Communication Practices of Great Teams

At the Human Dynamics Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers pinned electronic badges on 2,500 team members from diverse industries. These badges collected a wide range of team-relevant data such as tone of voice, length of talking episodes, who was addressed, body language, standing versus sitting, and so forth. Lab director Alex “Sandy” Pentland summarized their findings in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review. Perhaps you might use this list as a kind of report card to assess your current team’s functioning, with an eye towards how you and others might behave differently in order to be at your best.

On high-performing teams, regardless of the team’s composition and purpose:

  • Members are more engaged with one another when not in meetings—visits, breaks and meals together, water-cooler conversations, and adhocracies.
  • Creating social opportunities within the work contexts (e.g., adequate space/seats for breaks and meals) is more predictive of performance than non-work contexts (e.g., beer busts).
  • Talking, and therefore listening, is evenly distributed among members.sociogram
  • Each talking episode is shorter rather than longer.
  • Members talk facing one another.
  • Members gesture enthusiastically.
  • Members vary their tone of voice, which is generally described as energetic.
  • Members address each other, not just their leader.
  • Members engage in side conversations.
  • Members leave the meeting on occasion and return with new information.
  • Adherence to these communication patterns is more strongly associated with productivity, regardless of team goal, than does the talent and intelligence of individual members.
  • The best predictor of high performance is frequency of face-to-face communication; second best is frequency of telephone or video communication (but as the number of participants increases, the contribution to performance decreases); number of emails and text are the least predictive.
  • Frequency is everything, however—a team can have too few or too many face-to-face communications.
  • The entire team holds forth no more than half the time.
  • Higher performing teams look outside their team for information and judgment—fresh perspectives.
  • Managers encourage equal, face-to-face participation and model all of the above.
  • High performing teams have members who are “charismatic connectors”—natural leaders who circulate throughout the day with frequent, short, face-to-face encounters in which they both talk and listen. The more of them on a team, the higher its performance.

As we at the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies (CentACS) are in the business of personality assessment, I would like to know what personality traits predict these behaviors, and which traits predict the ability to learn them. Clearly higher extraversion is associated with many of these behaviors (length of contributions, frequency of talking, variation in pitch and volume, wandering around), and listening tends to be associated with mid to high levels of Big Five Agreeableness/Accommodation. I have designed a questionnaire based on these bullets, and I am collecting responses from persons who’ve taken our WorkPlace Big Five Profile as well as my Team Communication Profile. I want to see which traits are correlated with these team communication behaviors. Interested in helping me collect data?

Pentland groups these team behaviors and practices under three categories—energy, engagement, and exploration, with the best teams showing equal attention to all three. How’s your team doing?

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