What makes a good team great? What makes one team gel and another continually end up in conflict? When pondering the dynamics of high performing teams, it can help to look at our brains and from the earliest possible perspective together with the latest findings in social science and neuroscience.
We are tribal in Nature
As the earliest human beings, we slept, lived and hunted in groups. If one person were to be cast out of the tribe they didn’t last long before becoming lunch. Our brains are wired to connect with other humans, even before we had language to communicate we could read nonverbal cues such as friendship, danger, love, (dis)approval and act on them.
Connection is Key
David Rock, the founder of the Neuroleadership movement, based on the work of neuroscientist Matthew Liebermann, identified 5 core social needs that drive human behaviour and, when not met, can result in high levels of stress. One of these needs is belonging (called relatedness in his model) – the desire, nay, need to be in the ‘in-tribe’. Regardless of our levels of extraversion or introversion we have an innate need to belong, to be accepted and to be consulted.
How then do we facilitate this level of connection in the workplace?
It’s not so much what you communicate as how you communicate
Professor Sandy Pentland runs the Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs at MIT and, through the creation of ‘sociometric’ badges that monitor how we communicate, has been able to help us unravel the good vs great team conundrum.
Working with team members from a diverse set of industries and functions (healthcare, banking, call centres, back office operations) the badges were worn by team members and recorded elements of communication such as tone of voice, body language, levels of energy and empathy. The badges did not record content at all.
So what are the dynamics that Pentland picked up on the separates the wheat from the chaff when it comes to high performing teams?
- Patterns of communication are the most important predictor of a team’s success. In particular the communication that happens outside of formal meetings and interaction
- Face to face communication is critical to understanding and responding to subtle social cues and enhances team spirit. There is also an energy in peoples’ gestures when they interact with one another
- Communication with other teams enhances productivity as some team embers go out ‘exploring’ and come back with new ideas and information to feed into their ‘tribe’
- It’s not about talent and stars, rather it’s about engagement, contribution and respect
Armed with this new knowledge and data after team members in a banking call centre wore the badges for six weeks, results included reduced average handling time of 20% amongst the lower performing members and a $15 million increase in productivity forecast. Oh and employee satisfaction has risen by 10%.
How did they do this? They scheduled coffee breaks for each team at the same time.
They enabled social connectivity outside of formal interactions. They facilitated the building of social capital.
Building Social Capital
Pentland’s research and subsequent findings support the work of entrepreneur and brilliant TED talk presenter Margaret Heffernan and her findings on social capital which she defines as the trust, knowledge, reciprocity and shared norms that create quality of life and make a group resilient.
The Difference that Makes a Difference – traits that make a Team a Tribe
- Equal time and attention – no one person dominates or holds back, this is a natural process, not contrived
- Social Sensitivity – the ability to tune into one another and notice subtle shifts in mood and demeanour, the ability to truly empathise and feel from the perspective of the other
- Diversity makes a difference – teams with more women* perform better than homogeneous teams
*I will write another post on this shortly. The work of Heidi Grant Halvorson and Valerie Purdie-Vaughns of the University of Columbia is validating that diverse teams perform better in creativity, problem-solving and innovation. This extends further than gender to include ethnicity and minorities.
Strategies for creating a High Performing Tribe
- Encourage cross communication – rather than expecting people to stay in their area, encourage the explorers to go out, seek, find out and report back
- All hail the water cooler – some companies are embracing this and installing more water coolers; rather than frowning on ‘non-work banter’, allow and encourage it
- You don’t have to spend a fortune on teambuilding – badge data from a software company proved that out of work ‘beer meets’ made no difference but lengthening the table in the lunchroom did!
- Ban lunch (and drinks) at the desk – let people gather for meals, we’ve been doing this since we were sitting around camp fires and our brains are wired to receive doses of dopamine and serotonin (happy hormones) from such gatherings
- Teach empathy – in her TED article Heffernan shares the story of Carol Vallone who, when taking over a new company, had department heads argue the case for the budget of a different department resulting in the leadership team deeply understanding the needs and challenges of their peers
- Encourage more face to face exchanges – it’s harder to build empathy with someone we can’t see, this is of particular importance when building a virtual team. Invest the money in bringing them together as often as possible and aim to replace email and text with video conferencing at the least
- Don’t aim for harmony – high performing tribes are often found to be in conflict. The difference is that they feel comfortable enough to challenge one another and to have the necessary courageous conversations
Making the Soft Stuff Hard
Far from being ‘touchy feely’ or ‘gone soft’ strategies, the building of social capital builds robust and resilient organisations by bringing out the best in people. This results in higher productivity, lower turnover and a deeper level of engagement.