Healthy group dynamics of high-performing teams

So, you’ve

  • hired the best people,
  • used “good communication”,
  • explained the strategy and measured,
  • but still not seeing high performance.
  • The team delivers, but it’s not world class.

And you’re thinking: something’s missing.

And indeed it may!

There may be an issue with the group dynamics. Group dynamics is an aspect of the Relationships part in Virtual Team Management.

Healthy group dynamics consist of effectively used energy, engagement and exploration

In a study by HBR (already back in 2012), the researchers found that it was not the content of a team’s discussions that lead to high performance, but the manner in which the team communicated.

The manner included such as tone of voice, whether the team members faced one another; how much they gestured, how much they talked, listened, and interrupted, and even levels of extroversion and empathy. Data for this was gathered with small electronic badges that the team members carried around at all times. The data was then analysed to identify the communication patterns that made for successful teamwork.

The researchers found that productive teams had certain data signatures, and they were so consistent that the researchers could predict a team’s success simply by looking at the data—without ever meeting its members.

Overall, the best predictors of productivity were found to be “energy” and “engagement outside formal meetings”. Together those two explained 30% of productivity variations.

Energy is measured by the number and the nature of exchanges among team members.

Engagement, in turn, reflects the distribution of energy among team members. In a simple three-person team, engagement is a function of the average amount of energy between A and B, A and C, and B and C. If all members of a team have relatively equal and reasonably high energy with all other members, engagement is very strong.

The third dimension, exploration, involves communication that members engage in outside their team. Exploration is the energy between a team and the other teams it interacts with. Higher-performing teams seek more outside connections.

But:

Energy was found to be a finite resource. The more that people devoted to their own team (engagement), the less they had to use outside their team (exploration), and vice versa.

But they also found that both are needed. Successful teams alternated between exploration for discovery and engagement for integration of the ideas gathered from outside sources.

What can you do as a virtual manager to improve the health of group dynamics?

  1. You can encourage everyone on the team to talk and listen in roughly equal measure, and by keeping contributions short and sweet.
  2. If you ever physically meet, check if the members face one another when speaking (and in virtual context: have them start their turn by addressing their counterparts with their first names first).
  3. Work to make the team structure a “start” by encouraging them to connect directly with one another—not just with you as the team leader.
  4. Allow and encourage back-channel or side conversations within the team by, for example, handing out smaller pair assignments.
  5. Have members periodically break to explore outside the team, and bring information back.

How to improve group dynamics through recruiting?

The researchers also established another fact: individual reasoning and talent contributed far less to team success than one might have expected. Indeed, the findings suggested that the best way to build a good team is not to select individuals for their intelligence or accomplishments but to learn how they communicate and to develop the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.

Because of that, when recruiting, you may want to do a one-on-one interview first, but later bring in your whole team to see if the candidate

  • Circulates actively, engaging people in short, high-energy conversations
  • Are democratic with time. They communicate with everyone equally and make sure all team members get a chance to contribute.
  • Feel comfortable approaching other people even if they claim to be introverts
  • Listen as much as or more than they talk and are engaged with whomever they’re listening to. We call it “energized but focused listening.”
  • Connect the others with one another and spread ideas around.
  • Are appropriately exploratory, seeking ideas from outside the group but not at the expense of group engagement. This is probably impossible to see in the interview, but you can ask the candidate to describe such situations in his / her former teams.

You may also want to look for these valuable soft skills.

Speaking of which, have you already read about what the future working skills in general are? Larry Kim has one answer. Josh Catone has another.

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