Team Dynamics What Makes them Work

As our view of the world through the lens of a smart phone becomes more influential coupled with the hours we spend communicating using technology makes you wonder what sort of affect it’s having on us. It is disconnecting us more than connecting us? Is technology really making us better at well… being human? How has it changed the way we work in teams or alone?

Author Geoff Colvin discusses research in his book, Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will that he says clearly shows that despite the growth and influence of information technology, the importance of human groups —as distinct from individuals—in creating knowledge has increased enormously.

Colvin offers insight and trends in all fields involving an enormous study of 20 million research papers in 252 fields within science and engineering, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities over 50 years, plus 2 million patents of all kinds over 30 years. “In nearly 100 perfect of the fields, more research is being done by teams, and the teams are getting bigger,” said Colvin in an adaption of the book for LinkedIn.

The research showed that teams increasingly produce higher quality work than going at it solo. The individual becomes less likely to match the level of quality of the team and therefore strives to produce even better work—by becoming part of a team. “The result is that humans working in groups are more crucial to the success of organizations (and whole economies), and the ability to work in groups is more crucial to the success of individuals,” said Colvin.

MIT Professor Alex Pentland set out to uncover what makes teams effective. His Human Dynamics Laboratory invented the sociometric badge, an inconspicuous device that people in a group wear on their clothing that measures how groups interact; by measuring the tone of voice a person uses, whether people are facing one another while talking, how much they gesture, and how much they talk, listen, and interrupt one another.

The results?

Pentland and his lab found that the members of the very best teams interact in three distinctive ways:

  1. They generate a large number of ideas in short contributions to conversations; no one went on at great length.
  2. They engage in what Pentland calls “dense interactions,” with group members constantly alternating between advancing their own ideas and responding to the contributions of others with “good,” “right,” “what?” and other super-short comments that signal consensus on an idea’s value, good or bad.
  3. Everyone contributes ideas and reactions, taking turns more or less equally, ensuring a wide diversity of ideas.

From Pentland’s research Colvin explores the idea that if interaction and engagement were driving factors in a group’s performance, then how has technology, email, texting, and social media contributing to a group’s production? Colvin states that good old face-to-face interaction wins, “Evidence is clear that face-to-face interaction is far richer and more effective than is the fragile, meager digital version in building trust, cooperation, and the patterns of behavior that make groups effective.” And goes on to explain that digital interaction is most-effective between people who already have a face-to-face relationship.

Digital communication while convenient lacks the ability to react in unspoken social signals—who’s talking, how much, in what tone, interrupting or not, facing toward whom and away from whom, gesturing how — that Pentland and his researcher’s found to be a great indicator of how well a group is performing.

Will this research change the way you approach team performance?

You can read more of Colvins’ findings here.