Team Building For Communication – Why a Quirky Study Challenges the Norm

In this article, we’ll look at a rather left field answer to developing team building for communication, and how improving the communication patterns of a team can be more important than selecting the right team in the first place.

In 2010, A team at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, published findings after conducting a number of studies on a major US bank. They attempted to answer why the manager had different performance levels across his call centre teams.

Some teams got great results and were high performers, whereas others struggled to hit their performance metrics.

The manager had no hard evidence to show why this disparity was there. He assumed that team building was more of an art than a science.

Team Building for Communication – An Observable Science

Previously, the same MIT team researched a number of teams across many industries, and started to look at what sets good teams apart from the others.

They identified that team building is indeed an observable science – contrary to what the call centre manager originally thought.

In fact, they identified with consistency through these studies, that time and time again, communication plays a critical part in building high performing teams.

Through deeper research, they identified what the team called as, “communication patterns.” These cause a big impact in the energy of communication and the engagement between the team.

They took this information and applied similar research to the call center in our bank and found the same results.

Patterns of communication were largely to blame for the difference between the high performing teams and the under performing ones.

So, team building can be attributed to communication. They dug deeper, exploring the role that communication has to play in team building.

Measuring Team Building For Communication

Through wireless communication and tracking devices, the researchers measured over 100 data points. These covered how each person interacts and communicates amongst their team, including:

  • The tone of voice they use;
  • Whether they face one another when talking;
  • The amount of gesturing they do during conversations;
  • How much they talk;
  • How much they listen and interrupt;
  • Their level of extroversion and empathy.

These studies were conducted on over 2500 people.

They found that these patterns of communication had little variation across high performing teams. 

In fact, “Productive teams have certain data signatures, and they’re so consistent that we can predict a team’s success simply by looking at the data—without ever meeting its members.”

Successful Teams Share Several Characteristics

The MIT team highlights, with startling accuracy, the DNA of great teams. 

  1. Both talking and listening in successful teams, are conducted in roughly the same measure. They also found that each person’s contribution was short and effective. In other words, there was equal contribution between all team members, and not one person dominated proceedings;
  2. When communicating, team members typically face each other, and they have energetic conversations and gestures. In other words, they energetically engage in the conversation, full on;
  3. Members connect directly with one another, and not just with the team leader – They have good relationships that ensure they collaborate and discuss things frequently;
  4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team – Conversations actively continue outside formal meetings and carried on amongst the team without guidance or facilitation;
  5. They periodically break away and go exploring outside the team, to bring back information. – Employes seek answers from further afield and then share these learning points with the team, to help overcome challenges.

The researchers also found another interesting fact when building a high performing team:

“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.”

In other words, teams that have the signature of the 5 elements above, can generate high performing results.

The interesting thing here is that by following the right “communication patterns,” it will improve your team’s relationships amongst each other.

On the other side of the coin, by implementing these foundations of good communication, you can improve how the team communicates, and so achieve better communication, too.

Where Do You Start?

Start small and focus on the following rather simple improvements, to make bigger gains.

Break Together

Interestingly, encouraging everyone to take breaks at the same time may fly in the face of process improvement and efficiency practitioners’ better judgements, but by doing this it encourages people to talk about things and share discussions… and to socialise more.

By giving them a platform to down tools and come together on a more open and sociable level, it helps encourage increased face to face communication.

During their interaction with the bank, one of the researchers’ recommendations was for the teams to take the same breaks. This allowed them to socialise and communicate away from their work desks, at the same time.

By doing this, they found that the average handling time (a key metric in the call centre teams) fell by 20%, as a result of this one initiative.

The manager saw these results, and has since standardised break times to allow socialising together.

He’s forecasted a $15 million productivity improvement, across 25,000 staff.

Employee satisfaction has also increased by 10% as well.

More Face to Face Interaction

Face to face communication proved itself time and time again during multiple studies. It provided more energy and engagement across teams.

In fact, MIT research proved that teams that had some members who engaged in high energy discussions face to face, while others didn’t, did not perform well against teams where all team members participated in high energy conversations.

As an example, the researchers found that engagement had an impact on the output on investing teams. Those that contributed in partial engagement in discussions, made less profitable financial decisions to those that had a team-wide engagement level.

The lesson here is to encourage your team to talk more.

In fact, the researchers now know that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance can directly be attributed to the amount of face-to-face conversations they have.

They also know that the right number of communication exchanges amongst a team is as many as 12 or so per hour. This means that you should encourage regular exchanges and ‘chats.’

They go on to say:

“We can also state with certainty that in a typical high-performance team, members are listening or speaking to the whole group only about half the time, and when addressing the whole group, each team member speaks for only his or her fair share of time, using brief, to-the-point statements.”

In the other half of the time, researchers can quantify that high performing teams were engaging in one-to-one discussions, which were unusually quite short, too.

So, they not only listened and spoke in small bursts, but regularly chatted amongst others in the team half the time.

It seems slightly laughable that people interacting with conversation can be productive, but the research team has the data to prove this point. They highlighted that social interaction often accounts for 50% of positive changes in communication.

And don’t forget, you need positive patterns of communication in order to effective teams and communication.

This proved the case too in a call centre, which you’d expect to be highly focused on productivity and minimising downtime. They verified that by providing teams with more opportunity to socialise and interact, productivity increased.

Ideas to Get the Communication (And Socialising) Juices Flowing

Here are some examples to help encourage more open discussions equally amongst the team:

  • Engage start of the day meetings – allow 1 minute or so, for each team member to discuss yesterday’s output to plan and any gaps and issues;
  • Encourage team reviews – what worked, what didn’t, what can be improved? – solicit team ideas and actions;
  • Encourage breaks together to socialise;
  • Create projects that the team can work on, or at least a few people in the team can at any one time;
  • Delegate decision making across the team and try to provide more empowerment for them to make decisions;
  • Don’t shut down active chat during the day, but do continue to measure productivity, to ensure that things don’t suffer – support the idea that we can share ideas and talk, but still have to hit productivity;
  • Encourage people to discuss ideas and issues during the day and help each other out;
  • As a leader, manage by walking about – engage in coaching and actively seek discussions with your team equally, as you go;
  • Try to support your team and never dictate. High performing teams use communication to organise themselves, reflect, align their resource and work together to get results. Instead, support them and help when they need it.

I’m sure you may have a few additional ideas, but the bottom line is – promote as much face-to-face communication as you can, and don’t be afraid to promote a bit of time away from the workspace to socialise, too.

Try to encourage team build exercises, like simple 10 minute sessions at the stand up board, or even steam building events. Each time you do, you encourage face to face participation, communication and team bonding.

Team Building for Communication: Conclusion

These studies seem quite startling, because they challenge conventional wisdom. In this case, the data doesn’t lie, and so it’s worth thinking about team building for communication as a way of improving productivity.

Focus on developing relationships through socialising and encouraging face to face communication.

Encourage hourly interaction between teams and individuals and create a platform for the team to share ideas, come up with new solutions and work tougher on projects or actions.

Don’t forget that this must be led by you, the leader. Engage in discussions, and seek ideas and suggestions. Manage by walking about and develop your coaching skills, so you can bring the best out of your teams, too.

It’s definitely worth a go, no matter how left field these findings originally seem!