One of the classic questions in management is ‘Why do some teams outperform others?’  There are thousands of books on the topic of teamwork and many people call it an Art rather than a Science because of all the variables.  But some very sophisticated scientific research is throwing an interesting light on the subject.

In a recent paper Professor Alex Pentland, and his team at the Human Dynamic Laboratory at MIT, mentioned how they conducted a number of fascinating studies that show very precisely how teams differ and the impact these differences have on performance.  For example, they can predict the winning team in a Business Plan contest simply from monitoring individual behaviour at a cocktail reception.

Communication is key

We all know that communication is key to effective teamwork but Pentland’s research is showing us that the way people communicate is by far the most important factor.  It is in fact more important than individual intelligence, personality, skill or even the substance of the discussion combined. 

The experiments involved some very high-tech monitoring equipment that is continuously evolving as each new generation becomes more sophisticated (they are now working with version 7) and they have already collected data on over 2500 people from across a wide range of teams and sectors.  Team members are required to wear an electronic badge that monitors and records a number of factors including tone of voice, body language, whom they talked to and how often, plus more.  Some of the experiments lasted 6 weeks and the researchers were able to correlate the data they collected with objectively quantifiable measures of each team’s performance that were already being used by the business.

The most successful teams consistently had the following characteristics:  
1. Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
2. Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
3. Members connect directly with one another—not just with the team leader.
4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team and bring information back.

It was interesting to note how the researchers discovered that individual reasoning or talent did not contribute to team success as much as they expected.  They concluded that the best way to build a great team was not to select members based on how smart they were but on how well they demonstrated the above characteristics or how quickly they learned how to use them. The modern 21st century Team Leader or Manager needs to know how to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.

So you may want to consider:
How effectively are you communicating with your team?
How effectively are you role modelling and encouraging the patterns mentioned above?

The 3 key elements of effective communication

After analysing vast amounts of data the researchers have discovered that there are 3 key elements of communication that have a profound affect on team performance.

Energy: the number and nature of exchanges between members.  Not surprisingly they found that face to face communication is by far the most valuable with the next being phone or video conferencing, but these technologies become far less effective as more people participate.  They also discovered that the least valuable forms of communicating are email and texting.  Energy is not static and can vary depending on the type of meeting or issues being discussed but when these were averaged out the teams with the highest energy levels performed best.

Engagement: This element reflects the distribution of energy amongst the team members.  If all team members have relatively equal engagement and reasonably high energy, engagement is strong.  If only some clusters of the team engage well and others don’t participate, the team performs more poorly.  For example, when they observed teams making investment decisions the partially engaged teams made worse (less profitable) decisions than the fully engaged ones.

Exploration: This involves communication that team members engage in with others outside the team.  Higher performing teams seek more connections outside the team and are effective at balancing their energy between internal and external communication.  This is particularly important for creative teams who need fresh perspectives.   While there may be nothing particularly new in this, another key finding was that most companies don’t do this in the right way.  Many of the companies they studied tended to seek counsel repeatedly from the same sources at specific times.  The most successful teams constantly sought new perspectives from both inside and outside the organisation.

Asking the right questions

While the above may seem pretty obvious the researchers are identifying some very specific trends that successful teams demonstrate.  For example, they state that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be attributed to the number of face to face exchanges and that the ‘right’ number of exchanges is dozens per working hour, but going above that ideal can decrease performance.

By analysing the data and ‘Visualising’ it using graphic mapping techniques, the researchers could identify weaknesses in the communication of underperforming teams.  By raising awareness and training team members they saw immediate improvements.

For example, in one team that had low performance they were able to drill down into individual data and ask some interesting questions like: Are some people trying to contribute and being ignored or cut off? Do they cut others off and not listen, thereby discouraging colleagues from seeking their opinions? Do they communicate only with one other team member? Do they face other people in meetings or tend to hide from the group physically? Do they speak loudly enough? Perhaps the leader of a team is too dominant; it may be that she is doing most of the talking at meetings and needs to work on encouraging others to participate. 

These are interesting questions to explore in your own team and the teams you manage.  With the insights and tips gained from this research you can identify your ideal team members.  Pentland and his research team call them “Charismatic Connectors”.  They actively circulate, engaging people in short, high energy conversations.  They are democratic with their time because they communicate with everyone equally and make sure that every team member gets a chance to speak by listening as much (if not more) than they speak.  They are usually very engaged with whomever they are listening to and the researchers label this as “energised but focussed listening”.  The best team players also connect their team mates with others and spread ideas around.

Acting on the Answers

While this research is still in its early days and only within the budgets of big businesses, there are a lot of key points to consider about the way you recruit, train and develop your team.  The scientists, and some of my previous articles, are beginning to show that it is the people and teams with the best communication skills who succeed and it is no longer simply the people or teams with the most knowledge, skill or even intelligence.  To be successful you need to attract more ‘Charismatic Connectors’ into your business and ensure that you create an environment that nourishes and keeps them.

How well is your team performing?  What do you need to do to adapt your communication style?  Which behaviours do you need to practice?  What feedback do you need to give to your team? The success of your team or your business may depend on the answers you give to these critical questions . . . and the actions you take to address them.

The mantra for the 21st Century is “Recruit for attitude, Train for skill, Motivate for retention”.  Many businesses are already using the valuable insights gained from the ‘inventory of Work Attitude and Motivation’ (iWAM) to ensure that they are attracting, leading, managing and developing their people in ways that get the very best from them.  There is now also additional fine tuning available to identify the competencies and characteristics you are looking for in a variety of roles, including interesting and very specific aspects of Leadership and Team composition.

As you consider all of the above you may be curious about exploring more about the very affordable tools and powerful insights that are now available to you.  Do let me know if you want to discuss them.

I am always interested to hear your thoughts and opinions about any of the above so please drop me a line at [email protected]

Remember . . . Stay Curious!

With best regards

David Klaasen