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By Davida van der Walt


There is a direct correlation between team health and team performance. In simple terms, healthy teams are high performing teams.

In practice, we often see projects slipping on schedule and cost, without realising that the root cause for the dysfunction is poor team health.  Project success is defined as delivery of a product or a service within a given time frame, budget, within acceptable quality and with minimal risks.  Project teams should be set up and supported to increase the probability of project success.  Challenges and risks are inherent to all projects.  However, effective and efficient team management is one of the keys to overcome such challenges and unlock success.

What does a ‘healthy team’ mean?

The World Health Organization (WHO), defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO, 1946).  By applying this definition to project teams, it can be stated that project teams should be physically healthy, mentally healthy and socially well-adjusted.  It is clear that team health is a dynamic condition, constantly impacted by the surrounding environment that could be of a personal or work nature.  For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the work environment.  That said, it must be acknowledged that the personal circumstances of individual team members can also have a major impact on team health.

One of the greatest buzz words of our time is ‘stress’.   It is important to note that stress is not always a bad thing.  Eustress, or positive stress, is optimal stress that motivates a person.  It is short-term in nature and it is stress within your coping capability.  Eustress helps you feel excited and heightens your levels of alertness.  Eustress therefore contributes to improved performance.  In contrast, distress, or negative stress, is more stress than one can cope with and consequently it causes anxiety.  Distress can lead to emotional and physical problems and ultimately decreases performance.  Distress is also more long-term in nature.  Project team members exposed to eustress are likely to perform optimally, whilst team members suffering from distress are likely to battle to perform at their best.

In a project context, certain characteristics of the team can positively or negatively affect the team health, exposing the team to either eustress or distress.

Characteristics of a high performing team

OTC defines effective teams, and ultimately high performing teams, as having direction and structure, work together as a team, have good relations with external stakeholders and are empowered. Figure 1 depicts the OTC model for high performing teams.

Fig 1 Team Effectiveness

Figure 1:  OTC model for high performing teams (van der Walt, 2016)

Each of these elements is discussed in turn:

  • Direction:  Strong leadership through effective project sponsorship, a clear purpose and direction, well-defined boundaries in the form of a clear sponsor mandate and project charter, as well as shared leadership, which means shared accountability.
  • Structure:  Everyone on the project is clear on their roles and responsibilities, the project team structure is well-defined and known, a clear project development and execution plan is in place, conflict and dispute resolution mechanisms are in place, and decision making and approval authority protocols are agreed.
  • Teamwork:  The team members trust one another and communicate openly, they collaborate and participate freely, listen willingly and engage in constructive conflict or disagreement.
  • External Relations:  Effective relationships, external to the project team, are in place with all key stakeholders that need to contribute in some way or provide resources.  These typically include industry leaders, business contacts, technology suppliers, communities affected by the project, suppliers of equipment, goods or services and government departments.  Government engagement is typically around legislation impacting the project.
  • Empowerment:  Being an empowered team implies that the authority assigned to each person in the team, relevant to their level of influence, is clear and understood; that resources deployed on the project are sufficient to be able to execute the project (this includes funding, people and tools); that information that the team needs in order to do their jobs, is flowing freely (e.g. progress, performance, risks etc.); that the resources that are deployed are competent to do their jobs; and that the team is not only clear on who is accountable for what, but also held accountable.

As a result of all five elements being in place, the team is happy, healthy and motivated, and they stay on schedule, keep within the budget, deliver at the required quality and stay focused, thereby preventing incidents and accidents.

To ensure project team effectiveness throughout the life-cycle of a project can be challenging, as there are many factors impacting the effectiveness of a team.  One of the keys to developing high performing teams is to remember that successful teams do not simply happen.  They require proper guidance and support from the project sponsor and project manager.  They require an organisational culture which enables and fosters teamwork.

This then begs the question: What can project managers and project sponsors do to foster healthy and high performing teams?  In the next section, we look at seven ways to achieve healthy and high performing teams.

Achieving healthy and high performing teams

The seven ways to a healthy and high performing team are shown in Figure 2.  Again, each is discussed in turn.

Fig 2 Seven ways to healthy team

Figure 2:  Seven ways to a healthy and high performing team

Leadership/project sponsorship

High performance teams start with good leadership.  Having an effective sponsor on your project can mean the difference between success and failure.  If you do not already have a sponsor appointed, make sure to appoint the right person for the job, or else provide your sponsor with the necessary training to be able to effectively enact the role of a sponsor on your project.

Framing and alignment

Framing a project properly at the outset will assist in aligning the team towards success and minimise the chances of failure.  Framing is not a single event, but is a process throughout each stage of a project that forms the foundation for all gate deliverables and helps meet promises made to business boards.  The aim of the initial opportunity framing process is to ensure that the right problem is tackled, from the right perspective, by the right people.

Proactive alignment of key stakeholders on your project will prevent unnecessary changes and rework.  In the event that a project has changed direction during the course of the project life-cycle, it can add a lot of value to redo the opportunity framing and to confirm if any project boundaries have changed.

