group brainstorming techniques may be used. For larger groups, a good method is the World Café method. With the World Café method the team brainstorms multiple topics at one time by creating small groups that focus on an individual topic for a fixed period of time and then the group, minus the scribe, moves on to the next topic. As the new team come to the table to discuss a topic the scribe reads back the information captured by the previous teams and each team builds on the initial ideas.

To cover the five dysfunctions, the team will split into five groups as shown below in Exhibit 7.

Exhibit 7 – World Café Exercise set up

World Café Exercise set up

After ten minutes the team rotates to the next table and the scribe stays at their original table as shown in Exhibit 8 below. This process continues until all team members have discussed all five dysfunctions.

Exhibit 8 – World Café Exercise Process

World Café Exercise Process

Once the exercise is complete all team members come together. The scribe reports what people believe are the causes of each dysfunction and what the team members believe can be done to prevent the causes from impacting team performance. These actions or behaviors form the ground rules for the team. For example, one Chapter of the Project Management Institute developed the following ground rules using the process detailed in this paper.

  1. We will make PMI an organization that people want to be a part of.
  2. We will commit to getting to know each other on a personal level.
  3. We will prioritize our efforts on the execution of our tactical plan.
  4. We will be accountable for achieving our goals and doing what we say we will do.
  5. We will treat each other with respect.
  6. We will support collaborative decisions of the team even if we disagree individually.
  7. We will engage in honest and open communications at all times.
  8. We will not jump to conclusions but rather ask for clarification.
  9. We will participate in each other’s development as leaders of the chapter.
  10. We will celebrate the team and individual successes.

The year after completing this exercise the chapter was awarded with PMI’s Chapter of the Year award.


There are many ways to align a team on a vision and have them execute the plans to make the vision a reality. This paper provides one method to ensure the team is set up for maximum success from the beginning by following a structured process that allows teams to get to know each other; understand default behaviors, stressors and motivators; and start to build trust amongst the team early on. When the team can be vulnerable with each other, they are in a much better position to create ground rules that are meaningful to the team. This will help ensure the team performs at a higher level than they would by just creating an arbitrary set of rules. Creating the ground rules takes time but it is time well spent if the ground rules are followed by all team members.


Tuckman’s stages of team development – Retrieved from A Visit From Coach Tuckman: The Lakers and Team Development

DiSC Model – Inscape Publishing,

Lencioni, P. (year). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. City: Publisher.

© 2014, Andy Stuart
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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