Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 17 seconds

Within any story, whether it’s fictional or real, everyone knows the main character—be it the CEO of a company, the lead in a movie, or the inventor of the latest technology. In business, it’s the executive who innovates and exceeds expectations who gets the spotlight.

In reality, behind that successful front person and their achievements is a highly collaborative team – one that has set the context and expectations for how they want to work together, and has established strong, interpersonal codes of conduct. They have spent time figuring out and agreeing on how they act and how they don’t act.

Although a team’s code may vary depending on its work or industry, high-performing teams have a lot in common. Here are five tenets that the best teams in business share: 

The ability to say “I don’t know”  

Complex situations rarely have easy answers, yet we’ve been taught that we are supposed to show up to a discussion or conversation with solutions. This is not realistic in a world with so many moving parts and variables. Articulating the truth of the matter–that one person doesn’t have the answer–unburdens the individual and makes team members more powerful in their ability to collaborate and brainstorm. These teams show up to meetings ready to contribute, saying things like, “I don’t know the answer to this—here are some of my thoughts.” Or, “I’m not sure I know, and here is what this makes me think.”

Sentences like this create space for others to chime in with their thoughts and, especially when a team is responsible for a high-value business outcome, the best ideas are born from collaborative work, not the Herculean efforts of one person. 


High-performing teams recognize that each member is human and everyone is different. They know that each person has strengths and weaknesses. When teams acknowledge this—and enable one another to show up authentically, without posturing or posing, it enhances the communication between the team members.  No one pretends to be something they’re not. Having this authenticity also encourages people to lean in and help.


The best teams and their leaders know that, as important as work is, everyone is juggling their business priorities with the rest of their lives. Businesses have often discouraged transparency and put work first at all costs, but high-performing teams allow for individuals to communicate up-front about responsibilities outside of work. For example, giving team members the space to take a family member to a medical appointment or handle a business-hours-sensitive errand (as long as it’s communicated up front and ahead of time) allows the rest of the team to cover and engenders good will from the individual who needs to step out.

When teams have this kind of transparency, they can coordinate coverage and set expectations for clients and colleagues up front, rather than scrambling right before a deadline when someone suddenly is out and can’t be found. Transparency breeds proactive planning and discourages secret-keeping.

The ability to ask for help

Especially in today’s increasingly complex world, teams must be able to ask each other for help. A rule of thumb to consider when stuck: don’t spend more than fifteen to thirty minutes thinking about something before reaching out to a teammate and saying, “I’m stuck, can you talk through this with me?”

Even the small act of verbalizing a problem usually results in an individual figuring out a way forward in far less time than if they’d been operating alone. It can feel intimidating, but it works. 

The ability to say “Yes, and...”

These high-performing teams also foster a culture of improvisation through the use of “yes, and..” instead of “yes, but…” when they are dealing with differences in opinion. The human brain hears “but” as a negation of everything said before it, as opposed to “and” which implies a willingness to collaborate without putting listeners on the defensive.

When teams work well together, they know that it took everyone to pull off the achievement. They’re stronger together when they are committed to collaborating and adhering to a code of conduct.  

Katherine Shao is Executive Creative Director at Oxygen, where she develops programs to help senior leaders better understand the changes that are occurring around them, and how to improve communication up and across their organizations. Before joining Oxygen, Katherine worked at Forrester Research for 10 years where she covered Forrester’s CIO Leadership Board, co-founded the Sales Enablement practice, and held positions in business development and consulting. Katherine’s diverse background includes 15 years in Information Technology.  A graduate of Bowdoin College, she has a Master’s degree from Indiana University School of Music.

Rob O’Such is a principal at Oxygen where he helps clients accelerate execution of their growth strategies.  A transformation specialist, he has more than two decades of systems integration, business process outsourcing, and management consulting experience. Rob holds a degree in Management Science Decision Support Systems from Virginia Tech and is a certified Project Management Professional.

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