What qualities do high performers have? Are they strong? Independent? Creative? Bold? The truth is, there’s no secret formula for what constitutes a high performer, but there is a method for bringing out the best in people. For much of my career, I’ve focused on building and leading high-performing teams. User-centered development principles (commonly referred to as UCD) are at the very core of their growth.
Here’s an example. Recently, our leadership began sending out biweekly surveys to our direct reports. Now, these aren’t performance reviews—they’re a way to make sure that leaders are doing a good job and that our employees feel empowered to deliver on expectations.
They’re not anonymous, either. One day, I noticed a startlingly low score from one of my direct reports, so I put some time on our calendars to talk. I needed to identify the root of the issue. As we sat down to chat, it became apparent that he was unsure how the conversation would play out. I had to make it clear that this wasn’t a “gotcha” exercise. I needed to understand this person’s context—what projects he was working on, his role within the company, and even his personal life. I then used this knowledge and understanding to determine adjustments for him, his team, and our leadership. And that’s what UCD is all about: shrugging off your preconceived notions to seek true understanding.
When we think about UCD as it relates to creating high-performing teams, we have to consider what motivates and engages people. In this case, my employee confessed that he provided a low score because he didn’t understand the importance of his role, his accountabilities, or what success looked like. That was on me to correct.
Applying UCD helps you understand employees and their surrounding context, which makes it easier for them to reach new heights. Here’s how to get started:
1. Set the guardrails your team needs
With UCD, you need to clearly define the goals and obligations your teams should execute on and provide enough navigation to help them get there.
For some teams, we map out client partnerships by asking ourselves how to be the “best partner ever.” As a team, we identify six principles that help us become the best possible partner for our clients—think “deliver with minimum anxiety” or “seek to understand.”
To work within these constructs, we empower people to take specific steps and exhibit model behaviors. Delivering with minimum anxiety might mean devising contingency plans and holding team huddles once a day, while seeking to understand could involve leading brainstorming sessions where people are empowered to speak their truth. Our employees all march toward the goal of being the best partner ever, and they use the guardrails we built to guide them in that journey.
2. Use feedback to grease the skids
Users always seek signals that tell them they’re moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, more than 80% of employees say that their managers don’t recognize their contributions, even though most say acknowledgment inspires them to perform at top levels. It’s not just about receiving praise, either: Another study discovered that 72% of workers think corrective feedback from managers helps boost performance.
Adopting UCD means fostering a culture of continuous feedback and applying that feedback. For example, our teams participate in an exercise we call “continual professional development sharing,” in which everyone shares one to three career development points they’re working toward. Once teammates are aware of others’ goals, they’re encouraged to offer corrective feedback when they see colleagues working against those CPDs, and to openly acknowledge efforts that support them. The goals might be individual, but getting across the finish line requires cross-team effort.
We also encourage colleagues to give props to themselves and others when they execute on “best partner ever” goals. This might be as simple as sending out a prompt via Slack asking, “How have you been the best partner ever lately?” It’s a way for people to air their achievements, create a connected environment, and motivate peers to strive for greatness.
3. Fail safely and ensure reciprocal understanding
We live in the age of autonomy. Nearly one-fifth of people consider autonomy their No. 1 contributor to on-the-job happiness, and I believe we learn best when we’re allowed to explore and fail on our own. As a leader, however, I have to determine when it’s safe to fail. I can’t sink the business in the name of life lessons, which means that I have to think through hypothetical outcomes.
Remember: Just as UCD means seeking to understand others, you should help people understand your own decisions. If you determine that the consequences of a particular action don’t outweigh the rewards, you’ll need to communicate those consequences to your team and help guide the project toward completion. This reminds me of a more precarious project when time was of the essence. I didn’t have time to check in with my colleagues before stepping in, and I understood how this probably looked from their perspective. I made sure to sit down with my employees after the fact to explain the “why” behind my actions.
UCD is all about breaking out of your own shell, looking at things through a curiosity-fueled lens, and cultivating employee resilience. I’ve relied on UCD tactics to guide interactions with my employees, and I’ve seen firsthand how they help develop flexibility, empowerment, and courage. At the end of the day, that’s what makes a high-performance team.