With an incredibly integrated society, the ability to effectively work on a team, especially a large team, is important to businesses and organizations of all sizes. From specialized internal-practice groups to cross-sector collaborations, teamwork and peer-to-peer interactions are not just frequent, they are inevitable.
Our ability to feel a sense of teamwork and trust of our various teammates drives engagement and ultimately our company’s success. The impact on engagement is significant—while we all work for organizations, most of our work is spent day-to-day working on a set of smaller work teams on various projects.
As the complexity of technology continues to increase and the amount of information available advances, many individual workers are honing their skills into narrower specializations. Simultaneously, there is only a finite amount of knowledge that one person can reasonably know, so to ameliorate what has been coined as this “personbyte” deficiency, small-to-medium businesses (SMBs) are increasing the size of their teams (teamwork gives us added personbyte). This term, created by MIT physicist Cesar Hidalgo, is utilized in his argument to emphasize that this tacit knowledge in teams is a critical component to the modern economy. The individual has been a celebrated figure in Western society for centuries, but with the increase in technology and narrowing of specialties, we may be at the point in time where teamwork is celebrated, and the work done in a collaborative effort is the new normal (and why we must rethink how we build relationships).
Although there is clearly strength in teams, vulnerabilities manifest in weak links that can be detrimental to the overall success of an organization. Economist and author Tim Harford highlights the importance of extracting weak links and illustrates how harmful they potentially can be by giving several poignant examples: the simple seal that destroyed the Challenger space shuttle when it failed to serve its purpose, resulting in the deaths of seven astronauts; string quartets ruined by one offbeat player; gourmet meals thrown off by one ingredient. As economies become increasingly more dependent, so, too, do collaborations of individuals, and teamwork becomes increasingly more integral.
MIT Professor Alex Pentland is one of the researchers who has provided the greatest insight into this question. His Human Dynamics Laboratory invented the sociometric badge, an unobtrusive device that people in a group wear on their clothing. It typically measures the tone of voice a person uses, how often they gesture, and how much they talk, listen, and interrupt one another. It does not record what people say; in explaining team performance, the words themselves turn out to be practically irrelevant.
While researching groups, Pentland and his lab found that the members of the very best teams interact in three distinctive ways. First, they generate a lot of ideas in short contributions to conversations; no one went on at great length. Second, they engage in what Pentland calls “dense interactions,” with group members constantly alternating between advancing their own ideas and responding to the contributions of others with “good,” “right,” “what?” and other concise comments. Third, everyone contributes ideas and reactions, taking turns, ensuring a wide diversity of ideas.
The most important factor in group effectiveness turned out not to be what everybody thinks, but rather the social sensitivity of the team members. That’s what encourages the patterns of “idea flow” according to Pentland. The three elements of interaction were about as important as all other factors—individual intelligence, technical skills, and members’ personalities combined.