Moving beyond individual status to build high-performance teams

Workplaces are full of humans. Their big brains have evolved to make them ideal for work-type tasks, but their evolutionary legacy also comes with certain behavioral bugs that can get in the way of working together as a high-performance team. 

In particular, humans are very concerned with social stature; that is, we are keenly aware of our relative social rank within our circle, and we make efforts to retain or enhance our individual status over time. We evolved in relatively small groups where social stature could make or break one’s ability to survive, find a partner (or partners), and have kids. Modern-day humans, including the ones populating your workplace, are the ancestors of those who were motivated to obtain such outcomes, and from them we have inherited a complex status psychology. 

This means sometimes we pay too much attention to high status team members, and don’t focus enough on everyone else’s good ideas, skills, and contributions. Moreover, it tends to limit mobility through self-reinforcing patterns. That is, if we instinctively give our attention to people already of high status, it’s very easy for people who are quieter, less confident, or newer to the organization to become alienated from the social dynamic. 

In short, the organization fails to recognize and utilize every member’s ideas and skills. This can lead to wasted potential and failing to build the strongest possible team. Helping every type of employee feel at home isn’t just a nicety; it will have material effects on the efficiency and earnings of your organization. It ensures this by promoting an environment in which being shy or introverted doesn’t shut down the flow of ideas, but changes or challenges them in interesting ways.

self-reinforcing patterns

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In this post, we’ll discuss how to get the best out of every team member and how to ensure talent, ideas, and skills–rather than merely status–are the focus of your team. You will learn how to implement the following steps to build high-performance teams:

  1. Unbias your attentional orientation 
  2. Update your company’s onboarding procedures 
  3. Modify workplace activities to include a wider range of voices 
  4. Reward high-quality collaboration and participation 
  5. Use “opt-in/opt-out” strategies to maximize employee participation


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Unbias your attentional orientation

People pay more attention to others who are high status. Literally, their eyes spend more time fixed on them than their lower-status counterparts. For example, one study looked at human participants’ gaze patterns while watching filmed conversations. In general, participants paid attention to whomever was speaking. But there was a significant overall bias toward attending to those of high status. Controlling for speaking tendencies, high status people attracted three times the gaze frequency enjoyed by low-status people. They also held attention for longer: participants looked at them for about a second before averting their gaze, compared with around two thirds of a second for those of low status.

This first step is thus to check your own tendencies to pay more attention to people in high-status company positions. Note that there’s no need to judge yourself for any personal biases you might uncover here; much of this is human nature. But by investigating what goes into our attentional allocation decisions on a personal level, we can become better at listening to and integrating ideas.

Try the following to help you with this foundational step: 

  • Notice how you allocate attention in meetings. This step is simple but might not come naturally at first. If you have previously been unaware of where your attention goes, try to identify which types of people you are more likely to pay attention to.
  • Identify any people you spend a lot of time focussing on, as well as people who you don’t notice much.
  • Practice. Actively watch and listen to lower-status people more. Consider turning your face or body towards them. This will take some time – so don’t be hard on yourself if you end up drifting back into default mode some of the time.

Then intentionally engage people you normally don’t notice much. These could be people who are lower status than you or who simply tend to stay quiet. These people are integral, however, to high-performance teams.

  • Ask a lower-status person for their opinion or thoughts at your next meeting or discussion. You can lead with something as simple as, “we haven’t heard much from Moe on this topic. Moe, what are your thoughts?” And of course be sure to actively listen to their response.
  • Get to know someone you usually wouldn’t. If you are naturally drawn toward the more gregarious, make a conscious effort to meet someone friendly but reserved. (The opposite holds as well, although it is less central to the present discussion). 

You’ll find there was a great deal of input you had missed previously, and you will become a better thinker by drawing on their unique vision. All this is bound to make you a more effective leader by making you a more effective listener.

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Update your company’s onboarding procedures

Keeping in mind the ultimate goal of a workplace where every player feels able to express their unique perspective and utilize their skills, it helps to start from the beginning. Get new employees started on the right foot in this capacity, and they’ll be more likely to feel confident as key contributors among high-performance teams.  

