Why an All-Star Team is Better than a Team of All-Stars

Imagine you’re in the last phase of a highly competitive interview process for your “dream job.” The leadership team has praised your skills, intellect, and accomplishments.  Only the “rockstars” make it to this point. Your final test is to attend the meetings of two different teams and decide on which you’d like to be a member.

Team A is a high-performing group of people all with exceptional accomplishments and a long list of successes.  When discussing a problem or challenge, those with expertise on the matter share their opinions at length and without interruption. It is clear who is in charge and there is an understood protocol. Their meetings begin and end on time and are structured by a detailed agenda.  They focus on facts and efficiency with no sidebars or extraneous conversations.

Team B is a combination of highly successful executives and middle managers with relatively few accomplishments. Their meetings are more like conversations. They use an agenda as a starting point, but it is often derailed as members freely share their thoughts, experiences, and questions. The level at which people participate in the discussion is not defined by their status or position in the company and meetings often extend past the scheduled end time as people linger to kibitz about personal interests or weekend plans.

Which team would you choose?  What would impact your decision? While this would be an insightful interview exercise, would it make a difference to you to know that one team was much more likely than the other to be successful?

It should.  Studies show that people working on healthy teams hold themselves to higher levels of accountability and are more motivated than people who work alone…. healthy being the key word here. Finding the secret sauce of collaborative success has become a big deal over the last decade or so as organizations have realized that the average employee spends more than 75% of his/her time on team-based tasks. For those concerned with employee engagement or profitability, here’s more good news. Employees who feel they are contributing members of a team are more engaged and more resilient after failures than their isolated, independent coworkers.

Research also indicates that team dynamics are more impactful to organizational success than the individual players. In other words, how the team interacts can actually zap the value of the individual members.  If organizations want to outsmart the competition, they need to understand and influence how people work together.

A room full of all-stars doesn’t magically create an all-star team.

Project Aristotle

Google has studied the concept of team dynamics for years spending millions of dollars measuring everything from how frequently coworkers eat lunch together to which personality traits foster collaboration and effective communication.  In 2012, they tasked a team of psychologists, sociologists, engineers, and statisticians with Project Aristotle – an initiative designed to find out why some teams were productivity and ingenuity giants while others struggled with the most basic tasks.  They wanted to find out if collective intelligence develops from different types of collaboration that is distinct from the intelligence of any individual member.

With a sample size of 700 subjects randomly divided into small groups, the researchers assigned a series of tasks that required various types of collaboration to complete.  Some groups were incredibly innovative and successful on the tasks while others demonstrated low levels of cooperation and struggled to find viable solutions. The most interesting finding, however, was that despite the fact that the tasks were very different, teams generally succeeded or failed across the board.  Success, therefore, had little to do with the task and everything to do with the team.

In addition, it didn’t matter how many smart people were on each team; the group dynamics impacted the collective intelligence and success more than the intelligence of the individual members.  The researchers drilled down into the successful groups to explore what characteristics they shared.  Two key findings emerged.

Finding good players is easy.  Getting them to play as a team is another story.

The first was the proportion of time members contributed to the task discussions throughout the day.  On the successful teams, everyone spoke about the same amount – something the researchers called an “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” Conversely, on the poor performing teams, one or two people dominated the conversation while others contributed very little.  In essence, the “talkers” eliminated a percentage of the brain power on the team. The result was a decrease in the collective intellectual capacity and engagement.

The second common characteristic among the successful teams was that they had higher social sensitivity than their counterparts. Social sensitivity, or the ability to read the emotions of others, is a key component of social intelligence. Social intelligence is, in turn, linked to performance on team-based problem solving.  Researchers administered the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test (which you can take here) to all of the subjects to gauge their ability to read people.

The test uses 37 photographs to measure how well you’re able to determine how someone is feeling by what you see in their eyes. If you can look at a pair of eyes with no other context provided and tell what emotion the person those ideas belong to might be experiencing, that means you’ve probably got a pretty high emotional IQ. People on the high-performing teams were much more social sensitive to others than the people on the unsuccessful teams.

In the end, the researchers discovered that when the team dynamics were inclusive, accepting, and sensitive to individual members, the groups were more successful.  They identified this as psychological safety which is directly correlated to how well people learn and recover from mistakes as well as their overall level of engagement. When psychological safety is a cultural norm – when people feel like they are part of the team that welcomes and values their contributions  – the chemistry of the brain enables greater creativity, innovation, and problem-solving.

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”  – Henry Ford

Teams that Laugh Together Learn Together

Two interesting byproducts of psychological safety are trust and laughter. We share laughter when we trust and that laughter creates more trust.  Both laughter and trust generate neurotransmitters in your brain that stimulate healthy brain function including cognition. A growing body of educational research suggests that, when used effectively, humor combined with a sense of trust can improve learning and performance by reducing anxiety, boosting participation and increasing motivation to focus on the material.

Other studies show that people who laugh at work are more likely to describe their organizations as positive,  innovative, and “a place they enjoy” and less hierarchical and stressful.  Moreover, a team is much more likely to be successful when members are comfortable enough to laugh with one another.

A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

The highs of achievement are higher when we experience them with others. The lows of failure are lower when we experience them alone. It feels good to be a contributing member of a team (thank you, oxytocin!), and something as simple as laughing together can give the team an edge.  Who knew?!

After all of the time and money that Google spent on this groundbreaking research, it turns out that achieving team success may be a simple as applying a few of the things that we learned in grade school.  Take turns, be nice, include others, work together, be empathetic, and laugh…do not forget to laugh.

You might also enjoy reading:

Inspiring Leaders to Build a Culture of Mentorship.

Is Culture Becoming the New Meaningless Buzzword?

If you enjoyed this post, the best way to tell me is with a comment, like or share!

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group and the author of Happy Hour with Einstein.  Melissa works with organizations to engage, inspire, and educate people about how the brain works and how we can increase our capacity for learning and creativity. Outsmart the competition by applying neuroscience to improve employee engagement, company culture, and communication strategies within a multigenerational workforce.  

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