Effective, Creative, Collaborative: Workplaces that Thrive

We’re wrapping up our series on how to find the sweet spot for worker happiness in order to grow productivity. We’ve covered one approach to encourage efficacy and growth in our Problem with Promotions post and examined how flexible hours can benefit worker creativity in The Case for Working Less. A final piece of the puzzle lies in collaboration, which studies have shown to be a key element of highly productive workplaces.

Team building: what matters

Great teams can seem like magic. But thanks to years of detailed research, scientists are now able to peel back the mystery and give some concrete pointers on what makes an outstanding team. And it’s a good thing, too, because the research confirmed what most managers instinctively know: great teams produce great results.

The Personality Profile Puzzle

Many companies use personality assessments with the hope that the correct balance of introverts, extroverts, thinkers, visionaries and any number of other descriptors capturing risk aversion, organization, and communication styles will lead to better outcomes. Unfortunately, no study has been able to pinpoint an ideal mix of personalities for optimum performance. 

Before you toss out your leadership styles worksheets, there were two huge benefits of using them. First, studies show that one area stands out for its ability to make or break a team: the proportion of team members who excel at relationship-building. If there are too few relationship-oriented folks on a team, the team fails due to lack of communication. If there are too many team members who excel in relationship-building, the team fails because there is TOO much consensus and compromise to create great work. So monitoring how you distribute your strong connectors can be a pivotal issue when building great teams. 

Furthermore, though they are not a magic bullet, personality and work style assessments serve an important role by providing the team with a common language to discuss differences in style so they can better address or even avoid conflict and accommodate teammates’ needs. If you could use a jumping-off point to start building this language among your teams, check out our handy tool!

What Really Works

Once you’ve built a team with an understanding of their own style and the styles of their teammates, it’s time to look at what will make or break your team in the long term. Turns out, it’s all about communication. 

Not exactly groundbreaking, right? We’ve all heard that communication matters. But MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory was able to quantify not only how much it matters but what it means to have “good” communication on a team. 

Researchers used wireless badges to collect data on tens of thousands of interactions between team members. How teams communicate is so predictive of success that researchers were able to correctly forecast:

  • Which team would win a business plan contest, based on data collected from participating teams at a cocktail reception
    The end financial results from teams making investments, based on data collected during their negotiations
    When team members will report having had a “productive” or “creative” day, based on that days’ data

So the data not only predicts team outcomes, but even the satisfaction of individual members. It literally pinpoints the nexus of team happiness + productivity. 

Checklist for Effective Team Communication

All teams communicate. So how can you begin to analyze whether your team is communicating effectively? MIT researchers broke down what they observed into areas that we can quantify and implement.

Energy = the number of exchanges between team members

  • One exchange = a comment that receives an acknowledgement, which can be as simple as “yes” or a head nod.
  • Exchanges are weighted for value by type of communication.

Energy Takeaways

  • Reach out to your team, and make sure you’re acknowledging when a teammate reaches out to you
  • If you work in an office, take the time to chat face-to-face. If you’re remote, try to pick up the phone more often

Engagement = how equally team members share energy with their teammates

  • In a simple three-person team, engagement = average energy of members 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 extremely strong.
  • The effect of engagement on performance was particularly pronounced in remote teams that talked mostly by telephone.

Engagement Takeaways

  • Foster awareness of the communication loops within teams
  • Encourage team members to notice if they are always talking with the same teammates and consider how to loop others in

Exploration = communication that members engage in outside their team

  • Higher-performing teams seek more outside connections
  • Exploration scores matter most for creative teams, which need fresh perspectives
  • It can be difficult to balance energy and exploration, because it requires team members to balance outward and inward focus

Exploration Takeaways

  • Team leaders need to balance time for teams to communicate and socialize with each other alongside the need for connection to wider ecosystem
  • Remote teams face unique challenges in this respect and require additional thought and planning to address this potential deficit

The Two-Step Program to Improving Team Communication

Two findings spelled out huge areas of opportunity for teams:

OPPORTUNITY: Nurture a culture that values face-to-face interactions, be it standing up and walking over to a coworker's desk or hopping on a video call for a chat with a remote team member. 

OPPORTUNITY: Prioritize those team gatherings, and remember that your happy hour/ bagel breakfast/ team lunch budget is money well spent!

Why it Works

Interaction builds trust. And all the creative, envelope-pushing work you crave from your teams can only happen if there is an established a feeling of psychological safety and group purpose. Time for the teams to socialize helps cultivate a shared purpose and builds a reservoir of positive feelings that can buffer the inevitable difficult interactions.

Transformation Awaits

So, where is your workplace thriving, and where is your next opportunity to nourish growth? If you aren’t sure where to start, we will be launching a tool next week to help you identify some areas of strength and opportunity. Consider the ample research emerging that happiness = productivity your call to action, and we hope that we’ve provided some steps in the right direction toward finding that sweet spot.







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Productivity, Teams

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