What kind of communication makes a team great?

Koos Vos
Dec 16, 2021

The trick to building a high performing team lays in applying the right combination of both art and science. Years of research, however, have revealed that it might just be more science than art; success factors within teams are observable, quantifiable, and measurable.

What are those quantifiable, science-based Success Factors? Let’s find out.

It’s All About Communication Patterns

In this post we will quote research conducted by MIT’s Human Performance Dynamics Laboratory (HBR, 2012) that discovered the communication patterns that characterize high-performing teams. In the study, the team looked across a diverse set of industries to find workplaces that had similar teams with varying performance levels. The research included innovative teams, post-op wards in hospitals, customer-facing teams in banks, backroom operations teams and call center teams, among others.

They equipped all the members of those teams with electronic badges that collected data on their individual communication behavior—tone of voice, body language, whom they talked to and how much, and more. With remarkable consistency, the data confirmed that communication plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, the team found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.

The data reveals that patterns of communication are the key to great teams and how specific elements of communication can be changed to enhance team performance. Successful teams share several defining characteristics in their communication style:

1. Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.

2. Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.

3. Members connect directly with one another—not just with the team leader.

4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.

5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.

The data also established another surprising fact: individual reasoning and talent contribute far less to team success than one might expect. In fact, 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.

This suggests that the key to high performance lay not in the content of a team’s discussions, but rather the manner in which the contents were discussed.

There is an important role out there for the team leader who is capable of facilitating and stimulating these successful communication patterns.

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Koos Vos
The author
Koos Vos

Koos is a strategic consultant focused on experiential learning at the individual, team and organizational levels. Drawing from his career as an actor and acting coach, Koos takes an unconventional approach to his training to develop the TRIP physical coaching model. Outside of Yellow, Koos is an associate professor at both EADA and IESE Business Schools in Barcelona.

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