Monday, October 08, 2018

Can One Positive Person Turn a Dysfunctional Team Around?

The Team Battle

No matter what havoc Nik wreaked, one group he was part of did not go down in flames. The other members kept their eye on the goal eventually succeeding with flying colours on the task. But, when he tried the same tactics in other groups, they struggled. What was the magical juice of the first group?

Negativity is highly infectious. It travels fast below our level of consciousness affecting behaviour in all realms of our lives, shutting down the relationship parts of our brains. In any team or group environment, one negative member can “infect” teammates with the same vibe. Productivity suffers. Trust plummets. Tribalism takes over because it is no longer safe to be in the group. This is a common story that most teams struggle with either all the time or occasionally when team membership changes.

But is the opposite true? Can one positive team member resuscitate the team’s culture despite the pervasive negativity? In that the root cause of “culture” is derived from the Latin word ‘cultus’ which means care, team leaders and members alike know intuitively that constant negativity is a detriment to success. Better to have a ‘caring’ or benign environment at the least because it is less stressful, more relaxing. This switch from fight or flight to rest and relax allows members to listen to each other and dare to share. Positivity literally and automatically opens up our connecting minds stoking idea flow and creativity.

The Magic of Positivity

Daniel Coyle’s most recent book, The Culture Code, describes an experiment in which an actor with the pseudonym “Nick” deliberately plays three different roles in up to forty small groups:
  •         Jerk – aggressive, defiant and argumentative
  •         Slacker – a with holder of effort
  •         Downer – negative type

The group is tasked with developing a marketing plan for a start-up. In the majority of the groups, performance drops 30% to 40%. Team member energy, interest in the task and caring about succeeding take a hit. In almost every group, Nick’s negativity is picked up by everyone as evident by various signalling such as heads on table, crossed arms and other negative non-verbal behaviours. But, in one group, despite Nick, team members stay engaged and the group overall does well. Why?

The researchers solve the mystery by viewing the video of the outlier group. One group member (assigned the name “Jonathan”) always deflects Nick’s negative moves with body language that conveys warmth making the “unstable situation feel solid and safe”. He asks “simple” questions to elicit viewpoints. He smiles, listens closely and acknowledges the ideas. The result is higher energy levels, riffing with the ideas cooperatively and eventually achieving a quality outcome. 

The Win-Win Bonus

Decades of research on social conflict point in the same direction. For example, when group members who play the prisoner’s dilemma game eventually ‘get’ that sharing in the bounty creates a win-win for all, they see the limitations of win-lose (tit-for-tat). By dialing up a group mindset of inclusiveness, prosperity for the many overtakes prosperity for the few or as economists put it – win-win instead of zero-sum. In an organizational environment, this also applies to sharing and communicating among teams. The positive culture helps people to cooperate leading to higher quality decision making.  This is a universal effect.

If the “secret juice” is positivity, what are the ingredients? According to MIT’s Alex Pentland, two factors are critical:

Switching out status or power differentials, even temporarily, creates an atmosphere of  equality (everyone matters)

Social sensitivity, especially positive signaling, as our ancestors did before language emerged, kick starts mutual sharing and the vetting of ideas. The vibe of “it’s safe to say something” permeates the team. All ideas are worthy for consideration.

Positive “social physics” according to Pentland and his book of the same name, generate higher performance returns by enhancing the flow of ideas and by association the “collective intelligence” of the team. Special Ops teams in the military know this well.

Two-Way Street

Team conflict has a healthy and unhealthy side. On the healthy side, differing opinions enable an environment of challenging assumptions and digging deeper. But non-respectful conversations simply escalate bad feelings. The good news is that one person can make a difference one way or the other.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, page 54, Daniel Kahneman explains how “simple, common gestures” “unconsciously influence our thoughts and feelings”:

If you “act calm and kind…you are likely to be rewarded by actually feeling calm and kind.”

Consider this - every member of a team imagines this mindset in advance of each team meeting and during tumultuous times in team meetings. Even visualizing a positive scenario seems to help!

Tips for building positive conversational intelligence in a team:

·         Be curious – ask lots of open-ended and clarifying questions.

·         Watch your non-verbal signaling – no rolling of eyeballs, crossing your arms in disgust or defiance, ignoring other members, glaring and checking your smart phone.

·         Convey respect in both your verbal and non-verbal signals– inject humor, laugh appropriately, smile, acknowledge good ideas, give your full attention in the moment (as if you are in an improv class).

·         Guide the group to dig deep, challenging conventional wisdom and assumptions.

·         Let go of being right.