High performance teams: Authority, ownership and motivation

May 20, 2019  |  Richard Harpur
High performance teams: Authority, ownership and motivation
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High performance is dependent on the personalities on your team—at least indirectly. It’s all about how you communicate and your team members respond to and make use of authority, ownership and motivation. These three factors play a major part in your team’s ability to deliver on your technology strategy.

As a technology leader, you can build an environment where autonomous team members thrive and consistently deliver on your organizational objectives. Your success in doing so depends on turning the elements of authority, ownership and motivation into tools that inspire your team. Let’s explore how to do that the right way.

Authority drives clarity, accountability

Authority doesn’t just include your authority as a leader. It applies to each member of your IT team. Exercised correctly, authority brings about the clarity necessary for improved performance and reduced inefficiency, confusion and rework.

Authority is also a catalyst for accountability. If your database team is accountable for the performance of databases in your organization, then they also need the authority to make decisions like what hardware will support the databases, the density of databases per server, backup schedules, test restores and more. Once you empower your team to make decisions by granting the necessary authority, the team becomes accountable for performance. With authority, teams no longer defer responsibility to leadership.

Here’s an example of authority at work:


A legacy application written using a combination of C#, with significant business logic written in SQL, regularly experiences performance issues at month’s end. The code is performing poorly under the load, and the database administrator (DBA) team can only do so much to keep the servers running. They explain that it’s a code issue and they cannot do anything to improve performance apart from providing additional resources, such as processing power and memory. The development team duly requests the DBA team get faster, more powerful servers to run the code. The DBA team doesn’t have the authority to fix the offending code as that is the responsibility of the development team.

The alternate looks like this:

Provide the DBA team with the authority to make changes to the SQL code, remove inefficient code and replace it with high-performing code. Once month’s end comes around again, if there is a problem with performance, then the DBA team will be responsible for the issue. They have the authority to change any piece of SQL code, server configuration and hardware that runs the database. What will ultimately happen is the issues will get resolved at their root cause, as opposed to blaming under-performing hardware. You won’t have these recurring problems at month’s end for long—or, at a minimum, you’ll have a roadmap to resolve the problems with confidence and speed.

It’s imperative that as you delegate authority, it’s given to the correct people. It should be those team members who will have the greatest impact on achieving your goals, and who will take responsibility for their part in delivering for the team. Keep in mind the overall mission and ensure lines of authority are used to progress toward that mission instead of detracting it.

Authority is a powerful tool you can use to get your team to be a high performing team. Don’t overlook it.

Ownership is essential

Ownership is an essential aspect of creating a high-performance team. Don’t confuse authority with ownership. Ownership is an activity of performance. Authority is the right to act and make decisions. A poor leader may have the authority but not deliver on the ownership. Similarly, a person taking ownership of a product or service without having the authority to do so will encounter barriers at some stage, even if their intentions are noble. Unless an owner has the authority to be an owner they will not be effective.

However, once you get both elements in place—an owner with the requisite authority—then you can start to make progress. Once an owner is granted sufficient authority, they can get down to the business of making decisions, providing direction and clarifying what needs to be achieved in a particular product, service or role.

What follows proper ownership is a domino effect. The owner makes decisions. Decisions bring clarity as to what the rest of the team needs to get behind. That clarity paves the way for them to push ahead with delivery. Additionally, as a bonus point, proper ownership leads to teams working in sync with other teams, holding each other accountable. Distribute ownership correctly and you’ll get more scalable organizations and more accountability throughout your team, making your job as a leader easier.

To help you scale and be an effective leader, try to ensure that all your areas of responsibility have owners assigned from your team. Remain as oversight and leader and of course maintain overall responsibility.

Motivation comes from trust, respect

Techniques for motivating technical teams vary greatly depending on the company environment; motivating teams at startups with real survival threats is different than at established companies with significant scaling and quality issues, which varies from dictatorial organizations focused solely on personal profit for founders, with minimum regard for team members.

Whatever organizational culture you find yourself working within, respecting your team members is what’s going to increase performance. If you don’t show individual and collective respect to your team, you won’t build trust. Without that, it’s very difficult to build and sustain motivation.

Remember, you are asking your team members to join you on a mission, do things that they sometimes don’t understand or fully agree with, stretch their performance and deliver greater results. You can only do this if the team member believes in you as a leader. Take some time to understand what drives your team members, and tailor your technique to their type. Common types, drivers and things to watch out for are listed below.

How to motivate by type

Type 1: The “new tech” evangelist


Description and tips:

This is the person on your team who is driven by experimenting with new technology, largely because it is new. Arrange for a safe zone for them to research and adopt new technology. Make it clear that they have a certain level of freedom but anything that needs to be used in core business systems requires all the necessary support structures. You need these people on your team to help you advance with technology.

Things to watch out for:

Be careful of technology for technology’s sake. Encourage the use and interest in new technology but be sure that you don’t get into a situation where the wrong or unproven technology is being slipped into key parts of your organization. Remember it is all fine building out new technology but most system remain in operational use for years or decades and so requires significant consideration around operations and support over the longer term.


Type 2: The learner


Description and tips:

This person also has a great hunger for knowledge, but unlike the ‘new tech’ evangelist, the learner doesn’t have to be working with the latest technology. They are happy closing their knowledge gap for existing technology. Professional certificates that demonstrate skills are important to this type. Publicly acknowledge and recognize their learning achievements. Ensure they have plenty of access to ongoing skill development resources. Consider providing them with a portion of time purely for learning. The more they really understand a piece of technology, the more your organization will gain value from it.

Things to watch out for:

Watch out for the use of technology just for the sake of learning without a true business value return.


Type 3: The career climber


Description and tips:

This person is on a mission to advance their career. Titles and recognition are important to them. They’ll want to take on more responsibility and be seen within your organization as being a person who is coming up through the ranks. You can motivate this person by having clear job roles and corresponding titles that are meaningful and real, combined with a path for the person to achieve their next rung on the career ladder.

Things to watch out for:

Watch out for shortcuts or weaknesses that might be overlooked as the team member moves from position to position. If some positions require a large learning curve and investment by the organization, keep in mind this type may not sustain a tenure as long as the other types.


Learn something new. Take control of your career.
Richard Harpur

Richard Harpur

Richard is a highly experienced technology leader with a remarkable career ranging from software development, project management through to... See more