Moreover, people often tend to “stick with” whatever status role they adopt early on. One experiment showed that in preschool-aged children, status behaviors become self-reinforcing. Low-status children tended to maintain and even strengthen their low status through less responsive social behavior, awkwardness, and avoidance.  

If not introduced warmly from the get-go, less social employees might default into isolationism. But they can be engaged from the moment they climb aboard if included and incentivized properly.

  • First, get feedback from existing employees on their own experiences with onboarding. What made them feel comfortable, and what didn’t? Did they at any point feel left on their own to navigate the process? Obtain an honest assessment so that you know which established onboarding procedures to keep and which to change.
  • Warmly and publicly introduce new employees to their new office. Allow opportunities for new hires to tell what they’re about, what they hope to bring to the organization, and what they value outside of work.
  • Strike a balance between shining a warm spotlight upon new hires and remaining sensitive to those who might feel overwhelmed by such attention. To the extent possible, you may want to let new hires have some say concerning this. Giving them some heads up can help (e..g, “if you’re comfortable, it’d be great for you to share a couple sentences about your background at this afternoon’s meeting”).


1-on-1 meetings

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  • Arrange a 1-on-1 meeting aimed at exploring what the employee wants out of a work experience, as well as the unique perspectives or skills they look forward to bringing.

Because of your attention to onboarding procedures, new hires will feel comfortable more quickly with the social and collaborative aspects of the organization, allowing them to contribute to your high-performance team.


Modify workplace activities to include a wider range of voices

This is “the fun step.”  It will engage your own creative tendencies as you brainstorm activities unique to your organization that will allow everyone even opportunities to speak. Some examples to jog your thinking:

  • “Workplace Show and Tell”: reserve a chunk of meeting time or a monthly get-together for employees to sequentially share something interesting they have been working on (related to work or, when time permits, something unrelated!)
  • Allow employees to take as long or as short a time sharing as they like. It is important to accommodate more introverted people who may feel less comfortable in the spotlight; however, this will give them a chance to share something they feel comfortable with.


workplace show and tell

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  • Institute a requirement that attendees bring an idea to every meeting. This could be a piece of feedback, an idea for a new project, or any other information to share publicly with the team to foster team improvement and rich collaboration between workers.
  • Consider teaming lower- and higher-status people to work together on projects that require each team member’s unique background or skills.


Reward high-quality collaboration and participation

Now that you have introduced different types of employees to the workplace and incorporated activities aimed at getting the best out of everyone, it’s time to think about how to retain such a collaborative ethic as integral to the company. This will help your high-performance team last over time.

This will involve rewards meant to incentivize employees’ collaboration and participation. Studies have found that many types of rewards – monetary and non-monetary alike – positively influence workers’ organizational performance. Some companies even incorporate a “total rewards strategy” by combining these benefits as an extra incentive for good work. However, we also want to remain sensitive to discriminating on the basis of personality style. Introverts may prefer to participate in less overt ways. So it will be very important to incentivize a wide array of positive employee behaviors, not just the ones that “stick out”.

The substeps below concern ways of rewarding rich collaboration between different types of minds and personalities:

Develop a list of valued collaborative contributions specific to your organization. Examples might include:

  • Is pleasant to coworkers. Respects others, regardless of their status. Any criticism of colleagues or projects is constructive.
  • Acts selflessly. Takes time away from own work to help others when appropriate. Acts in the best interests of the whole team rather than just themselves.
  • Helps with the onboarding and training of newer employees.

Pay attention to including a balance of “extraverted” and “introverted” collaborative qualities. It may even help to generate independent lists like the one above for extraverted and introverted personality styles, simply to ensure that your ultimate compilation of items is representative:



  • Is prompt and effective with independent aspects of group projects. Responds to emails and and other communications in a helpful, timely fashion.
  • Is respectful and patient with group members. Willing to “help the team.”
  • Is highly dependable when it comes to large or complex collaborative tasks.


