Communication is a key aspect of teamwork, and a team that works together well is crucial to high performance and achieving objectives. But little has been known about the role of communication styles in effective teams; in the past most research has focused on goals, individual roles, and group norms. Until now.
In the April 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review Alex “Sandy” Pentland introduces us to his new research; MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory is uncovering the details of the role of communication and team member interaction within a working team. They have been studying patterns of communication in teams across multiple industries—gathering data on team members’ communication habits. Here is one success story:
A manager at call center was puzzled why some teams excelled while others struggled. The usual metrics (plentiful at a call center) gave no indication. Using an entire new set of metrics (tone of voice, gestures used, body positioning, and quantity of talking, listening, and interrupting) they were able to explain that one-third of the variation in dollar productivity among groups was due to energy and engagement outside of formal meetings.
Dr. Pentland writes, “drawing on that insight, we advised the center’s manager to revise the employees’ coffee break schedule so that everyone on a team took a break at the same time. That would allow people more time to socialize with their teammates, away from their workstations. Though the suggestion flew in the face of standard efficiency practices, the manager was baffled and desperate, so he tried it. And it worked: average handling time fell by more than 20% among lower-performing teams and decreased by 8% overall at the call center. Now the manager is changing the break schedule at all 10 of the bank’s call centers and is forecasting $15 million a year in productivity increases. He has also seen employee satisfaction at call centers rise, sometimes by more than 10%.”
At the call center, energy and engagement were the two most important metrics that differentiated successful versus unsuccessful teams. In a more creative environment, however, exploration is also important. All in all, there are three communication metrics that affect team performance:
Our energy is a limited resource, which creates tension between engagement and exploration for teams that require both—they can’t give 100% to each, a so team must correctly decide where to allocate resources as demands require.
The article specifies five characteristics of successful teams:
1. Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
2. Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
3. Members connect directly with one another—not just with the team leader.
4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.
The “ideal” team member connects teammates, spreads ideas, approaches others often, talks and listens equally, communicates with everyone equally.