Posted by Steve Romano 24.06.18

Teams and the “IT” factor

On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I had the unexpected fortune of seeing the Liberty Bell.  Its sheer mass is 2,080 lbs.  Its construction predates the Revolution in 1776.  But its most impressive detail is the crack etched through the bell’s core.

I could not help but to think of the symbolism that this crack represented for the purpose of my trip: to support an executive team of highly ambitious leaders in need of open communication, trust, and collaboration.

Let’s face it.  Teams are messy.  New members, old habits.  Shifting priorities and a competitive landscape that can, at times, make even the most adaptable person a little dizzy.

The leaders I worked with were some of the best: seasoned, highly respected experts, and mission driven.  My role was simply stated but hard to achieve – to create a shared purpose, agree on operating principals and norms, and bolster processes and systems so a spirit of radical collaboration would result.

What is the “IT” factor when it comes to team performance?

High technical skill? Motivated team members?  A leader who listens well and inspires?  All are great, and necessary for a high performing team.

When it comes to the IT factor, I find that one ingredient heavily influences the probability of success: intentional communication.

Intentional communication is more than communicating effectively; it is done with awareness of what you say and how you say it, directly and with transparency.   In this mode you are engaging your whole-self, your words, the way you say things, your thoughts and with non-judgment, either toward yourself or another.

In short, intentional communication takes into consideration the whole person, the context, and with openness.  It does so consistently and with energy and curiosity and instills accountability across the team.

There is a fascinating study by Scott Pentland at MIT’s Human Dynamic Laboratory, called the New Science of Building Great Teams.  In many respects, the research exemplifies what I have consistently found in my experience.

Tone of voice, body language, and energy create communication patterns; they matter, even more than personality, talent & skill

Pentland concluded, through the application of sensor technology that generated more than 100 data points of interpersonal interaction a minute, that it was the way in which communication occurred that differentiated team performance.

In fact, it came down to three decisive patterns of communication:

  1. Energy (how team members contribute to a team as a whole).
  2. Engagement (how team members communicate with one another).
  3. Exploration (communicating with teams outside of the primary group).

The following illustration highlights communication patterns between and among teams members.  Notice the poorly performing team’s communication patterns – the intensity between members are less.  The high-performing team exhibits high energy and engagement occurring within and between its members.

source: Pentland, HBR

So, what does all this mean?  First, it suggests that team performance is not only an art, but there is science behind it.  Second, habits can be learned.  We don’t need to sit on the sidelines waiting for the next team for things to improve.

To support the path of team performance, here are 7 recommendations:

  1. When an individual speaks, others listen; encourage this behavior.
  2. Face to face communication is best; email and text less so.
  3. Visualize team success –communicate and map out desired behaviors.
  4. Encourage direct and expressive communication (i.e., F2F, body language).
  5. Notice times when communication is less than ideal, find out why, reposition.
  6. Seek information outside of the team, bring it back – this promotes creativity.
  7. Continuously fine-tune; promote mindsets that reward curiosity.

All teams have cracks, splinters, and disparate ways of operating, just like the Liberty Bell.  Leaders who recognize gaps in communication understand the fissures in their team create the space for awareness.

The science behind effective teams offers universal guidelines.  Individuals always maintain the freedom to create their team’s unique style and culture.  Just imagine the possibilities intentional communication offers you.

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