High Performance Teams

What is a team? We think of a team as a particular formation and organization of a group of people. Looking at the diagram 1 below, a team can be understood as having a relative level self-differentiation to the whole group, adherence to values, connectivity and belonging in a given setting (corporation, NGO, religious group, etc). On the ‘group’ end of the spectrum, there tends to be high levels of disengagement, absenteeism and low levels of creativity. On the other end, the ‘sect’ will tend to promote very strict values, require unquestioned adherence to these and provide deep levels of belonging to their members.

Diagram 1. The collective spectrum.

In NeuroSystemics, we propose a high-performance team model based on evolutionary systemics and complexity science. Our evolutionary drive is to be inclusive, grow and complexify in an orderly, principled manner. Life arose 3.6 billion years ago from molecules coalescing into macromolecules, and life evolved from simple form to complex forms. Nervous systems, as centralized information sharing and organizing systems, grew to support more intelligent and adaptive responses to environmental threats and needs. Mammals, in particular, have excelled at this drive for inclusion, community and collaboration. They key point here is that our adaptive flexibility to our environment was enabled most successfully thanks to our collaboration as a species.

Laszlo, Laszlo and Johnsen (2009) provide experimental data from organizational psychology to show how the highest-performing teams actually behave more like communities. Individuals in what they call ‘teams’ have a high skill-base, and differentiate themselves from the team, while feeling strongly connected to the team, the organization and its values. ‘Communities’, however, provide a wider value-based structural container and socio-emotional processes to be included in communication and bonding, which enable deep levels of intra-group safety, trust, regulation and collaboration. 

From a psycho-physiological perspective, the polyvagal theory (Porges, 2001) explains that our nervous system’s state of social engagement (connecting with other people in a friendly way) reduces our tendency for fight-flight-freeze in an inversely proportionate way:

As mammals, we are equipped to socially engage, and this engaged state reduces the baseline of neural resources required to perform. Therefore, it is no surprise that working in a safe, enjoyable and socio-emotionally connected team (i.e. a ‘community’), perhaps provides the best environment for learning and performance.

In a community, in contrast to a sect, dissent is tolerated and/or even encouraged. The high levels of trust and socio-emotional coherence enable these tensions to question, analyze and renew core values and practices. The interplay between differentiated ideas, critical analysis and deep adherence to the team’s culture of socio-emotional co-regulation (reducing fight-flight-freeze and increasing social engagement) enables high levels of belonging, creativity and self-organizing, adaptive flexibility.  Chaotic impulses are transmuted to raise the level of reflection, strengthen socio-emotional bonds between group members and build motivation and confidence in the face of challenges. 

In summary, NeuroSystemics proposes a deeper, more committed form of group organization than ‘teams’; we propose to work towards ‘communities’. Our evolutionary story tells us that reducing nervous system threat states and increasing co-regulatory capacity through promotion of the social engagement system (playfulness, intimacy, positive affect) provides a rich and vibrant environment for learning communities. These learning communities can strengthen their creativity, socio-emotional bonding and belonging, self-organizing capacities and adaptive flexibility to face chaotic environments skilfully.

May this article be for the benefit of all beings.

You can learn more about the application of these evolutionary and systemic models, their associated neuroscientific empirical research, practice and interventions along with time for practice in our workshops, courses and trainings at www.neurosystemics.org.

Together we go further.


Laszlo, A., Laszlo, K., & Johnsen, C. (2009). From High-Performance Teams to Evolutionary Learning Communities: New pathways in organizational development. Journal of Organisational Transformation and Social Change, 6(1), 29-48.

Porges, S. W. (2001). The polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. International journal of psychophysiology, 42(2), 123-146.