To help your team thrive,
agree on some structure &
communicate widely and often!
When I want a quick sense of whether a team is working well, I take a look at how the members communicate.
“Jenna” was an agency branch chief who wanted to help her 14 direct reports become more innovative and productive. Years ago her branch had been organized into cascading layers, with three deputy chiefs each managing two to four people. That kind of top-down organization made sense when it was the only way to assure the distribution of accurate information. But the old command-and-control model went out of date with the advent of email and other technology. So now the agency was much flatter, and its leaders were exploring new ways to organize the workload.
To foster collaboration and mentoring, Jenna had organized her group into project-focused teams. Since each person might be on more than one team, and some teams included professionals from other branches, Jenna was keeping her eye on six teams, each with three to five members. Several teams were active, energetic and highly productive. But a couple of them had gone dormant before they really got started.
As part of an effort to evaluate and restructure the teams, Jenna asked me to interview each branch employee. “Don,” an experienced and technically gifted lawyer, led one of the teams that hadn’t gelled. When I asked Don about how his team operated, he said he called meetings “only when they were absolutely necessary.” He said he was available to answer individual questions, but he didn’t want to encourage people “to waste time talking about each other’s problems.”
I said to myself, “Wow! Don’s poor team never had a chance.” Don had no idea that frequent and effective communications are key to building a team that gets things done.
It’s long been intuitively obvious that talking frequently is a basic step of teambuilding. But the new science of mapping team communication patterns suggests that how team members talk with one another may be more important than their skill, personality, intelligence and discussion topics combined.
A 2012 Harvard Business Review article offered a fascinating account of how MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory can chart and portray the interactions that characterize high-performing teams. When working with a client organization, the Lab’s experts equip members of the client’s teams with electronic badges that collect data on communication behavior. When a team member wears a badge, it records her tone of voice, body language, the people she speaks with, and more. Then the Lab uses data visualization techniques to create maps that vividly illustrate how members stay in touch.
Even though the data doesn’t reveal what is actually discussed, the maps allow the Lab to predict high performing teams with surprising accuracy. Lab Director Alex “Sandy” Pentland wrote that they had equipped 2,500 individuals, from a broad variety of projects and industries, with badges. He said, “With remarkable consistency, the data showed that the most important predictor of a team’s success was its communication patterns.”
What is most surprising is that it doesn’t seem to matter what members discuss. What counts is the way they routinely talk with one another. Regular social conversation during breaks is at least as important as business talk during project meetings.
Pentland said that, regardless of the type of team or its goal, successful teams tend to share several characteristics, including these:
- Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
- Members connect directly with one another, and not just with the leader.
- Members regularly meet in person, they face each other, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
- Team leaders circulate actively, communicating with everyone equally, listening at least as much as talking, and making sure all members get a chance to communicate.
While communication is key, teams also need structure. Even if you’re not the leader, these strategies may help you to strengthen your team:
- Define it. Be clear about the basics. Members should know who is on the team and who is not, as well as what they’re supposed to be doing together.
- Model respect and positivity. Be relentlessly positive and treat everyone with respect. In healthy teams, every member’s contribution is recognized. Notice each person’s strengths and look for ways for each to shine.
- Share leadership. Even where there is a designated leader, every member takes responsibility and shares accountability for success.
- Address the need to belong. Humans have a fundamental need to be part of communities, particularly those that allow us to make contributions that are appreciated by others. So focus on the power of belonging, and find ways to reinforce it. Even silly ways to embrace membership, like T-shirts or mottoes, can enhance team spirit.
- Celebrate little victories. Team members are most likely to feel satisfied and motivated if they believe they are making progress on meaningful work. To keep up the team energy level, find appropriate ways to celebrate even small wins.
- Create norms. Even if leadership is loose, high performing teams need some structure. For example, when the team conducts group meetings, members should agree on elements like:
- Attendance requirements,
- Participation in discussions,
- Cell phone usage and other interruptions, and
- Ways to track and follow up on action items.
There’s no single formula for creating a great team. But a good starting point is to build a little structure, engage regularly with each member, listen as well as talk, acknowledge each contribution, and enjoy the camaraderie that team membership can bring.
Photo credit: (c) Les Cunliffe, Fotolia