#1 Great Team Communication

In today’s episode, Pilar shares a piece of research that looked into the patterns of communication of high performing teams and she asks you some questions to help you review how your own team is doing. 20:37mins


I’ll start with an apology, or a disclaimer, I’m not going to tell you how to turn your team great in 20 minutes. What I would like to do is to dissect what communication in great teams might look like. “Teamwork” and “communication” are words that are often used vaguely, we need better communication, teamwork is really important… what does any of that really mean?

So I’ll share with you my favourite piece of research, from 2012, on high-performing teams, where the authors present the communication patterns of high performance teams. I hope that will help you to evaluate your communication processes and habits, to see whether there’s anything you might be missing. Now the research was done on collocated teams, that is those in the office together, but, here, as we now need to cover both collocated and virtual or remote or even hybrid teams (a bit of virtual, a bit of collocated) I’ll also share with you some thoughts on all this can be transported to the virtual world.

Are you sitting comfortably? (Actually, this is a podcast, so you could be anywhere, anyway…)

A couple of years ago, in 2012, I came across an article which made me say, “Finally! We can dissect “great teamwork’.” If you read regularly read about leadership in organisations, and specifically if you read the Harvard Business Review, you’ve probably heard about this piece of research.

Professor Sandy Pentland and his team at the MIT media lab gathered data which showed the patterns of communication in great teams. For a start, it turns out that 50% of the variation between low and high performing teams is accounted for by these patterns of communication, so I definitely think it’s worth looking at.

So, what did Professor Pentland and his team look at? By putting a gadget on team members, they were able to measure how people were interacting. These gadgets measured the Energy behind the interaction, the body language, tone of voice, who you were facing, how long you were talking to them for – and whether they were in your team or not. The one thing they didn’t capture was the content of the conversation.

I will tell you what they found in a moment, but I’d like to point out that these conversations included informal communication. And by this, I don’t mean when we are just chatting away about non-work related things but also about when we talk about work casually – when I ask you whether you have met one of my potential clients before, when I shout across the room to see whether you know when we’re likely to receive the next report; when you offer to help me with the new software.

This is an important reminder, because it’s, unfortunately not unusual for people in offices to keep their heads down at work – and if this happens, no matter how many productivity tools we use or how many lists we make, our team is not going to fly. We’re never going to be great, just coast along. So it’s important that we don’t lose those times when we’re all together, or when we interact in the corridors – that we give space to those interactions as, as we shall see in a second, they’re important. And if you are in a virtual team, then you have to be deliberate about this and come up with processes that make this easy. And if you’re a hybrid team, this is even more important – because if not you might easily get an us and them mentality, as the people in close proximity get stronger as a subteam, while those away from the office do not. (By the way, I’d love to know how you encourage informal communication in your team or how it happens, or how it doesn’t happen, which is also interesting… do let me know through the blog managementcafepodcast.com/communication)

Right, Let’s carry on with the research.

So the data from the sociometers was grouped into three components: Energy, how team members contribute to the team, Engagement – whom was talking to whom – and Exploration, how much team members talk to those from others teams.

It’s probably not surprising that in the lower performing teams, the contribution of some people was much larger than others – and we’re talking about the contribution in face to face meetings. Let me just stop for a moment here, think about the times when you meet with your team informally, or even formally. Say at the coffee machine, water cooler, on the way from the office to the car park or the train station. Who contributes more to the conversation? Quite often, those further up in the hierarchy might be given more space, so if you are one of those, just beware.

So, the informal energy we bring to the group seems to be important, as does how even this is throughout the team.

The other thing measured in this study was Engagement, that is whom is talking to whom. Especially in new teams, we have to be aware that we don’t always end up having conversations with the same people. That we establish a relationship with everyone in the team. Once more, this is of special importance if you ‘re in a leadership position – you should make sure not just that you interact with everyone in equal measures, but that people don’t end up talking just to YOU.

How many times have you observed in a conversation, people talking just to the chair, or the manager, or the teacher, in educational settings. I notice it quite a bit, mainly in training situations. We’re having a discussion but I might have the focus, being in the higher status role, and so many people tend to direct their thoughts and speech at me, whereas it’s important that they distribute their eye contact amongst everyone else. In these cases, I have to directly ask them to share their thoughts with everyone else, and I do this usually with a hand gesture which reminds them to open up to everyone else. Once one person does it, others tend to follow.

The third factor that affects team’s performance is exploration, how much teams look outside for inspiration, information and connection. The most creative teams in the study seemed to seek information and inspiration from a range of outside sources, not just when they needed help or advice, but constantly.

