Team Leadership in the COVID 19 World

A team is made up of a group of individuals who are tasked with working together in a highly effective way to achieve shared objectives.

At the best of times, building a high performing team needs a conscious, ongoing and dedicated focus from both the team’s leader and members, to ensure they achieve (or exceed) the desired results and outcomes, whilst thriving as a ‘team’.

Given teams are made up of individuals who generally have different backgrounds, perspectives, skillsets and responsibilities, it’s perhaps not surprising thathigh performing teams are actually somewhat of a rarity. Instead,the reality is often that:

  • Differences often lead to unproductive and personal conflict
  • People leave and leave holes leading to greater work demandsfor those remaining
  • Some team members can be seen to be getting a free ride
  • Teams encourage high performance levels –but this only seems to contribute to work stress
  • Perhaps most commonly –there is a confusion over the team’s purpose and expectations –for what they are delivering and how they should get along while trying to achieve the outcomes.

The Question

So, what is a road map for developing a high performing team especially now, in this increasingly demanding, complex and changing world?

This article aims to provide some insight into this question.

COVID19 and Team Leadership.

COVID19 has changed everyone’s context in monumental ways and the nature of the situation means continual change and adaption is required. From a team perspective, this has massive implications.

What were shared understandings for the team previously will be different now, as a result of COVID19 such as:

  • The context in which the team is operating
  • Key stakeholders’ (e.g. internal and external customers, suppliers) situations and expectations
  • The team’s goals and priorities
  • How the team should go about achieving their goals
  • How work is actually conducted (e.g. remote versus co-located)
  • Communication mechanisms and approaches
  • Team members’ wellbeing and resilience levels
  • Team members’ behaviour

Thus, it is critical now, more than ever before, for team leaders to facilitate the resetting of their team’s shared understandings and expectations, so they can adapt and thrive in this ever-changing environment.

What a Team Leader Can do.

The Rocket ModelTM (Dr Curphy, Dr Nilsen and Dr Robert Hogan)[1] provides a pragmatic, research-based framework, for leaders and their teams to assess:

How are we doing and what do we need to focus on to bolster our performance?

To assist with answering this question, the below table gives a high-level breakdown of The Rocket ModelTM alongside key prompting questions with a COVID19 lens on and possible actions to think through and act on where deemed appropriate.

Please note, the components outlined here build on to one another. Like building a strong, sustainable house, you need to start with the foundations. Therefore, we recommend starting your assessment at #1. Context and avoiding the temptation to jump straight to other components like team dynamics or psychological safety, which are often symptoms of other missing pieces, rather than the sole area of concern themselves.

The Rocket ModelTM
framework for developing high performing teams
The Rocket ModelTMComponent COVID19 Implications What the Team Leader Could Do (in partnership with the team)
Context – What are our critical assumptions? What has changed? With the team, assess the team’s key internal and external stakeholder situations to ensure a shared understanding of the revised context e.g.
– Suppliers
– Customers 
– Competitors
– Partners etc.

Discuss what impact changes here will have on the team’s Mission. 
Mission – Why are we here, what’s our team’s purpose and goals? Given the context, how have our goals changed and what strategies will the team use to achieve these? 

How will we measure our progress in achieving these?
Review the team’s purpose with the five whys’ exercise 1. why are we doing this, 2. why is that so…3, 4, 5 …etc.

Capture/visualise, what success looks like in this new context. 

Define what the revised Key Results Areas (KRA) are, given the new context.

Consider what the optimum number of KRAs is and how progress should be assessed.

The team leader does some ‘reality checks’ of the KRAs – getting feedback from internal and/or external customers, Executives or Board.

Agree specific strategies to achieve redefined KRAs. 

Ensure clarity around shared goals (as clarified the KRAs) which will help to clarify the team’s shared identity.
Talent – Do we have the talent we need? Given our revised Mission, do we have the right mix of skills and abilities on the team to achieve the goals?

Do we need to readjust roles and responsibilities on the team? 
Conduct a needs analysis of skills needed to achieve the Mission. 

Assess what roles are needed on the team, given the needs analysis.  

