High performing teams aren’t a case of simply getting the smartest people together in a room. Trust, shared goals and diversity all contribute to collective intelligence.
For a range of reasons – globalisation, technological change, and the complicated nature of many projects among them – teams are the dominant structure in today’s workplaces. There’s a wealth of data too, that shows that high performing teams are not necessarily made up of the smartest people in the workplace. Diversity, social intelligence and flexibility all matter.
The flipside is what the 21st century team means for the 21st century leader. The days of ‘command and control’ have disappeared to be replaced with new leadership styles.
The first step towards creating high performing teams is having diversity in your workforce, and an inclusive culture that sees difference as an asset, says Dr Jennifer Whelan, founder of Melbourne-based management consultancy Psynapse.
“We naturally want to think that the way we see the world is the right way,” explains Whelan. “If I can assume someone has all the background and experience I do, then I don’t have to explain myself or persuade them of my position. That can work for day-to-day or predictable, operational procedures. But for innovation, where there is an intractable problem or where you want to create something new, that requires us to do things differently,” she says.
“The evidence is that the greater the diversity of the team and the more inclusive its culture, the more successful it is at generating solutions and solving complex problems.”
The idea that different perspectives result in better work isn’t new and has been explored from a macro-economic perspective. Researchers at Brown University in the US showed that diverse cities experience more economic growth than monocultural cities. And Harvard University researchers showed that multicultural teams bring many benefits to organisations, so long as they work in harmony together. However, when cultural conflict does arise between team members it can cause quite severe disruption at work. It makes the role of team managers crucial to the success, not only by encouraging employees to identify their assumptions, but acting as peacemakers when necessary.
No two heads alike
Research by the likes of London Business School professor Lynda Gratton, has found that when women make up about half of a team, psychological safety, experimentation and self-confidence are optimal, says Juliet Bourke, partner, Human Capital at Deloitte Australia.
“All-male and all-female groups become tribal. But when you have gender balance there is a feeling of psychological safety that creates confidence among team members to share ideas,” says Bourke, whose new book Which Two Heads are Better than One? examines how diverse teams create high performing teams and breakthrough ideas.
Research has also found that visible racial diversity triggers uncertainty in a team but that the ‘cognitive friction’ it engenders can enhance a team’s deliberation.
“In terms of naturally stretching a group’s thinking, having diversity of disciplines is very important; having people from different functions or roles, and team members who approach problem solving differently, whether that be focusing on outcomes, or considering risk, or having an emphasis on people.”
Bourke has identified six ways of thinking about problems, but says most people rely on only one or two styles. That can lead to unbalanced solutions, for example, a failure to consider risk.
It’s not all about who is in the team and how they relate to each other, says senior lecturer in the School of Management at UNSW, Catharine Collins. Emerging research is highlighting the value of teams collaborating with external stakeholders, such as suppliers, customers and even competitors, she says. Preliminary findings from Collins’ research, shows that when teams focus on internal processes alone, team effectiveness slumps.
“I think people are growing more aware of the need to collaborate – but we all get very busy and end up focusing on what’s in front of us,” she says. “We need to identify effective ways to integrate our learning from collaborations. On a practical point of view, it helps refresh teams.”
What role does a team leader play?
With that focus on collaboration, where does this leave a team leader? In today’s high performing teams, his or her role will be to manage conflict, create a shared sense of purpose, keep the team on target and create a psychological safety net that encourages people to express ‘crazy ideas’ without fear of being ridiculed.
Creating psychological safety can be challenging for leaders, says KPMG’s national managing partner of people, performance & culture, Susan Ferrier.
“That cannot be created overnight. The team needs to understand each other at a personal level. It is more than just getting to know each other. It needs to be deliberate and open-hearted, which isn’t easy, especially for virtual teams.
“I have seen a team where the members have all done individual self-examination and coaching to understand themselves better. Then they came together as a group, with a talented facilitator who was a psychologist, to elevate the performance of the team. Their collaborative outcomes were palpable, visible and noted by the team itself and people who worked with them … this stuff works!” says Ferrier.
Whelan says today’s leaders need to let high-performing teams explore different ways of working and solving problems. Some of the corporate think tanks and innovation labs that pop up, she thinks, are “putting the cart before the horse” by failing to give individuals the skills to work well in diverse teams.
A gap remains in understanding how all of this works in the real world. “It is very hard to measure,” she says.
“But my sense is that the more dynamic and deconstructed the modern work environment gets, the more important social intelligence is going to be. Early research findings certainly suggest that, but we’re still looking for a way to systematise it, to make it replicable … People want to see the data.”
Dr Jennifer Whelan, founder of Psynapse, will be speaking at the 2016 AHRI Inclusion and Diversity conference on May 13. To learn more, click here.