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Team Building and Performance: A New Science

Everyone has a story. Whether your bad team experience was in business school or in the workplace, hopefully you’ve been able to draw two things from it: insight on team dynamics (to apply in other collaborations), and a story to tell colleagues during happy hour. Perhaps you were able to pinpoint why your team never gelled, or maybe it was more nebulous and you could never quite put your finger on it. But what if there were a science for determining precisely why teams perform well and others don’t?

Researchers from MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory published an article earlier this year (in the Harvard Business Review), and the premise of their findings was bold: “We have identified the elusive group dynamics that categorize high-performing teams.” They didn’t stop there. “These dynamics are observable, quantifiable, and measurable.” But wait, there’s more: researchers also believe they know how to leverage team data to help struggling and low-performing teams improve.

Early on in their study researchers made an interesting observation: when a successful, high-performing team communicated it exhibited a “buzz,” or “espirit de corps,” even when researchers were clueless about what members were talking about. This led them to develop the hunch that good communication is a key attribute of a successful team (no surprise there), but more importantly, it’s the way in which members communicate that matters most – not the contents of their discussions. Researchers decided to dig deeper into the ways teams communicate; they chose teams to observe from companies where they could gather data on both high and low-performing teams. They outfitted team members with sophisticated electronic badges that could record data on the various ways team members communicated with each other (also known as sociometrics). Some of these included body language, hand gestures, how much members listen and interrupt each other, who they talked to, and how frequently.

In their analysis, researchers discovered distinct communication patterns among the high and low-performing teams. Impressively, researchers said the patterns were so consistent (even across industries) that they could “predict a team’s success simply by looking at the data – without ever meeting its members.” This allowed researchers to identify five communication characteristics of a high-performing team:

  1. All team members talk and listen “in roughly equal measure,” and when they do talk, keep their comments concise and to the point.
  2. Team members look at one another as they talk, use hand gestures, and are energetic.
  3. Team members contact each other, not just the leader.
  4. Team members participate in informal conversations with each other (outside of meetings).
  5. Team members “go exploring outside the team” to solicit information or different points of view that they in turn contribute back to the team.

Researchers also defined the three main elements of communication among successful teams: energy, engagement and exploration – all of which researchers were able to measure using the badges. Put simply, energy was measured by the number of exchanges between team members (through this researchers found that face-to-face communication was much more valuable than email or text messages). They also found that socialization among team members is key to high performance, “often accounting for more than 50% of positive changes in communication patterns.” When energy was distributed pretty equally among teammates, then engagement was very strong.  Successful teams also did not live in a bubble. Members looked for information outside of the team (to bring back), and they also sought connections and established relationships with other teams.

Researchers realized that they needed to make the data insights they were uncovering on teams more palatable. That way teams could clearly see for themselves what was going well, or not so well, in their communication patterns. To do this, researchers mapped out the data they collected into simple graphs. If team members appeared unengaged in a graph, for example, researchers would drill deeper into individual badge data. Were team members “trying to contribute and being ignored or cut off?” or “do they cut others off and not listen?” Researchers found that after teams saw their communication patterns visually – and absorbed the disconnects – there were rapid improvements in communication. This in turn led to better performance and improved productivity, which the researchers confirmed after running “feedback loops” with teams and measuring the results afterwards (using key performance indicators).

But researchers are not done. They are working on improving the badges, refining their processes, and developing tools that will help them measure teams (and individuals) more effectively. And they have a vision. They’d like to see the badges become ubiquitous around workplaces, and they’d like to go beyond communication to identify patterns in related areas like leadership and negotiations. They also believe their findings will play a role in re-thinking the office environment and the primary ways teams communicate with each other – particularly those that are based in different parts of the world.

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