One would think that, if you were looking to compare teams and their success, a call centre would be the best place to start. The skills required are easy to identify and team performance is easy to measure – customer satisfaction, length of calls, resolved issues and overall efficiency. However, a manager at a major bank had trouble identifying why some teams were outperforming others, even with similar metrics.

Researchers from MIT set out to understand the behaviours of teams that make them “click”. Their studies looked at many different industries that had similar teams with varying performance.

For all high-performing teams observed, the one aspect that was different was the “buzz” in the team, despite the researchers not necessarily understanding what the teams were talking about. This led the research team to hypothesise that high performance does not lie in the content of the team’s discussions but rather in the manner it is communicated. To prove this, all members of the observed teams were given electronic badges. The badges generated more than 100 data points a minute, working unobtrusively to track what tone of voice they used; whether they faced one another; how much they gestured; how much they talked, listened and interrupted; and even their levels of extroversion and empathy.

Results confirmed that communication did indeed play a critical role in building successful teams. Results further showed that patterns of communication were the most important predictors of a team’s success.

Patterns of communication were the reason for the differences in performance in the bank’s call centre teams. Results found that the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. Together, those two factors explained one-third of the variations in profit productivity among groups.

Based on the finding, the researchers advised that the employees’ coffee breaks should all happen at the same time, which would allow for more socialising away from work. Despite initial reluctance from managers, the suggestion worked. Efficiency increased by 20% among lower-performing teams and increased by 8% overall at the call centre.

Further studies have been conducted by the same researchers in 21 organisations over seven years, measuring the communication patterns of about 2,500 people, sometimes, for six weeks at a time.

The data revealed that successful teams share several defining characteristics:

  1. Everyone on the team talked and listened in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short;
  2. Members faced one another, and their conversations and gestures were energetic;
  3. Members connected directly with one another – not just with the team leader;
  4. Members carried on side conversations within the team; and
  5. Members periodically took breaks, went exploring outside the team and brought information back.

References:

Pentland, A.S. (2010). Defend your research: We can measure the power of charisma. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2010/01/defend-your-research-we-can-measure-the-power-of-charisma

Pentland, A.S. (2012). The new science of building great teams. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams

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