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The secrets of high-performing teams by Cathy Sorbara

Linda Cockburn led a thought-provoking discussion in the second workshop of the Cambridge AWiSE WiSE UP series entitled ‘The secrets of high-performing teams’. Her innate ability to listen, engage and educate set the stage for an evening of lively, open discussion.

Before we could learn the secrets behind successful teams, we first needed to understand the purpose of teams. Teams promote creativity. They must work together to fulfill a function and achieve a common goal. When expertise runs out, it is only team work that is strong enough to carry on. Unfortunately, teams may also be formed for all the wrong reasons, for example as a means to ensure people are kept ‘in the know’ or without a focused, complex problem to solve.

June workshop group 2A fascinating study out of the Human Dynamics lab at MIT headed by Prof Alex Pentland had concluded that the most important factor in building a successful team is communication – more specifically, the quality of communication is the greatest predictor of team success. It even outweighs the intelligence of the individual members. Quality comes from face-to-face interaction. Close that email. Walk over to your colleague or set up a regular Skype call.

When broken down, there are three essential aspects of teams: energy, engagement and exploration. Energy is related to the quality of the interaction amongst members. This can be as simple as common tea breaks or eating lunch together. Engagement means that everyone is an equal participant – there exists no cliques or outsiders. Finally, exploration is the promotion of creativity and innovation. The ultimate task is to find a way to balance all three.

June workshop group 1Thinking back on previous and current team experiences there are a multitude of factors that influence the quality of a team. They have a clear vision and well-defined roles. There is consistency and behavioral standards that are well laid out. They celebrate successes, continually promote visual interaction and last but certainly not least, they have productive meetings! Yes, that is not an oxymoron!

One approach for creating a productive meeting is to set an agenda built on questions thereby generating conversation rather than a meeting which simply delivers information. Once the conversation is initiated, another aspect to improve upon is how we listen and interact. Listening with curiosity and allowing the speaker time to complete their ideas without interruption promotes confidence and, in doing so, allows them to feel at ease with sharing new ideas.

Diving further into team dynamics, there are two key roles that warrant discussion: the leader and the ‘charismatic connector.’ It is easy to rhyme off a list of weaknesses from leaders we have encountered but how many of us have been led by truly exceptional people? Those who promote synergy within the team as well as trust and innovation. The other facet is the charismatic connector. They can pick up on the social cues of the group and elicit a positive group dynamic. Perhaps these roles do not suit everyone but it is beneficial to find out how one’s own expertise and strengths can feed into a team.

The evening would not be complete without a final discussion on gender and the role it plays in defining and building teams. Women can sometimes feel forced to hide their distinctive motherly qualities for fear of being stigmatized in male-dominated teams. On the other hand, these same motherly qualities can enhance the positive relationships within a team and ultimately increase the three ‘Es’ of team success.

As always, Cambridge AWiSE expresses its sincere appreciation to Linda for facilitating our workshops and the attendees for the active participation and open minds.

Further references:

Reference to the need for teams, and the relationship between teams and uncertainty
Managing Learning in Management Teams
David Casey chpt4 of Managing Learning in Organisations OUP 1993

Reference to the work at MIT human dynamics lab on the communication that generates excellence in teams

Article is the new science of building great teams, by Alex Pentland

This reference is a good pointer to what matters in teams:

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