Saturday, July 14, 2012

Subtle dynamics of teams make or break their greatness

As in a gentle Marine boot camp, I was madly climbing my way up to the top and over a “rope” mountain when the person behind me asked for help. My “boss”, who was much bigger than me, was having trouble. Naturally I reached out and provided a helping hand despite my angst toward him. Did this make any difference to our relationship in the long run? Not one iota.

We were attending one of those company retreats focused on making us a better team by putting us through a bunch of trust exercises (falling out of a tree to be caught/saved by my colleagues below, for example). Sound familiar? If only building a stronger team were so simple. But, at the least it was fun.

Back in those days, we had a bird’s eye view of teaming. Now, we have a better view from the ground.  With the aid of technology and because of technology and more research, we are able to sharpen our understanding of the inner workings of teams – for better or worse. The subtle human drivers of team basics such as having a clear goal, mutual accountability for the work product, diverse thinking and domain skills, etc., are now becoming clearer. These drivers are like the glue that binds the team basics.

Three such drivers caught my attention recently:

When culture and conflict don’t mix and a subtler approach is better

As teams become less mono- and more multi-cultural, conflict becomes a more sensitive issue. Erin Meyer’s research at INSEAD in France revealed subtle undertones in teams with a mix of cultures. While people from a French background typically view openly arguing as a means to uncovering hidden contradictions and to stimulating thinking, people from Asian countries consider such confrontation to be rude. This can also apply to certain personality types – introverts as less likely to embrace “conflict” than extroverts.

What can a team do to go with the flow of different ways of “doing” conflict”?

-If you are the team leader, consult with “quiet” members before a meeting.

-Enable people to prepare their thinking in advance of a meeting (for example a series of three questions on the matter at hand).

-Refrain from saying “I disagree” and replace with “could you tell me more about that?”

When the “how” of team communication matters more than “substance”

Alex “Sandy” Pentland of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab captures how people communicate in real time using electronic sensors in the form of sociometric badges. He has found that when building a great team smart people matter less than we have thought and non-verbals count much more. These include tone of voice, gesturing, how one faces others in a group and how much people talk and listen. 

What do members of great teams do?

-Talk with each other many times during the day – a dozen or so exchanges per working hour. Call it ongoing consultation.

-Talk and listen to each other in equal measure, equally. Teams with dominant members, teams within teams, and those that either talk or listen but don’t do both are far less productive.

-Engage in frequent informal communication. Such “water cooler” conversations foster camaraderie and the exchange of valuable ideas. The best teams spend about half their time outside of formal meetings communicating.

-Go outside the team environment to explore for ideas and information. Like bees seeking pollen, outside sources do aid team results.

When work-life balance strategies “made by the team”pay off

In her book Sleeping with Your Smart Phone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work, Leslie Perlow describes how a team at the Boston Consulting Company (BCG) confronted the dangers of burnout. The team set a simple, modest goal: each team member would get a planned night off each week (PTO or “predictable time off”).

That single intention fostered conversations that may never have happened and those led to greater team altruism and empathy, higher job satisfaction and team member retention and better client satisfaction ratings. Looking out for one another engendered trust, a vital electrical current in any team.

This “reimagining” of work yielded a continuous flow of benefits for the team. Better conversations and new connections grew out of a goal to include personal needs in getting the job done.

If my boss and I had known these simple yet powerful ways to build great teams, would we have added more value at the retreat and thereafter back at the office? Probably. In looking back, at the least, I can be more forgiving of myself and my boss for not connecting. We did not know what we did not know.