If framing and alignment is not done properly, the team will pull in different directions and key stakeholders can halt the project, because they do not buy into the objectives.  This will lead to confusion, conflict and huge frustration, and ultimately a very unhappy, unproductive team.

Team Development

Team development is the enhancement of the effectiveness of project teams by improving goal and role clarification and interpersonal processes.  Team development creates a captivating atmosphere by encouraging co-operation, teamwork and interdependence and by building trust among team members.

According to the Tuckman Team Development Model (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977), newly formed teams go through four main phases, namely forming, storming, norming and performing.  This team development model is the most well-known and accepted in the literature.

The model proposes that when you form a team, there is normally quite a bit of uncertainty and lack of structure.  During the forming phase, a high degree of guidance is required from managers, individual roles are unclear and work processes are normally not established yet.  The team then moves into the storming phase where they start to get accustomed to how decisions are made.  At this stage their purpose is clear, but they are still learning to work with one another.  Relationships tend to be cordial and uncertain.  At this stage the team battles to adjust to the direction given to them and they tend to experiment in terms of how far they can push the boundaries.  They then move to norming.  Now they start to understand one another, understand the procedures to be followed and start working according to accepted norms and values.  They start to commit to team goals.  The final phase is performing:  now the team is committed and works well together, like a well-oiled machine.

The project sponsor and project manager can play an active role in helping the team move through the stages as quickly as possible.  If this not done, the team will be dysfunctional, not knowing what their roles are, or how they should go about getting the job done.  Poor team development is a recipe for conflict and dysfunction.

Stakeholder engagement and communication

Megaprojects call for intensive external engagement with government, organised labour, contractors, media, communities and other interested and affected parties, which all see themselves as having a stake of some sort in the project.  For example, if expectations were created to provide jobs and training to local communities and a project is delayed, these expectations must be managed to prevent unnecessary upsets.  This would require additional resources and effort to contain.  Key external stakeholders, given their power and influence over your project, could impact your project success.  Ensure that a proper mapping has been done of internal and external stakeholders, with an active engagement and communication plan.

Poor internal stakeholder management often leads to changes to the scope of a project.  Key stakeholder may not have bought into the business objectives and may insist on changes that could severely impact scope, cost and schedule.  This, in turn, puts a lot of pressure on the team and creates unnecessary distress.

Effective management and control

Effective management and control on a project will give you the opportunity to measure project performance, anticipate problems, and make proactive adjustments to keep your project on track.  Effective management and control practices include the classic management functions of leadership, planning, organisation and control.

The team leadership should ensure a clear project charter and effective governance processes that will ensure that the stipulations made in the charter are adhered to.  Planning includes preparing plans for financing, resources, deliverables, schedule, quality, integration and risk.  Leading and lagging indicators for all these areas should be defined and tracked.  Critical and scarce resources should receive particular attention.  Similarly, from a control perspective, cost, schedule, quality and benefit realisation should be tracked and managed.  Doing effective change management and control is of critical importance.  Reporting, value assurance, and risk tracking and mitigation are useful mechanisms that management can use to control progress of deliverables.

If control mechanisms are not effective, the project will slip without the project leadership realising what is going on.  By the time the message sinks in, it may be too late.  At such a stage in a project, the whole team is negative, frustrated and highly stressed.

Human resource (HR) interventions

HR interventions that can make a huge difference in terms of the effectiveness of the team and the success of the project, include:

  • Recruitment, training and development;
  • Team support initiatives;
  • Work and resource planning, and;
  • Performance management, recognition and reward.

Having competent resources on the project is crucial.  The aim should always be to appoint persons that are competent to fulfil the required roles, and should they not be competent, focused training and development plans should be in place.  Not having competent resources on the project, will transfer the pressure to other resources who will have to keep the ball rolling.  Such resource pressure creates enormous amounts of stress that leaves the team exhausted, frustrated and ridden with conflict.

Integrated wellness programmes

Project teams that are under continuous high levels of pressure, having personal problems at home, not feeling physically well and not feeling appreciated, tend to become disengaged.  Many factors, both in the workplace and in the home environment, and more often than not, a combination thereof, can contribute to disengagement.  This leads to antisocial behaviour, outbursts, family problems, poor health, heart attacks, conflict in the work environment, substance abuse, and ultimately low productivity and unsafe behaviour.

An integrated wellness programme should make provision for:

  • Regular burnout assessments (at least every six months);
  • Access to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), and;
  • Access to regular health checks.

In summary

Ensuring your team is healthy: physically, mentally and socially, will be the single biggest contributing factor to your team being a high performing team.  By implementing the actions listed above, you will create clear direction and structure, as well as a healthy environment within which the team is empowered to perform.


Tuckman, B.W. & Jensen, M.A.C., 1977, Stages of small group development revisited, Group and Organization Studies, vol 2, no 4, pp 419-27.

Van der Walt, D., 2016, Effective teams are high performing teams. OTC Toolkit.

WHO, 1946, Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948.

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