New Research: Communication in Effective Teams

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%.”

3 Aspects of Communication Affect Team Performance

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:

  • Energy – how much communication is going on and quality of the interaction (for example, a face-to-face exchange is rated as higher energy than an email or text, thus having a more positive impact on team performance).
  • Engagement – who is communicating well with each other and who isn’t (equal and high energy between all team members=high engagement and high performance; partially engaged teams don’t perform as well)
  • Exploration –communication with outsiders (outside team, outside company, outside industry, etc.). Excellent for teams who work on innovation.

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.

5 Characteristics of Successful Teams

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.

Key Data Points:

  • 35% of team performance can be explained by tallying number of face-to-face exchanges among team members.
  • The “ideal” number of communication exchanges is a dozen per hour—more will actually decrease performance.
  • Social interaction between team members is critical to team performance—socializing often accounts for an improvement of at least 50% in communication patterns across many industries and vocations.
  • Individual talent is less important to team success than expected; put less focus on selecting accomplished members and instead build a great team by learning how they communicate and providing training on successful communication patterns.

The “ideal” team member connects teammates, spreads ideas, approaches others often, talks and listens equally, communicates with everyone equally.

Check out Effective Teams Part 2: Examples of Team Norms
















Eva Rykrsmith

Eva Rykrsmith is an organizational psychology practitioner. Her passion lies in bringing a psychology perspective to the business world, with the mission of creating a high-performance environment. Follow her @EvaRykr.

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