Mother Theresa once said “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”, and there is a lot to unpack there, both on relational and spiritual levels. The ideal model for a team is just that: doing great things together, and being more than a sum of the individuals’ parts. John Amaechi goes further and describes teaming as a ‘selfless’ process where you willingly sacrifice personal gains for team productivity.
The more I ruminate on what makes a truly thriving team, the more I realise that a group of talented, even selfless team members, will not prevail unless the team climate is conducive to sharing, working together, and developing. After reading over 50 academic papers and 25 books on teams and leadership, communication within the team arises time and time again as a big factor in the team’s effectiveness. The word communication can sound generic, waffly, even a bit intangible, and yet if we take an evidence-informed approach to unpicking team communication, there are many nuanced aspects we can improve.
It’s important that I reiterate the terms of this research project. This isn’t necessarily a leadership blog, or about how to lead an organisation. The research I have assimilated pertains to how teams perform: not THE team, but the teams within the team, if you like. The organisation as a whole may have its own set of values and culture set by the leadership team, and yet every team within the organisation will have their own ways of working. What I want to explore is how each team leader can maximise the effectiveness of their team.
On that note, I repeat that communication may seem an obvious, generic factor to consider. But we cannot assume that every team within an organisation has a healthy culture of communication and conflict management. Staff members who perform well in one team, may perform less effectively in a team where communication, familiarity, and conflict have not been managed well.
Given that we spend most of our day communicating, it can be easy to overlook how we might dedicate more time and thought to improving team communication. Similarly, it’s easy to overestimate how effective communication is within our team; if you meet regularly and speak a lot, then what is there to improve?
Let’s begin with a short literature review of research regarding team communication. Firstly, communication frequency is not a proxy for effectiveness. Communication quality, you won’t be shocked to read, is far more important than how often it happens. Too much noise can mitigate, rather than enhance, performance (Marks, et al, 2000).
Interestingly, Pentland (2012) conducted a study that found that the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. Energy is measured by the number of, and nature of, exchanges among team members, while engagement is about the way team members communicate between themselves, e.g. engagements between members a and b, a and c, and b and c. Other defining characteristics of successful teams’ communication included: everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure; members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic; members connect directly with one another – not just the team leader; members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.
The same study found that social time turns out to be deeply critical for team performance, accounting for more than 50% of positive changes in communication patterns in the call centre studies. In this particular research, the call centre CEO was so encouraged by the results, that he began to put all staff on similar break patterns, promoting team cohesion and communication and sacrificing call centre handling time so that all staff could be together.
Building on the notion of team energy and engagement is the concept of familiarity, defined as the level of knowledge team members hold about one another. Robust evidence suggests that familiar teams outperform unfamiliar teams on a variety of tasks (Salas et al, 2018). As team familiarity increases, team communication becomes more strongly related to team performance, due to team processes and shared mental models becoming more efficient and embedded.
While there is an argument to focus on domain-specific knowledge when it comes to the content of what teams seek to learn and understand, high-performing teams must excel at generic communication skills. A study into surgical teams showed that the more critical needs of the team were communication related: mutual monitoring skills, being alert for potential mistakes, speaking up regardless of seniority, communicating using standard language, and ensuring messages are accurately received.
In summary, research shows that high-quality communication may clarify information related to the task, ensure team members are on the same page, and mitigate any overlap in efforts geared towards task completion, providing clarity and certainty.
So, the evidence suggests that team communication must be high quality, and that team energy, engagement, and familiarity all contribute to improve team communication and performance. The next question, then, is what does evidence say about the most effective types of communication?
Given that communication can be defined as an exchange of information, it seems reasonable that the evidence points at information sharing, knowledge sharing, and openness of communication as being some of the most effective forms of communication. In fact, information elaboration demonstrates a stronger relationship with performance than all other communication measures, with knowledge sharing also exhibiting stronger relationships with performance than several other types of communication. Similarly, openness of communication is more strongly related to performance than frequency. Openness encompasses all aspects of communication that can be linked to quality, as it entails whether team members can easily communicate with others (Salas et al, 2018).
Knowledge sharing is the process where individuals mutually exchange their knowledge and jointly create new knowledge. This implies that every knowledge sharing behaviour consists of both bringing knowledge and collecting knowledge, which is an essential part of team culture – the open exchange of expertise and knowledge. Not only does that improve the team’s shared knowledge, but also fosters an open attitude to sharing, reciprocation, and trust. Teammates who have unique expertise should share the information that is exclusively known to them that will nbe critical for the team’s effort; it must be clear and understandable, avoiding jargon (Ervin et al, 2018). Teams who have a culture of information and knowledge sharing are able to adapt quickly and are more flexible or open toward each other’s input, exhibiting higher levels of performance (Hoogeboom, 2019).
Putting the evidence into practice – practical advice for team leaders!
Organisations should ensure that teams, and their leaders, understand the impact that effective communication has on performance. This should include setting aside time for the team to talk with one another to increase familiarity, shared mental models, to clarify any misunderstandings and to discuss any communication issues or potential conflict.
