Patterns of communication are crucial to a team’s success, according to “The New Science of Building Great Teams,” an article by Alex Pentland published in the Harvard Business Review in April 2010. In this article Pentland describes research on formal teams that work together over an extended period of time.
Studying interpersonal dynamics that characterize high-performing formal teams at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory using electronic badges to collect data on sociometrics, the researchers studied who people talked to, how much they talked, tone of voice, and body language. Drawing on the data collected, Pentland explains that productive teams have certain data signatures that consistently predict their success.
These defining characteristics are:
- Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal amounts. They keep their conversations short and to the point.
- Members face one another and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
- Members communicate directly with each other, not just the group leader.
- Members carry on back-channel or side conversations, which are usually short.
- Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.
Another finding is that face-to-face conversations were the most valuable form of communication, with phone or videoconferencing (provided that the grouping wasn’t too large) as next most valuable. E-mail and texting emerge as the least valuable forms of communication.
Overall, Pentland reports team productivity as increasing when teams are encouraged to conduct more face-to-face meetings, and by creating situations encouraging team members to socialize.
In my classroom, I had already been monitoring student groupings for the second characteristic (members facing one another) by visually scanning the room and looking for groupings that were not making eye contact with each other. When I spotted that situation I would typically intervene to see if there were any problems (which there often were). Now, I will share all of these characteristics with students as a way for them to monitor their own team dynamics.
The fourth characteristic was especially surprising to me since the study found that nearly half of meeting interactions were these types of back-channel or side exchanges. In my own conventional wisdom I view these conversations during a meeting as distracting, nonproductive, or even rude. But, then it began to make sense to me that if people could exchange information related to the team’s goals quickly in person, rather than waiting to communicate via e-mail or other less direct methods after the meeting, then this was actually an efficient way to get things done.
I expect to be sharing the findings from Pentland’s research with students to aide them in become more mindful of their own communication behaviors in team meetings.