Stating the Blindingly Obvious


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High Performing Teams

If there’s a subject that will get the good people in H.R. excited it is high performing teams.  They are the holy grail of human resource management.  Everybody wants a high performing team.

Conventional wisdom tells you to get the “best-of-breed”. Find the most capable sales men, ops guys, marketeers and technical wizards and stick them together. That is the way to build a high performing team. 

If you have the best people you will have the best team. 

Hence the focus on performance management, pay for performance, ranking and stacking, 360-degree feedback and SMART goals.  Productivity is all about ensuring you have the best people and weeding out the rest.

A conflicting idea

A group of researchers from MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory had a different theory.  They believed that it wasn’t the members of the team that made it high performing but the way in which they interacted.

Unfortunately, it is hard to prove or disprove this theory. How do you measure interaction? 

At this point I would have moved on, but the team were not perturbed.  They developed electronic badges that people can wear to measure how they interact with one another.  These badges measure communication in all sorts of ways:

  • Whether or not people face one another.
  • How much they gesture.
  • How much they talk, listen, and interrupt.
  • Their tone of voice.
  • Levels of extroversion and empathy.

The team took their badges and used them to collect information about many different work places, from hospital wards to retail banks.  They then added data on e-mail traffic, meetings and calls.  They studied 21 organisations over seven years, measuring the communication patterns of about 2,500 people.

The team collated so much data they were able to start a new science…


The study of people’s interactions.

The researchers were able to correlate high performance with three aspects of communication:

  1. Energy, the number and nature of exchanges.
  2. Engagement, how evenly the communication is spread out between the team members.
  3. Exploration, the amount of time that is spent communicating outside the team.

I am partial to a good bit of alliteration.

The secret sauce

It turns out that high performing teams do interact differently. This communication manifests itself in many ways…

Conversley some teams struggle to act coherently. This is particularly true of teams that are are separated by distance, language and culture.

The study went on to describe the best managers:

The more successful people are more energetic. They talk more, but they also listen more. They spend more face-to-face time with others. They pick up cues from others, draw people out, and get them to be more outgoing. It’s not just what they project that makes them charismatic; it’s what they elicit.

How do you improve team interactions?

There are two ways to improve team communication and coordination.

The first is high tech.  You can hire the academics who put together the study. They will install their badges and show you (via some very impressive visualisations) how well you are doing.  Once you understand how people are interacting then you can act accordingly.

Or, you can use some simpler options:

Stating the blindingly obvious?

It would be easy to argue that this wasn’t a terribly insightful theory, though some of the best theories are a little obvious.

The study did go on to point out one less intuitive fact

Individual reasoning and talent contribute far less to team success than one might expect. The best way to build a great team is not to select individuals for their smarts or accomplishments but to learn how they communicate and to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.

It doesn’t matter how much time you spend finding the best individuals, what is important is how well those individuals work together.

Do your H.R. policies address that?

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Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


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