It’s Not What You Communicate, But How You Communicate!

May 1, 2012

I just finished readingThe New Science of Building Great Teams by Alex Pentland. This paper, put out in the Harvard Business Review, is one of the most fascinating reads I have had in a long time, kudos again to Paul Readwin our Chief Intelligence Officer at Business Instincts for coming across this as part of his ongoing research.

Pentland is a Professor at MIT, the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, and the chairman of Sociometric Solutions. Alex and his team have spent years developing a discrete monitoring system for teams in the form of a small personal badge. This badge is attached to your lapel. The purpose of the badge is to monitor all the movements and interactions of the members of a team. During the first hour or so of use people tend to be very conscious of the badge and alter their behaviors as such, after a few hours, much less a few days or weeks, humans cannot help but interact in their normal behavior. The badges and system have been tested now over several years and are revealing some of the most fascinating behavioral data that is now available on the performance of teams.

Most fascinating about the research to date is the fact that the #1 most important factor to a team’s performance is not what is communicated but how it is communicated. Seriously, the content is less important, by far, than the delivery and the setting. The more a team is given the opportunity to create personal connections in a professional setting, the stronger the team interaction will be.

Pentland goes on to say, “The thinking is that what is known as Patterns of Communication matter so much because language is a relatively recent development and was most likely layered upon older signals that communicated dominance, interest and emotions among humans. Today these ancient patterns of communication still shape how we make decisions and coordinate work among ourselves.

Consider how early man may have approached problem solving. One can imagine humans sitting around a campfire (as a team) making suggestions, relating observations, and indicating interest or approval with head nods, gestures, or vocal signals. If some people failed to contribute or to signal their level of interest or approval, the group members had less information and weaker judgment, and so were more likely to go hungry”.

The overarching finding was that high performance teams were ones that had the most even distribution of communication and influence as opposed to those teams that had little communication and one or a few individuals dominated any communication that existed. Several techniques and methods are available to ensure that a high performance team can thrive. Interestingly, almost always the first recommendation that Pentland makes to improve team performance is to make it more social. Have teams take coffee breaks together, do lunches, have group check-ins, and constantly mix things up so that casual interaction can take place across all members of the team.