The Art of Teaming With Others

My first nomination for Best 2016 Long Form Journalism piece is in, “What Google Learned In Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” by Charles Duhigg.

Crystal clear and filled to the brim with trenchant insights into why most teams usually flounder. In short, Google researchers found individuals on the most productive teams “spoke in roughly the same proportion” as one another and were skilled at “intuiting how others felt”. Furthermore, the greater a team’s perceived psychological safety, measured by how comfortable team members felt being themselves, the greater that team’s “collective intelligence”.

Take Duhigg’s test:

Imagine you have been invited to join one of two groups.

Team A is composed of people who are all exceptionally smart and successful. When you watch a video of this group working, you see professionals who wait until a topic arises in which they are expert, and then they speak at length, explaining what the group ought to do. When someone makes a side comment, the speaker stops, reminds everyone of the agenda and pushes the meeting back on track. This team is efficient. There is no idle chitchat or long debates. The meeting ends as scheduled and disbands so everyone can get back to their desks.

Team B is different. It’s evenly divided between successful executives and middle managers with few professional accomplishments. Teammates jump in and out of discussions. People interject and complete one another’s thoughts. When a team member abruptly changes the topic, the rest of the group follows him off the agenda. At the end of the meeting, the meeting doesn’t actually end: Everyone sits around to gossip and talk about their lives.

Which group would you rather join?

Here’s the right answer based on the literature that informed the researchers’ work:

. . .you should probably opt for Team B. Team A may be filled with smart people, all optimized for peak individual efficiency. But the group’s norms discourage equal speaking; there are few exchanges of the kind of personal information that lets teammates pick up on what people are feeling or leaving unsaid. There’s a good chance the members of Team A will continue to act like individuals once they come together, and there’s little to suggest that, as a group, they will become more collectively intelligent.

In contrast, on Team B, people may speak over one another, go on tangents and socialize instead of remaining focused on the agenda. The team may seem inefficient to a casual observer. But all the team members speak as much as they need to. They are sensitive to one another’s moods and share personal stories and emotions. While Team B might not contain as many individual stars, the sum will be greater than its parts.

Google’s researchers conclude:

“. . . no one wants to put on a ‘work face’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘psychologically safe,’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.”

These take-aways are equally applicable to most non-work teams. In my experience, a recurring challenge in applying these lessons is team members who dominate discussions often lack self awareness. Even beginning teamwork with an explicit emphasis on the importance of balanced participation sometimes does little to prevent the most loquacious among us from repeatedly dominating discussions. Those most loquacious team members also don’t realize their teammates quickly fatigue, and shortly thereafter, begin tuning them out.

Another challenge in improving teamwork is people have a multitude of negative team experiences as points of reference for every positive one; as a result, they anticipate one or a few people dominating and scant attention being paid to people’s feelings.

That’s why this research deserves a large audience. It not only illuminates why groups often get sideways, but provides a roadmap for improved work and non-work teamwork.

[Thanks FK for the link.]

2 thoughts on “The Art of Teaming With Others

  1. Years of teaching, and sitting in principal dominated staff meetings had me convinced that all meetings are dull, and fodder for nodding off! Wish I had a Team B. I may have taught for a few more years, and come away with a better pension. It’s the meetings that did me in!

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