How many meetings did you attend last week? How many accomplished something? How many were mostly a waste of time?
Anyone who’s involved with a group at work, in a homeowners association or a non-profit has experienced the frustration of trying to get people to work well together. Endless debate, punishing conflicts, wishful thinking and passive resistance are all symptoms of ineffective groups.
Positive psychologists have found that, like individuals, some teams are consistently higher functioning than others. Although we still idolize those people who are deemed a creative genius or a charismatic leader, in reality most decisions are made by a group. Sometimes when exceptionally intelligent or talented the individuals participate on a team they dominate, and the results of the team’s collective decision making is disastrous.
Psychologists from M.I.T. and other institutions gave groups of people some real world tasks to accomplish. As reported in the journal Science in 2010, teams comprised of individual team members with high IQ’s performed at about the same level as teams populated by people with normal intelligence. In addition, neither the team’s motivation level nor number of extraverts had any bearing on performance.
The researchers found 3 characteristics that determine a team’s ability to produce the great results. First, high functioning groups expect everyone to contribute equally to the discussions. They refuse to allow any one or two individuals to dominate their deliberations.
The second characteristic of high performing teams is that members are able to read facial expressions, specifically the eye signals that reveal each other’s emotional state. As Shakespeare so eloquently put it, “The eyes are the mirror of the soul.”
Interestingly, teams that produce great results typically have more women than men on them. Women are typically socialized to pay attention to which eye expressions are associated with specific emotions, giving them the intuitive feeling that they’re able to read another person’s mind. Researchers found this “mindreading” attribute is an essential ingredient on “smart” teams. To test your ability to read eye expressions, go to http://kgajos.eecs.harvard.edu/
As more teams work together online, the psychologists wondered whether virtual teams could perform as well as face-to-face teams. In a 2014 PLoS One article, Carnegie Mellon professor Anita Woolley and her colleagues reported the results of research comparing in-person teams to those who collaborate online using tools like email, webinars and Google Drive.
Once again, the researchers found that some teams consistently outperform others – whether they meet face-to-face or online. Surprisingly it was for the very same reasons: equal participation, frequent communication, and an ability to read emotions. Discerning emotions by reading between the lines was equally as important and effective as reading facial expressions.
The conclusion drawn from these studies is that how well teams perform is correlated to “collective intelligence”, which the researchers define as the “ability to make inferences about others’ mental states” and to freely communicate about the emotions being experienced. Having a high level of collective intelligence in a group is important as it determines more than 40% the performance of the team.
To facilitate effective organizational teams, Dr. Woolley recommends following these steps:
• Make sure one person is not doing all the talking.
• Create a psychologically safe environment in which people feel comfortable admitting mistakes.
• Leave power and status at the door.
• Actively teach group members effective communication skills.
“Creating a collaborative team begins with having clear goals and expectations, setting norms, understanding different roles group members can play, clarifying the group’s decision making authority, and creating focused agendas”, writes Robert Garmston in his book Unlocking Group Potential to Improve Schools. His research has found that higher-performing groups are created by:
• Ensuring that group members carefully consider information from one another as potentially useful.
• Allowing equal input from every member.
• Using dialogue — a free flow of ideas that build on one another’s thoughts.
• Allowing constructive critiques that offer concrete ideas for an improvement of a process or idea, never about or judging an individual.
The best teams are composed of people who have diverse backgrounds. They bring unique perspectives that enable the team to accomplish their goals through open discussions and collaborative problem-solving. Differences of opinion are respected, even valued for what they add to the decision making process. Emotions are carefully monitored as vigorous debates ensue, and high-functioning teams create at least 3 positive interactions for every negative exchange. Teammates support each other in making progress toward their desired objective. Finally, they celebrate their success by showing appreciation for the contributions made by their colleagues.