High-performing teams don’t appear overnight. They develop when conditions are right, with the combined actions of senior leaders, team leaders and team members.
While we are biologically wired to connect with others, we must meet critical conditions to drive peak team performance. Recent discoveries in neuroscience illuminate what differentiates the highest-performing teams from the rest. Because brain science is universal, these discoveries apply to all people, cutting across generations and gender as well as race and nationality.
Let’s look at some overarching principles that can guide everyone who cares about maximizing team performance.
1. Honor the Power of Biology With In-person Interactions
While technology makes it possible for us to work with others through a video screen or phone, our brains were built for in-person interactions. Our brain reads meaning and intent in others through micro-muscular changes in the face, body language and even pheromone signals — almost all of which is lost when we communicate through technology. Even video conferencing loses the third dimension that can make the difference in accurately reading another’s meaning.
In-person interactions provide the most data to the brain. When teams are in the early, trust-building stage of their time together, best practice prioritizes in-person interactions, because all members can participate using their full set of biological tools for connecting and communicating. If you can’t bring people together physically, then it’s important to counterbalance the deficit with more frequent and in-depth interactions that intentionally fill in the gaps by helping them get to know one another and build trust.
2. Select or Develop Leaders Who Cultivate Collaboration
Effective team leadership requires emotional intelligence (EQ) and collaborative intelligence — the ability to bring out the best in a group. Traditionally, we select team leaders based on their successes as individual contributors. However, that background can harm the growth of a team if the person doesn’t know how to make the vital shift from performer to facilitator.
Instead, look for people who are already natural facilitators, and amp up their team leadership abilities through training and coaching. Look past the star performers to the people who have rapport with a lot of different people. Find the person whom others are already turning to for guidance or support — the person who creates cohesion and brings out the best in others. These individuals are hidden gems waiting to be tapped for leadership roles.
Also be sure your performance review system evaluates team leaders based on the right set of criteria. Measure success based on how well they create psychological safety and enhance employee engagement and retention and on their team’s performance on important metrics like successful task execution, collaboration and innovation.
3. Build Psychological Safety
Harvard professor Amy Edmondson first identified the concept of psychological safety, and several subsequent studies have shown that psychological safety is the core element of thriving teams.
Psychological safety is not the mere absence of intimidation or harassment. Dr. Edmondson’s research shows that it’s what creates the climate for teams to do their best work. She defines psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. It is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
Google replicated Edmondson’s findings in a global study on teams, discovering that psychological safety was more important to team success than any other factor, including the quality or performance level of the individual members. Specifically, the best teams do two things:
Ensure that every member is heard by going beyond inviting people to share their thoughts to actively and consistently seeking out every member’s contributions.Consistently engage with each other with empathy, noticing each other’s emotions and reaching out to connect.
It’s important to note that psychological safety is not about being universally liked by others nor being protected from others’ opinions or beliefs. The members of the group might disagree or find what others say uncomfortable, but a healthy team welcomes their input, because it might just be a game-changer.
The way a group of people comes together to work can activate trust or a climate of conflict and blame. Employees need to learn about psychological safety and the skills to create and maintain it. They need to know how to ask the kinds of questions that safely broaden and deepen the conversation. In particular, it’s important for leaders to learn how to counterbalance the barrier that power creates.
Teaching psychological safety is only the beginning. It’s vital to then watch for signs that the team is moving forward in a healthy way. If you see signs of problems, like increased complaints to human resources (HR), more sick days and turnover, or decreasing engagement, it’s important to take action to help the team course-correct. Otherwise, you risk creating a team paralyzed by learned helplessness, which can be very difficult to shift.
4. Invest in Team Training and Team Building
Team leaders are not the only ones who create a high-performing team. Members also play an important role, and they need the tools and skills to do their part. To facilitate this understanding, it’s important to understand the difference between team training and team building.
Team training refers to learning the knowledge and skills needed to work well as a team and perform a task successfully. These skills include group development, work styles, inclusion, psychological safety, communication, project management, execution and conflict resolution, to name a few.
Did you know that conflict about a task correlates positively with creativity, but interpersonal conflict has a negative relationship with creativity? Conflict resolution skills are vital to team health, because they help team members wrestle with diverse ideas and work styles without harming trust.
To this end, it can be valuable to create a team playbook — a document that provides a centralized overview of your process to help teams navigate the combined task and relationship elements of their work. For example, a playbook can help a team establish ground rules and clarify the roles each member will play. It can also become a tool for holding each other accountable and for getting back on track when and if things go “wonky.” Most importantly, it can define how to handle inevitable conflict productively.
Team building, on the other hand, is the process and interactions through which team members learn about each other, both personally and professionally, as they begin to build trust. It takes several forms, sometimes unfolding over regular meetings or off-site retreats. Rather than digging into an assigned task, team building is about intentionally creating experiences that build relationships and trust. Trust is vital for when the work becomes difficult; it enables members to tussle with challenges and maintain psychological safety.
Team building is often shortchanged in the rush to jump into a task or project. However, investing in it up front will more than pay off in the group’s development and project execution later on.
5. Hold Teams Accountable as a Unit
Enabling a diverse range of work styles, skills, motivations and personalities to work cohesively can become more challenging when we inadvertently undermine people’s motivation for working together by not holding them accountable as a unit. Every member of the team needs to know that they are responsible, together, for successes and failures and will share equally in the rewards and consequences.
Most performance management processes focus on individual contributions, motivating team members to prioritize their own goals and outcomes to preserve job security. In other words, it rests on proving their individual value, which often undermines what is best for the project, the team and, ultimately, the organization.
Performance systems should have a team component, with a certain portion of an employee’s review based on his or her teamwork. The best way to support teams as they work through differences and recover from mistakes is to review the team as a unit and give each member the same team score. This approach motivates employees to help the team succeed and tangibly acknowledges the value that teamwork brings to the organization. Lack of team accountability can create a culture of blame and shame, which can cripple an organization.
There are many ways to set up this kind of performance system. Some models have leaders or supervisors assess or evaluate the team’s performance, taking into account both the task and the collaboration or cohesiveness of the group. Another approach is to have each member evaluate the group as a whole. This method can be valuable, because team members must address and take responsibility for their own role as well as everyone else’s.
By leveraging new insights from neuroscience, you can approach team development in new and more effective ways. We all have the ability to build teams that thrive and succeed. Brain science can be a particularly helpful tool for bringing out the best in people and organizations.
Parts of this article were excerpted from the author’s book, “Wired to Connect: The Brain Science of Teams and a New Model for Creating Collaboration and Inclusion.”