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How To Build High-Performing, Collaborative Teams

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August 22nd, 2017

- Updated on

March 21, 2018 - 4:09pm
If there is one question every manager seeks to answer it is, “How can I ensure that my team is performing optimally?”  
Conventional wisdom would tell you to put the most skilled, hardworking and capable people together on the team, then provide them with clear direction and let them work their magic. But, time and again, that traditional approach has not panned out. In fact, research shows that it is not a matter of the skill mix, the professions, or the background of each team member that counts. Instead, it’s the intangible elements - previously unmeasurable factors - that drive high performing teams. 


Two Research Initiatives – Similar Conclusions

In Team Success: Is There a Tech-Driven Algorithm to Minimize Team Conflict? we highlighted a Google initiative, Project Aristotle in which the tech giant spent two years studying the inner workings of 180 project teams to distill the keys to those that were most productive and successful. Their conclusions centered on five attributes required for team effectiveness.
  1. Dependability
  2. Structure and Clarity of Purpose
  3. Meaning
  4. Impact
  5. Psychological Safety
The last of these elements, Psychological Safety, proved to be the most important of all - outweighing all the other four factors combined in importance to team success. Psychological Safety is highest when members of the team feel safe to share their opinions without judgment or ridicule when they listen to each other and give adequate time for each member to express his or her views. In this psychologically safe environment, team members can let down their guard. When team members feel a sense of belonging and connectedness at work, as they may in a well-functioning team, they can give their best in creativity, insight, and analytic thinking. Psychological Safety is a force multiplier to team productivity and long-term effectiveness.
Researchers at Sociometric Solutions, in concert with MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, have also been focusing on what makes the most productive teams. They found that the key to high performance was determined by how the team communicated. A team’s energy and engagement throughout the course of a project - a sense of esprit de corps - explained dramatic differences in dollar productivity and employee satisfaction among teams studied.  
Using wireless sensor technology embedded in badges developed at MIT, researchers measured social interactions more explicitly than was ever possible before.

“These badges, worn over a period of several weeks by all team members, were able to generate more than 100 data points per minute.”

The "sociometric badges" recorded:
  • Who was communicating with whom
  • For how long
  • What tone of voice was used
  • Whether those engaged with each other talked face-to-face
  • Whether they gestured, etc.
This allowed researchers to tease out those communication patterns that proved most important to successful team performance.
Over seven years, they measured the communication patterns of 2500 people, clearly delineating the top five communication keys to successful teams:
  1. Equal time for each team member. Talking and listening are balanced and comments are short and to the point.
  2. Team members face each other when talking, using energetic gestures.
  3. Members talk directly with each other, not only through the team leader.
  4. Members carry on back-channel and side conversations within the team.
  5. Members periodically explore ideas outside of the team to bring fresh thinking back to the team.

What is most astonishing is that these successful “patterns of communication were found to be as significant to team success as all the other factors – individual intelligence, personality, skill and the content of discussions – combined.” 

In this six minute clip, Sandy Pentland, inventor of the badges, discusses this technology and what they learned about what contributed to team success in this fascinating study.

Apply This Science to Your Team

What do these two research conclusions mean to you and your teams? How can you foster Psychological Safety and positive, engaged communications within your environment and your teams?
Here are a few suggestions gleaned from the conclusions of experts at Google and MIT.
  • Educate team members on the behaviors that make a successful team.
  • Provide clear project objectives and goals, and a sense of larger purpose for each endeavor.
  • Train and coach team members in active listening and feedback skills
  • Work with the teams to establish team norms and standards of behavior that provide commonly accepted ground rules for brainstorming and discussions.  
  • Provide a risk-taking safe environment for discussions and brainstorming.
  • Encourage team members to share the floor during meetings. Encourage EVERYONE to contribute to discussions.
  • Structure office spaces to encourage engagement. Provide places for informal conversations and ad hoc meetings to develop. 
  • Set a personal example of holding face-to-face conversations rather than relying on electronic communication whenever possible.
  • Encourage and reward those who seek ideas from individuals outside of the formal team and share them with other team members.
  • Redirect those team members who make a habit of talking only to the team leader. Encourage them to engage with their fellow team members as a matter of course. As a team leader, allow others to take a leadership role in member discussions.  
  • When working across geographic boundaries or remotely, provide time and place for face -to-face interaction. Where physical proximity is not possible, use technological solutions to enable face-to-face interactions.
Apply these suggestions and your team can become one in which your team members’ behaviors magnify their chances of collaboration, high performance, and overall success.
Want to know more? Click on the images below to download complimentary copies of two of AJO's Coaching Guides. Visit our Team Development section to learn more about how we might elevate your team's performance. 
      AJO's Team Coaching Guide Cover             AJO High performing team coaching guide cover

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Kathy Flora is a Career and Executive Coach and AJO Blogger who is actively pursuing her life’s passion, helping others find and fulfill theirs. Known as a positive change agent, mentor and guide, she has assisted hundreds of leaders and their teams understand their strengths, collaborate effectively, and drive organizational success. She has a special affinity for working with virtual teams, using webinars, virtual meet-ups, and online collaborative communities to optimize communication and productivity. Her experience spans over 25 years in executive management and leadership, career development, facilitation, and consulting in private firms, state government, and in federal agencies.