  • Voluntarily reaches out to tangential collaborators to “bring them into the loop”
  • Takes on an organizational or managerial role in group projects. This may include generating plans, helping others, ensuring each team member is performing at their best, or building additional high-performance teams.
  • Behaves warmly toward coworkers and collaborators.

Implement a reward system
to incentivize the above qualities in employees. This step is personal to the organization, but will likely involve establishing an explicit “token economy” or promotional system. For instance:

  • Select a “winner” once per period (could be each quarter, month, or any suitable division) for each of the items you designed above.
  • Systematically reward those who excel. Reward can include monetary bonuses, tokens to be used for paid days off, or hybrid systems including adjustable elements of both.  Another effective incentive involves “rewarding” employees with “prosocial bonuses” – charitable donations given to the employee to then be given away.  While obviously different from other reward systems, prosocial bonuses have been found to incentivize employees and make them happier at work.
    systemic reward

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    By incentivizing positive collaboration in a way that is comfortable for everyone, you will cut down significantly on “wasted potential.”  Lower-status employees will find comfortable ways to collaborate within high-performance teams that work with their personal desires for space, patience, or independence.  Ultimately, everyone benefits from this arrangement in terms of company success.  


Use “Opt-in/Opt-out” strategies to maximize employee participation

This may sound like we’re plugging some obscure bureaucratic practice, but this simple change can make a big difference: make any competition “opt-out” rather than “opt-in.” This means that all qualified employees are automatically included in all competitions (like bonuses, promotions, or new roles), unless they actively choose to exclude themselves.

An opt-out default has been shown to increase participation from qualified people who happen to be members of lower-status groups. For example, a recent study found that women were much less likely than men to participate in competitive scenarios (the ones used in the study were a mathematics competition and a competitive data-entry work task) when required to “opt in” beforehand. Men opted in frequently; women less so. All of this despite the fact that the women who did compete performed just as well as the men.   

Things changed for the better in an “opt-out” scenario. Participants were assumed to take part in the competition unless they had actively declined beforehand. The opt-out intervention led to roughly equal turnout by gender. The implications for getting many different personality types involved within high-performance teams are self-evident.

Here are some ways in which you might apply the wisdom of the above research to your workplace:

  • Instead of waiting for employees to approach you for raises or promotions, develop a set of policies governing advancement that apply to everyone in the same way. At yearly evaluations, assess whether every employee is meeting these clear guidelines.
  • If sales competitions (or any other competitions) are a part of your work culture, design them in such a way that everyone is an automatic candidate, unless they choose not to participate.
  • Incorporate the opt-out framework into any system of reward, token economy, or promotion that you brainstormed in Step 4.
  • This is another good reason to require that everyone come to meetings prepared to discuss one achievement, idea, or concern.  Providing a relatively open-ended prompt such as this ensures that more people will feel comfortable speaking, knowing that it is expected and they will not be “taking time away” from higher status attendees.    

Based on the research, an opt-out workplace structure will likely benefit women, minorities, introverts, and anybody who might underestimate their abilities or feel overlooked.

And it’s no zero-sum game; these interventions still allow plenty of expression for the extraverts and natural leaders among us.  It’s about integrating more effectively all of the parts of your organization into high-performance teams, building and maintaining social and financial capital, and having fun while you do it.

high performing teams

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Recap of moving beyond individual status to build high-performance teams

We’ve discussed research showing that high-status individuals are attended to disproportionately, that humans engage in self-reinforcing status behaviors with others, and that certain organizational workplace structures bias collective attention away from women, minorities, and perhaps also introverts.  

The solutions to these problems will necessarily be multi-layered. In particular, we recommend taking steps to:

  1. Unbias your attentional orientation 
  2. Update your company’s onboarding procedures 
  3. Modify workplace activities to include a wider range of voices 
  4. Reward high-quality collaboration and participation 
  5. Use “opt-in/opt-out” strategies to maximize employee participation

By following these steps and engaging many different types of people in the organizational context, you will stimulate much collaboration, productivity, rapport, and collective success!