Making teams work


One plus one doesn’t have to equal two. When it comes to teams, the name of the game is synergy. Ideally the team achieves a gestalt, meaning that it produces results that are greater than the sum of the contributions of its individual members. But most teams fail to realize this potential – why? Because the only way to get more than a summative outcome is through the dynamic interactions of the individuals in the team. Effective relationships are therefore key to unlocking this ideal state. The way team members handle communication and conflict in particular can make or break a team. While we often pay lip service to the importance of these concepts, they often go unaddressed – they seem slippery, hard to define and hard to measure. Research is increasingly showing us, however, just how important these topics are to the functioning of teams, and that it is indeed possible to measure and monitor them.

Communication is vital to effective teams. As discussed in this recent report, technology is giving us detailed insights into what characterizes high-performing teams. Using wearable electronic badges, researchers gathered and analyzed volumes of sociometric data (e.g., body language, tone of voice, who spoke to whom for how long, etc.) to determine what differentiates high-performing teams at the micro-behavior level. While it was clear that the best teams showed higher energy, commitment, and creativity, what the researchers further evidenced was that communication patterns were the single most important predictor of the team’s success – more so than all of the factors combined, including intelligence, personality, and skill level. For example, the number of face-to-face interactions a team has outside of formal meetings, relatively equally shared talking and listening time, and energetic and engaged communication, as demonstrated through body language, are all hallmarks of successful teams. Teams with less personal interaction and where not all members are equally engaged were less successful.

Successful teams manage conflict carefully. Is conflict inherently bad? Or is it a necessary and sometimes beneficial interpersonal process? Will it destroy a team or is it critical for surfacing issues and ideas? Research tells us: it depends. Relationship conflict will negatively impact a team, every time. When people are nasty and sarcastic, when they dislike and distrust one another, performance suffers. But task conflict – disagreements about the nature of the task and how it should be solved – can be beneficial, because it results in more and diverse potential solutions. But there is a caveat – this benefit only extends to non-routine tasks, when conflict stays at moderate levels, and in the absence of relationship conflict. Conflict is inevitable, but it can be beneficial when and if team members have the knowledge and ability to handle it effectively.

Healthy relationships aren’t just nice to have. Poor quality relationships will lead to negative conflict and broken down communication. On the flip side, the positive vibe and buzz that exists in a team when people treat each other with respect and kindness is a reflection of their high-quality interactions. This study shows that teams are far more effective when there is a higher ratio between positive to negative comments shared within the group. While negative feedback and criticism are important ingredients, the highest performing teams had more than five times more positive comments than negative. Similar research into teams’ “collective intelligence” found that teams with a greater number of women outperformed teams with fewer women – and that this factor mattered more even than the summative IQs of individual members. Researchers speculate this surprising finding is that as a group, women tend to be more socially sensitive, which promotes high-functioning relationships and as a result improves communication and reduces unnecessary conflict.

Trust is the bedrock upon which effective relationships are built. These disparate pieces of research are reflected in a model for effective teams that we use every day – The Five Behaviors of Cohesive Teams. Within this framework, trust forms the basis for the team’s achievements. Trust breeds honesty and transparency of communication, which allows the team to engage in healthy conflict about ideas. This appropriate conflict leads to commitment, which encourages members to hold one another accountable, which drives a focus on achieving collective results. These concepts may feel elusive, but they can be measured and acted against to improve team dynamics and outcomes. Without the drag of ineffective communication and conflict, teams are more efficient. A climate of trust allows them to operate faster, make better decisions, and make full use of all members – which makes them more competitive. Being a part of an amazing team isn’t the luck of the draw. Amazing teams can be built and developed with a careful eye on what we now know matters.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” –Babe Ruth