Surprising Research About Team Communication

While it may seem obvious that teams that communicate effectively are apt to be more successful than ones that don’t, the data tells a far richer story than that. Researchers at MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab conducted multiple studies to see how the most successful teams communicate. What they learned may surprise you.

Collaborative Team.jpeg

One of their most striking discoveries is that how teams communicate is far more critical in terms of productivity and success than what they communicate. After studying multiple groups, they came to the conclusion that  three key determinants affecting communication and, ultimately, team success. Those traits are energy, engagement, and exploration.

Where we might think of energy as strength or vitality, the scientists defined it as the number and nature of shared communications, anything from a head nod to an affirmation to a conversation. What they determined – and you may have observed – is that face-to-face communication is far more effective than any other form, with email and texting the least effective, and video chatting (the fewer people the better) somewhere in between. Teams with a high level of team energy would have numerous interactions, often delivered in face-to-face settings.

The second factor is engagement, which the study authors describe as the “distribution of energy” among teammates. In other words, it’s where team members interact with all other team members with a similar level of frequency and enthusiasm, rather than focusing their communications solely on the leader or one or two other team members. Team success, they found, was far more likely in the highly engaged teams.

The final success factor in team communication is exploration, defined as the practice of engaging with members outside the team, as well as team members. Individuals who sought connections and information outside their immediate circles, and then brought that information back to the group, expanded the knowledge base and problem-solving potential.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place.

- George Bernard Shaw

Here’s how the MIT team summed up the five most critical factors for effective team communication:

1.    All team members talk and listen in approximately the same amounts, keeping their contributions succinct and straightforward.

2.    Team members physically face each other and their discussions and gestures are lively and energetic.

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

4.    Members carry on side conversations or back-channel discussions within the team. (The old leadership advisory - “Let’s just have one meeting, people” - doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.)

5.    Members meet, break, go exploring outside the team, and bring back information to share with teammates.

Organizations as far flung as a call center in the US and a bank in the Czech Republic that enacted changes based on this data found that communication improved rapidly. By instigating simple solutions, like having an entire team take their coffee break at the same time, or replacing small cafeteria tables with longer community tables to encourage interaction, companies increased engagement significantly, making the way for far greater team success.

What simple changes can you make to encourage lively face-to-face interaction?

“ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM” EXERCISE: To open lines of communication and discuss problems candidly, try this exercise. Ask each team member to spend a few minutes writing about an issue or challenge that can be difficult to discuss with the team, i.e. the elephant in the room. Ask them to identify whether this is an issue over which they have control, one they can influence, or one which they must accept.

Explain that there will be no judgement or reproach and then have each team member share the challenge with the group.  Spend 10-15 minutes discussing each elephant and how the issue might be resolved.