Here are six tips to turn the team-communication evidence into practice:
- Information elaboration: the team leader must decide how to best impart information about roles and tasks to team members, who must understand what is expected of them. We already know that information elaboration links to team performance, but it is worth asking your team how they want that information conveyed. Meetings, email? 1:1 drop ins? Despite many adopting the adage “if you can send it in an email, don’t have a meeting”, Kat Howard (2020) warns against this medium: ‘there is a vast sense of unfulfillment in any text-based conversation and this can stem from either the way in which email is used or just the desire for fewer emails’. My advice is to agree with your team about how and when information will be conveyed. For example, every Thursday afternoon I send one of my teams a bulletin of key information for the following week, a routine that we decided would work well, and complements our fortnightly in-person meetings.
- Knowledge sharing: being part of a team that has a genuine culture of learning and development is galvanising and purposeful. This can be furthered by teams who exchange their knowledge for the benefit of the team. One strategy is to dedicate meeting and team time to the sharing of knowledge and expertise, allowing team knowledge to grow, shared mental models to be created leading to greater team efficiency, as well as the feeling among team members that they are learning and growing together, improving team cohesion and morale. This could include beginning meetings by asking a team member to share some expertise or something they have researched; create a rota, give everyone an opportunity, and observe the multiple effects of a team who regularly share their knowledge. Celebrate and give platforms to the expertise across your team.
- Building energy and engagement: we read earlier how important energy and engagement is for teams, outside of a formal meeting setting. These foundations can be laid, in my experience, through exercises that build belonging and trust. Dan Cable (2018) suggests that a powerful method to build relatedness and belonging within a team is to ask each person when they are at their best. Which circumstances bring out the best version of themselves? It’s a fascinating question. The rationale is, that by sharing this self-reflection, your shared vulnerability helps to bond the team, but also that each member’s response helps the team to understand what each other look like when they are truly thriving. I also advocate building a team culture where laughter, shared vulnerability, and engagement with each other’s lives will pay off in spades when it comes to future productivity and cohesion. As Kim Scott states in Radical Candor, for a team to achieve profound growth and change, they must care personally and challenge directly.
- Open, honest communication: evidence informs us that openness is a vital characteristic for team members to possess, so how can we foster this within our teams? Leaders can take the initiative by inviting feedback, providing honest communication with their team, and by facilitating open dialogue within team meetings. As long as parameters are set so that the team understands how to have open, constructive conversations, this will become an essential, energising part of your team’s culture. The key question for me as a team leader is: does every member of my team feel comfortable communicating, and being honest with, every other member, including the leader?
- Fostering genuine team building and conversation: Pentland’s research found that, in high-performing teams, team members need to communicate with other team members. Consider setting up small groups for projects or a discussion within meetings; foster their communication, collaboration and trust. Keep rotating these small groups so that the familiarity among all team members is high.
- Over communicate your listening: whether you’re a team leader or member, Dan Coyle finds in The Culture Code (2018), that the best cultures are full of people who listen intently – no, avidly. Their heads are forward, eyebrows raised, bodies still – they are listening with enthusiasm, which opens up a clear path of open communication. Team leaders can model this, encourage this, and keep referring back to how, on this team, we actively listen and engage because we are unique group who benefits from each other’s ideas, input, and expertise.
As Mary Myatt writes in High Challenge, Low Threat (2016), ‘allowing everyone’s voice to be heard is a vehicle for great messages to be broadcast. Too often, good work and appreciation are not given the platform on which to be celebrated’. I would reiterate, here, that every team in an organisation needs to promote those values – one team’s culture won’t transfer to another’s, so every team must establish the right culture for communication. I could go from an English department meeting to a coaching team meeting and find different values, forms of communication, and approaches to managing conflict.
Every leader should think carefully about how they and their team communicate, and begin to apply some of the evidence-informed approaches discussed in this post. I’ll make the assumption that your team are working extremely hard, that they are passionate, and good at their roles; yet that effectiveness as a team can only be harnessed with clear, open, precise communication across the whole team.
Next time we’ll look at how Thriving Teams welcome and manage conflict.
Thanks for reading
Cable, D (2018) Alive At Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do. HBR Press, Boston.
Coyle, D (2018) The Culture Code. Penguin Random House, London.
Ervin, J. N., Kahn, J. M., Cohen, T. R., & Weingart, L. R. (2018). Teamwork in the intensive care unit. American Psychologist, 73, 468 – 477. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000247
Hoogeboom, A.M.G. and Wilderom, C.P.M. (2019). A Complex Adaptive Systems Approach to Real-Life Team Interaction Patterns, Task Context, Information Sharing and Effectiveness. Group & Organisation Management, Vol 45 (1), 1-41.
Howard, K (2020) Stop Talking About Wellbeing. John Catt, Woodbridge.
Marks, et al (2000) Performance implications of leader briefings and team-interaction training for team adaptation to novel environments. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 971.
Myatt, M (2016) High Challenge, Low Threat. John Catt, Woodbridge.
Pentland, A (2012) The New Science of Building Great Teams. Accessed 21st February 2022. The New Science of Building Great Teams (hbr.org)
Shannon L. Marlow, Christina N. Lacerenza, Jensine Paoletti, C. Shawn Burke, Eduardo Salas (2018) Does team communication represent a one-size-fits-all approach?: A meta-analysis of team communication and performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Volume 144, Pages 145-170,