How to build your team’s intelligence for improved performance

Why is it that some teams perform really well together while others are dysfunctional?

What if we could discover the key components that will unlock success for our teams? What difference would that make to our staff and organisations?

I’m frequently approached to work with leaders and teams to tackle the puzzle of how to create high performing teams – it seems to be a problem that eludes many well-intentioned people. What if we recruit the smartest people and put them all in the one team? What if we encourage team mates to socialise together after work? What if we have less hierarchy? Or different reporting structures? What if we increase diversity? What if we have a team full of introverts? What is it that we need to do differently to improve our teams?

The good news is that Google has undertaken rigorous research to find out what makes some teams successful whilst others struggle. In 2012 they initiated Project Aristotleto study hundreds of Google’s team all across the world. The company’s top executives hypothesised that if they combined the best and brightest people in a team they would be the highest performing teams.

It turns out that this wasn’t the case. When the researchers analysed the data they found that “who” was in the team didn’t seem to matter. There was no evidence that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds influenced team performance.

So if the “who” didn’t matter, what did influence team performance and success? The Google team started looking at the “how” teams worked together and they tapped into research that studied group norms. Group norms are behavioural standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we are together.

A key piece of research that influenced their thinking came from the work of a team of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Union College. They had conducted a study in 2008 where they recruited people, put them into teams and gave them some assignments to do. They that found that teams that did well on one task usually did well on others and that teams that failed at one assignment seemed to fail at everything. They concluded that some teams had a higher “collective intelligence” than others, that is just as individuals have personal IQ so teams can have a collective IQ.

Underlying this Team IQ were group norms. Having the “right” norms in a team raised Team IQ while having the “wrong” norms impeded a team, even if individually all the team members were very intelligent.

Two key behaviours were shared by all the good teams.

1. Members spoke in roughly the same proportion (a phenomenon called ‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking’). If only one person or a small part of the team spoke all the time, the team IQ declined. The behaviour in high-performing teams was that, at the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount.

2. Members had high average social sensitivity – that is they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other non-verbal cues. Low performing teams had less sensitivity towards their colleagues.

How does your team go with these two behaviours?

This led the team at Project Aristotle to the group culture work of Professor Amy Edmondson at Harvard. These two behaviours it turns out are key aspects of what is termed “psychological safety”. Edmondson found that psychological safety is, “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. The team climate is characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves”.

This was the lightbulb moment for the Project Aristotle team. They knew that their high performing teams had strong group norms but they had all seemed to be different kinds of norms – some groups had said that teammates interrupted one another constantly, others politely waited for people to have their turn. Some successful teams celebrated birthdays and caught up on what was going on in each other’s lives at the start of a meeting whereas others got straight to business in meetings.

The key thing that united all the successful teams was that team members felt comfortable to be themselves – they did not have to put on a work face or leave part of their personality and inner life at home in order to fit in and survive. The teams had trust between members that led to psychological safety in the team that then increased the collective intelligence of the group and led to improved performance.

The teams at Google that had high rates of psychological safety were better than other teams at implementing diverse ideas and driving high performance. Team members were also more likely to stay with the company. Professor Edmonson found that psychological safety predicted quality improvements, learning behaviour and productivity.

To measure psychological safety, employees at Google were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with seven questions:

i. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.

ii. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.

iii. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.

iv. It is safe to take a risk on this team.

v. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.

vi. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.

vii.Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

When I think of the best group that I’ve worked in, it was with three wonderful colleagues Pete, Tim and Kath. We were all valued, appreciated and totally accepted for who we were – we didn’t have to wear a work face, we could be ourselves at all times. Pete and Tim were mentoring Kath and I in facilitation and so in order to learn we had to be prepared to have a go, take risks, make mistakes, ask for help and give and receive feedback openly. As we were facilitating in front of groups we had to trust each other implicitly. We encouraged and supported and cheered on each other. We grew together, challenged each other and gained confidence from each other. Our little group had a lot of energy, fun and we were highly productive – being in this team brought out the best in us. Our group norms were positive.

I contrast this to a highly dysfunctional team I was part of. There was a lot of speaking about, rather than speaking to, others in the team (i.e. passive aggressive behaviour). There were cliques, agendas, mistrust. Everyone worked really hard but there was a lot of time and energy spent on progressing individual agendas. People undermined each other. There was a long pattern of scape goating where the group targeted one person who they blamed as being responsible for all the group’s problems. They would gang up on them, undermine them and get rid of them. After they’d gone and the group found that their problems still persisted, they would find a new person to gang up on and target. It was brutal. People could not be their best, the group’s collective intelligence was low and individual and team performance suffered. This group’s norms were negative. It was not a safe group to be part of.

Fortunately not all groups are as extreme as this toxic team!

However there are some elements in many teams with which I work that indicates that some team members don’t feel psychologically safe and there are some group norms that could do with improvement. There was one team where some team members said they wore a work face and weren’t the same person they were at home. Another team had team members who didn’t speak directly to a team member they weren’t happy with but instead spoke about her behind her back and undermined her in a passive aggressive way.

Research by Gallup revealed that just three in ten U.S. workers strongly agreed that at work, their opinions seem to count. That leaves a lot of room for improvement in building trust and creating psychological safety in our workplaces.

What about your team? As a leader how do you create psychological safety and build trust? What about as a colleague? What is the collective intelligence of your team? What are your group norms? Are they healthy or unhealthy?

This is a huge topic and I will explore further aspects of it in future newsletters.