WLP03 Informal Communication in Teams

Today the focus is on teams – more specifically on communication in teams. My coffee with Lisette focuses on virtual teams and the things you can do to tune in to each other and keep the conversation going.

00:30 Introduction and the opportunity to change the way we work.
06:00 Sandy Pentland and team's research into High Performing Teams
16:12 Virtual Coffee with Lisette - Tune-in your virtual team
Lisette mentions the delegation boards, here is the link. http://www.management30.com/workout/delegation-boards/


The Importance of Patterns of Communication in Teams

I think it’s really interesting to look at how we run virtual teams because here is an opportunity to re-think about the way we work in all teams, virtual or not. A lot of the issues that come up when looking specifically at leading and working in virtual teams are issues around trust, accountability and communication. Hmm, ring any bells? I don’t have many obsessions but this is definitely one of them: how can we transfer what we’re learning about working with those we don’t see every day, to the more traditional workplace, of which there are still many? The question remains open, but I’m gradually discovering more little things – and today’s virtual coffee with Lisette has a couple of them.

We all talk about teamwork, about working well in a team about but it’s really difficult to define what makes good team work. If we then add to the discussion the word “communication”, that’s it, we can now spend another three hours talking about what good communication means. These are all conversations we should have. Defining what makes a good team is really important. It makes us focus on the specifics; what does good communication mean? How do we facilitate that? What do we need for people to want to listen to others and then to share their own opinions, talents and information?
Each team should go through this exercise regularly. Priorities change for the individual, for the team, for the organization so we need to understand our communication process and our “working together” process to sustain us throughout change and our day to day.

We all want to know the secrets of what makes great teams. How do we get people to work well together to be that “greater sum of its parts”? Well, a great part of the secret relies on face to face communication, which is not great news for some of us who don’t see our co-workers and colleagues every day. On the other hand, it might well be making the case for those people who work in teams but lack that buzz, that team spirit.

A couple of years ago, in 2012, I came across some very interesting research and one that, although I might not have realized it, I was waiting for. Professor Sandy Pentland and his team at the MIT media lab had gathered data which showed the patterns of communication of great teams. For a start, it turns out that 50% of the variation between low and high performing teams is accounted for by these patterns of communication, so I definitely think it’s worth looking at.

So, what did Professor Pentland and his team look at? By putting a gadget on team members, they were able to measure how people were interacting. These gadgets measured the energy behind the interaction, the body language, tone of voice, who you were facing, how long you were talking to them for – and whether they were in your team or not. The one thing they didn’t capture was the content of the conversation.

I will tell you what they found in a moment, but the one thing that really surprised me about this was the importance of informal communication. And I think this is a really important point – the way we’re going with work, it looks like we’re decreasing those times when we’re interacting informally. And by this, I don’t mean when we are just chatting away about non-work related things but also about when we talk about work casually – when I ask you whether you have met one of my potential clients before, when I shout across the room to see whether you know when we’re likely to receive the next report; when you offer to help me with the new software. And if we keep our heads down at work, no matter how many productivity tools we use or how many lists we make, our team is not going to fly. We’re never going to be great, just coast along. It’s important that we don’t lose those times when we’re all together, or when we interact in the corridors – that we give space to those interactions as, as we shall see in a second, they’re important.

So the date from the sociometers was grouped into three components: Energy, how team members contribute to the team, Engagement – whom was talking to whom – and Exploration, how much team members talk to those from others teams.

It’s probably not surprising that in the lower performing teams, the contribution of some people was much larger than others – and we’re talking about the contribution in face to face meetings. Let me just stop for a moment here, think about the times when you meet with your team informally, or even formally. Say at the coffee machine, water cooler, on the way from the office to the car park or the train station. Who contributes more to the conversation? Quite often, those further up in the hierarchy might be given more space, so if you are one of those, just beware.

So, the informal energy we bring to the group seems to be important, as does how even this is throughout the team.

The other thing measured in this study was Engagement, that is whom is talking to whom. Especially in new teams, we have to be aware that we don’t always end up having conversations with the same people. That we establish a relationship with everyone in the team. Once more, this is of special importance if you ‘re in a leadership position – you should make sure not just that you interact with everyone in equal measures, but that people don’t end up talking just to YOU. How many times have you observed in a conversation, people talking just to the chair, or the manager, or the teacher, in educational settings. I notice it quite a bit, mainly in training situations. We’re having a discussion but I might have the focus, being in the higher status role, and so many people tend to direct their thoughts and speech at me, whereas it’s important that they distribute their eye contact amongst everyone else. In these cases, I have to directly ask them to share their thoughts with everyone else, and I do this usually with a hand gesture which reminds them to open up to everyone else. Once one person does it, others tend to follow.

The third factor that affects team’s performance is exploration, how much teams look outside for inspiration, information and just connection. The most creative teams in the study seemed to seek information and inspiration from a range of outside sources, not just when they needed help or advice, but constantly. At the same time, one of the teams they studied were the inside patterns of communication were stale, were there seemed to be an in-group and therefore all members were not talking to each other equally and where members were contributing differently to the team, there was a lot of exploration. A lot of seeking outside help and input – maybe because they were not getting much from their team and had to seek stimulation and help outside.

So, as always, although we have the data, nothing is still as clear cut. Pentland and colleagues managed to turn around a call centre where some teams were performing well while others, not so well. Just by changing the coffee breaks to enable everyone in a team to have a break at the same time, they raised performance by 8%. Think about what happens in those breaks. If people are having a bad day, they vent. If they’re struggling with a problem, they might mention it and someone might often a solution. Informal communication, like informal learning, accounts for a lot of our development at work.

If you listen to the podcast and enjoy the Virtual Coffee with Lisette, why not listen to her very own Collaboration Superpowers podcast?