Team leader – assess team members’ skills and engagement levels and determine where there are gaps. 

Address the gaps e.g. adjust team structure if required, upskill team members or bring new team members in. 
Norms – What are our team rules (informal and formal)?  Given the change in context and talent on the team, have our ways of doing thing changed? If so, is there a shared understanding and agreement of this?  Redefine a team charter or ‘rules of engagement’ – including specific examples of behaviours that are ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’

Have a team discussion about (and capture) the ‘new’ agreed ways of working such as, remote working rules, virtual team meeting protocols and social distancing standards.

Agree to ‘check in’ on each other as the situation changes e.g. developing a peer support network.

Develop new policies as needed e.g. working from home.
Buy-in – Do we all own and commit to the team goals? Given all that’s changed, do the team members have a team first (rather than a me-first) attitude? 

Are policies and practices supporting the team first goals? 

Are there any individual situations holding team members back from being team players. 
Does each team member have key objectives that are related to the team objectives?  

Do team members know each-others’ goals and how they fit together?

Ensure individual focus areas and rewards aren’t clashing with the team goals. 

Assess team members on their team behaviours (from Charter), not just task related measures. 

Hold people to account for team behaviour and support them to develop if needed. 

Reality check – as a team, assess how this is going.  
Courage – How do we work through disagreements?  What impact has the situation and changes had on the team’s ability to have productive and constructive conflict. Is it ‘safe’ to voice disagreements and in what manner is this done?

NB: This is an especially relevant consideration given we are all adapting to change on multiple levels and we all handle it differently.
Discuss the concept of artificial harmony and how ineffective it is for team performance and creativity. 

Discuss the concept of ‘Growth Mindset’ and how it’s not about being right or wrong but having good discussions. 

Allow for constructive discussions to be part of the team culture, e.g. agree as a team how you will challenge and test ideas when it seems there is agreement, such as asking a sub group to be devils’ advocate for a meeting. 

Define some conflict guidelines (which could be part of the Charter) to facilitate productive conflict and limit destructive conflict. 

Conduct team surveys – assessing components of The Rocket Model to assess what areas the team could work on to maximise team performance.

Take note of how individuals are managing in COVID19 and where possible, provide them with support to bolster their resilience and wellbeing. This will have an impact on their ability to manage team conflict well. 
Resources – Do we have the resources needed to achieve? Is there extra support needed for those working remotely? 

Do we have the tools necessary to operate and feel safe in our new normal?

For virtual teams – consider technology, working across time zones, work/family boundaries etc.
Team Leader to explore what the obstacles are to achieving team goals and behavioral expectations.  

Especially for virtual teams, team members can gain a greater understanding of where their colleagues are at if you take time to understand context.  Team members could take turns talking about their home office set up, even do a tour, and describe other commitments they have (children, pets etc.) that might help the team understand what else is going on.
Results – Are we achieving our results, celebrating success and learning from our failures. This is essentially the outcome of the above 7 steps. Celebrate results and encourage efforts. Have regular team meetings to discuss results and how to keep performance (task and behavioural) at the level required. 

Regularly, review performance for key learnings – both strengths to leverage and areas to improve on. 

Conduct team surveys –assessing components of The Rocket ModelTM to assess what areas the team could work on to maximise team performance. 

Other Resources:

The Rocket ModelTM Website

Ignition: A Guide to Building High-Performing Teams (book) (2019). Written Gordon J. Curphy, Dianne L. Nilsen, Robert Hogan.

Team Assessment Survey, based on The Rocket Model. See or contact Gretchen McFadden on for more information. 

A short (13 minute) piece featuring Professor Martine Haas on remote work, including remote team work –

Martine Haas has also featured in this Adam Grant podcast –

Gretchen McFadden ( and Stewart Forsyth ( – Chartered Organisational Psychologists – co-wrote this article. For specific team assessment and/or coaching support, please contact the authors.

[1] We appreciate the generosity of Dr Gordon Curphy, Dr Dianne Nilsen and Dr Robert Hogan for allowing us to share their model in this outline.