–Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Harvard Business Review, April 2012
MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory has assessed the group dynamics of high-performing teams—and they argue that “these dynamics are observable, quantifiable, and measurable. And, perhaps most important, teams can be taught how to strengthen them.”
Their findings suggest that how we communicate is more important than the topic of communication. They examined a wide set of industries to find workplaces that had similar teams with varying performance: innovation teams, post-op hospital wards, customer-facing teams in banks, backroom operations teams, and call center teams. They used electronic badges to collect data (sociometrics) on communication behavior, including body language, tone of voice, both quantity and quality of communication: “the data confirmed that communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams…patterns of communication [are] the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.”
The two best productivity predictors were the energy and engagement of team members during informal, non-meeting contacts. In one study, a new software company hoped to promote better employee communication by offering outside social events, “but the badge data showed that these events had little or no effect. In contrast, the data revealed that making the tables in the company’s lunchroom longer, so that strangers sat together, had a huge impact.” In a call center study, they suggested the manager modify the staggered schedule for coffee breaks and institute “team” breaks instead. AHT (average handling time) dropped by over 20% for lower-performing teams, 8% overall at the call center and there was a 10% increase in employee satisfaction.
They have introduced sociometrics to 21 organizations and measured the communication patterns of over 2500 people. The characteristics of successful teams were as follows:
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.”
Ultimately, Pentland argues that the “patterns vary little, regardless of the type of team and its goal—be it a call center team striving for efficiency, an innovation team at a pharmaceutical company looking for new product ideas, or a senior management team hoping to improve its leadership…Individual reasoning and talent contribute far less to team success than one might expect. The best way to build a great team is not to select individuals for their smarts or accomplishments but to learn how they communicate and to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.”
–Anita Woolley, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University; Thomas W. Malone, Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, Harvard Business Review, June 2011
Woolley and Malone posit that “there’s little correlation between a group’s collective intelligence and the IQs of its individual members. But if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises.” Subjects were tested for intelligence and randomly assigned to teams. 192 teams tackled brainstorming, decision making, visual puzzles and attempted to solve a challenging problem. The study was replicated 2 times.
The higher IQ teams didn’t do as well as teams with a higher proportion of female members. Of course some of the teams with more female members would also have been higher IQ teams.
They have some evidence that performance “flatten[s] out at the extreme end—that there should be a little gender diversity rather than all women.”
The researchers believe that “part of that finding can be explained by differences in social sensitivity, which we found is also important to group performance. Many studies have shown that women tend to score higher on tests of social sensitivity than men do. So what is really important is to have people who are high in social sensitivity, whether they are men or women.”
In the end, Woolley and Malone think “it’s completely possible to markedly change a group’s intelligence. You could increase it by changing members or incentives for collaboration, for instance…There is some evidence to suggest that collective intelligence exists at the organizational level, too. Some companies that do well at scanning the environment and setting targets also excel at managing internal operations and mentoring employees—and have better financial performance.”