We Need To Talk

Through modern communication channels, such as remote working and Skyping, we are better connected with each other. But this is not enough to be a successful team.

We Need To Talk

We are living in a paradox. A recent report by Harvard Business Review showed that time spent on collaborative activities had increased by more than 50% over the last two decades. But whilst work is supposedly more collaborative, this is happening in a context that encourages remote working, dialling in, and Skyping—all of which are methods of communication that remove the key nuanced signals that are part of how humans engage with each other, such as eye contact, body language, and tone of voice. We may be better connected, but are we better equipped to collaborate?

Last week, a whole host of people in my network were sharing this fascinating article by Charles Duhigg on “Project Aristotle,” a lengthy but compelling insight into Google’s attempt to analyse and decode the behaviours of high-performing teams.

The hypothesis of the research was there would be common rituals and behaviours that distinguished high-performing teams from low-performing teams. However, after analysing reams of data over a lengthy period of time, there was no distinguishable variable to predict a successful team other than the usual protagonists such as personality type, position in the hierarchy, backgrounds, or skills.

What matters most isn’t what you would expect. The most important over-riding factor was the influence of group norms or, as the research stated, “the traditions, behavioural standards, and unwritten rules that govern how we function.” In other words, it’s the certain “magic” that happens when a group of people get together, and that is hard for any Myers-Briggs or DiSC test to predict.

What was most curious about Google’s studies was that under certain group norms, collective intelligence would increase, and in others, it would decrease. The difference between high and low performance in collective intelligence was dependent on two important factors:

1. Conversational Turn-Taking

One of the key drivers of this increase in collective intelligence is reciprocity of ideas and conversational turn-taking. Put simply, where there is a group where everyone is able to present ideas, and have their ideas heard by others equally, the collective intelligence of that group increases. The opposite is true of groups of individuals where a few outspoken members of the group dominate conversation and output.

2. Social Sensitivity

The second important factor that influences good group norms is the idea of having high social sensitivity. In other words, the groups are skilled at intuiting “how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions, and other nonverbal cues.” It is the idea of having empathy for others.

Conversational turn-taking and social sensitivity, or reading each other and being respectful to each other’s ideas, are, in many ways, hygiene factors.

Psychologists have long referred to the principle of psychological safety when a team climate is characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect, and people are able to express themselves. There are parallels to creative thinking. On the TED stage Charles Limb demonstrated that improvisation in music is often made possible when players feel free of social anxieties and can truly express themselves in a safe environment.

You may be wondering how to implement this in your own teams? Creating psychological safety is no simple task and there is no easy trick to make it happen. Humans and our interactions are complicated, and take time to change.

The findings of “Project Aristotle” article mark an interesting consideration. Ten years ago, it might have been preferable to hire people who could code, analyse, design, write wonderfully crafted content, and know how to update a CMS. These are all industrious things that leave us with a tangible output.

But the world has moved along quicker than many had expected. As businesses are increasingly looking to modernise and become more relevant, the notion of customer and user experience has become ever more prevailing. With this comes the importance of empathy and understanding not just of the end-user (the consumer), but of each other.

Every month articles appear highlighting the supposed dangers of digital technology to our ability to engage with others emotionally, but not much of the narrative looks at where we spend so much of our time—work.

Research from the U.S. has highlighted the benefits of social and emotional training—every $1 spent on social and emotional training creates a return of $11 to wider society. The benefits are there, but it’s a difficult topic to break down and speak about openly.

Two findings from the “Project Aristotle” research filled me with excitement. First, that there is still much to explore and understand about what makes harmonious social norms, and second, that the findings will help break down the barriers of talking about these often tricky topics (how someone feels) in a context where it is conventionally discouraged (at work).

A workplace revolution, maybe? Maybe not. But one thing is clear. We need to talk.