If we are in charge of structuring team processes, or let’s face it, if we just care about our team and want to do something about it, these are three things that are worth thinking about – Energy (by which I don’t mean that everyone is moving their arms around, but rather what people are bringing from themselves to the conversation, the quality of our interactions), Engagement and Exploration

And, even though this large study, carried out over seven years in a range of organisations, even though it was carried out in the collocated environment, where team members were together in the same location, there are still some very valuable lessons we can also take to the online space.

For example, people like communicating in different ways – formally, through agendas in meetings; through structured emails; informally, in the corridor, over coffee, on a chat, with emoticons. What’s your preference?

This is always important because we’re only human, so we tend to organise communication around us in the way that suits us most. But if you really prefer structured conversations and don’t pay attention to the fact that your team rarely gets to have informal conversations, you’re going to miss out on important communication – and not all your team members will be engaged.

So how about this: carry out a small audit of the types of communication you have in your team. You should also do this even if you’re working in an office based team. You can do this now over coffee, you can even just do it in your head…

How do your people exchange ideas in real time and asynchronously?

If you are a virtual team or have a mixture of work patterns, try to have a healthy mixture of video, audio, and written communication. In the office, you can have structured meetings but how about also leaving time for new conversations to emerge? And you might have to make an effort to make sure that there are opportunities for informal communication too.

How about engagement, whom is talking to whom.

Think about how communication is flowing through your team – both when you’re in a meeting together and when you’re getting on with the work. Does everything go through you? Do all help request go through you? I suppose the easiest way to formulate this question would be: Are people in your team talking to each other? While I don’t want to put all the responsibility on you to enable this, there are some things you can do. You can encourage people to work on tasks together – or you can help to break down projects in ways that mean team members have to share information or solve problems together. By the way, this is what team building is about…

If your team has some sort of flexible set up or if you are in a virtual team, it becomes even more important to talk about your communication arrangements together. To make sure that everyone can get hold of everyone else at some point so that people don’t start just communicating with you. Have you got an instant messaging system? If your people travel a lot, are your communication systems or platforms or apps, mobile friendly? Is there a way for people to communicate in different ways, to make sure nobody is being left out of the loop just because they find communicating in a certain way difficult.

For example, if you have people who struggle with writing in the language your team uses to communicate, make sure you have video calls often. Or if some in your team need time to reflect on their thoughts and prefer to put them in writing, make sure you have an easy to use collaboration platform and that it’s being used. You will have to lead by example and even broker some of these relationships.

Finally, exploration. Don’t forget to look outside your team for inspiration. How are other teams in the organisation operating? Who is responsible for what in the organisation who can provide you with useful information? How are people in your industry innovating? As a manager you probably have access to a range of people in the organisation who can help you not just when you need to reach out but also, who can help you to see things differently. If your team is dispersed, or not located in the office, you might need a strategy to continuously encourage your team members to explore (to use Pentland’s terminology) what other people are doing.

So, communication – how many times have we heard that things went wrong due to lack of communication? We’ve broken down team communication here into energy (the quality of interaction), engagement (the patterns of communication within a team) and exploration, the connection of the team to the outside world.

If you want to review how your team is doing, then here is a simple framework to double check whether your communication is conducive to being a high performing team.

Recommended Reading

Well, I’d better go… but if you have a bit more time, I’m sure it’s ok for you to stay at this table. And if you would like something to read, then I recommend Team of Teams by Coronel Stanley McChrystal, which is all about creating an organisation where transparency and ongoing communication is the norm. McChrystal shares the process of how he had to change how they operated in one part of the US army to keep up with terrorists in Iraq. It’s one of my favourite books – not just because of what he says, but how he says it. It’s full of wonderful examples throughout the story of management – and comes to the conclusion that we’re better off trusting people to do their best work. And I can’t leave you with a better thought than that, can I?

So, I’d love to know what you thought of this episode, I’d love to know what other topics you’d like me to cover in this podcast, so if you want to say hello or if you’d want to subscribe to this podcast, go to managementcafepodcast and you can find me there. Twitter is also a good place to connect, I’m @PilarOrti and finally, if you are making the transition to virtual or hybrid, then check out the website virtualnotdistant.com and the 21st Century Work Life podcast. And, I might as well say this now, Virtual not Distant has indeed been set up to help managers and team leaders of virtual teams, or those in transition , through training, coaching and team facilitation.

So my little management challenge to you today is to observe how people are talking to each other within your team and outside it and see whether there is anything that you can all do to improve communication.

Let me know how you get on and I hope you’ll join me for another coffee soon.




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