In today’s post I am going to talk about one of the most cliched topics in management. You guessed it! Teamwork.
I think I lost you at cliched…
If you made it through to here then be prepared to unlearn everything you have ever known about teamwork! Skeptical aren’t we? You should be. You are a budding entrepreneur with a lean team trying to make your mark in the world! Or a VP responsible for leading a large team across functions! Or perhaps you are working with peers across geographies who share similar a skill set and expertise as you! Regardless of your current situation you know that your success depends a lot on how well you collaborate with others. If you ever had the task of assembling a team you have pondered as to what it would take to get the right people and then get the best out of them! First thing you would think of is to bring the right people on board! The ones with the highest IQ’s of course! How can things possible go wrong when you put the brightest minds together in a room? Right? Wrong!
It turns out that there is a lot more to team dynamics than simply getting the best brains in a room! Group dynamics are driven by a lot more than just IQ. Time and time again research proves that teams following the right norms have fared better than teams with higher IQ individuals. What are those norms? The People Analytics team at Google have been looking at ways to optimize team performance and they have discovered some interesting insights on optimizing team performance. But before I get into that I would like to sidetrack on the topic of intelligence. It seems teamwork and intelligence are two sides of the same coin!
How do you perceive intelligence? It’s God’s gift to you. You were lucky to have been born to smart parents. You are genetically superior and there is nothing anyone can do about it! What if I were to tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Robert Rosenthal, a Harvard Psychologist conducted an experiment at a school across eighteen different classrooms with students from kindergarten to the fifth grade with the aim of identifying the smartest children who showed potential of intellectual blooming – the ability to show unusual intellectual gains over a short period of time. Using a cognitive ability test he identified 20% of the smartest students across the school! As he had rightly identified the “intellectual bloomers” continued to exhibit superior performance. Some of the bloomers showed gains as high as 50% over the course of a year compared to other students. His cognitive ability test really worked! Or did it? The so called “intellectual bloomers” had been randomly picked across the school! The entire idea behind the experiment was to see the impact labelling had on student performance! Just the fact that the teachers believed that those students were smarter they fared better! The teacher’s belief became a self-fulfilling prophecy and changed the course of those student’s lives! It was never you…it was your parents…your teachers who made you believe you were smarter than the others and that drove you to be who you really are!
The same experiment was run in the military, banks, manufacturing plants and other large organizations all leading to similar conclusions. Employees identified as bloomers fared better than the rest! Can you imagine the profound impact anyone in a leadership position can have on their team’s performance and subsequently their future?! This impact is so crucial that after digging into the early lives of eminent pianists researchers found a stunning absence of raw talent. It all came down to who their teachers were! And they weren’t expert pianists either. They simply encouraged and motivated their students to pursue their craft long and hard enough to attain perfection. It was the patience, kindness and care of their teachers that encouraged persistence. And as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in Outliers. It was this persistence that led to them raking in ten thousand hours of practice and thereby attaining perfection. Again success is attributed not to natural talent like IQ but to the teacher who played the key role in enabling that expertise!
Now that we have debunked the myth around talent and IQ. You can pretty much guess what it takes to manage teams effectively. It all comes down to the team leader. You can have mediocre thinkers in a room but if the team leader can create the right norms for the group breakthrough things can happen. In no other area is this more crucial but when teams need to be able to come up with great ideas repeatedly. Like a teacher who can make you believe you are smarter than you really think you are or a mentor who inspires you to persist with kindness and patience, team leaders create certain norms that lead to phenomenal success. Just the way George Meyer led the Simpsons team to create the single best television series of the twentieth century according to Time magazine. Or how Lorne Michaels enabled a culture that made Saturday Night Live to be one of the most popular and longest running programs in television history you too can create magic if you can enable your team by following these norms!
First and foremost – enable psychological safety. The feeling that assures team members that they can speak their mind freely. To do so team leaders need to ensure everyone makes an equal contribution. Team leaders at Google go so far to ensure this that they have list of every team member in front of them so they can put a check against each name to track their contribution. So much so that they don’t end a meeting until each member has roughly made an equal contribution to the group. Secondly they encourage above average social sensitivity. This means that they are tuned to how each member is feeling. If anyone is upset and frustrated they ensure they are able to vent their feelings and express themselves. They create a norm whereby everyone is allowed to speak without being interrupted and whenever someone is speaking everyone else is listening. Once this feeling of psychological safety emerges, when group members feel safe and not threatened to express their point of view, they take risks, share their crazy ideas and even disagree with each other. They may not like each other, there may be heated arguments but they would always respect each other and continue to speak freely. This ability to share a dissenting opinion without repercussion, this feeling of trust that any counter argument is not to undermine the person but in the larger interest of the group and what they are trying to achieve is the state that effective team leaders enable. This is of course easier said then done. But if a team leader exhibits high social sensitivity and empathy to what their team members are feeling and most importantly ensures that everyone has an equal voice where no single person disappears in the group they are on their way to enabling psychological safety. This is when you can expect breakthrough results because you have taught an average group of people how to interact with each other and by doing so you have raised the collective intelligence of the group. The sum is greater than the individual parts. Now what they can achieve together is far greater than what even the brightest minds in the world can accomplish!