The Science of Teamwork

by Brian Brittain on June 21, 2019


Everything has to be “evidence-based” these days before you offer your point of view. Even what impacts high performing teams. Probably a good thing, as many of us insist on perspectives that are based primarily on intuition, or worse, unsubstantiated beliefs, and not much on evidence and science.

I still like to think it is a mix of art and science in terms of how a team performs, but here are the findings from interesting MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory study (2012) published in the Harvard Book Review, on hooking team members of multiple teams up to electrodes and looking for patterns between the amazing ones…what body data they had in common, and the ones that sucked at team behaviour.

According to the data, high performing teams share the following five defining characteristics.
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 (I used to think this was a bad thing, and could be very distracting to the rest of the team)
5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.

The above 5 characteristics seem to be enabled or driven by three aspects of communication.
1. Energy (the number and nature of exchanges/interactions between team members)
2. Engagement (the distribution of energy among team members). Everybody is involved to more or less the same degree.
3. Exploration (communication outside the team). A legitimate desire to get other perspectives and bring them back to the team.

You might want to ask yourself, how you team measures up in these characteristics and aspects of communications. What is lacking on your team, and how should you address that lack?

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