Ideas for Leaders #050

Communication and the Science of Great Team Building

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Key Concept

There is an ineffable buzz about a good team at work. You can just sense it. Understandings between team members seem effortless, sometimes almost telepathic. The attainment of this serene team cohesion is often discussed in terms of ‘art’ rather than something we can look at through the prism of science. But what if that buzz were something that could actually be taught to a team? This Idea shows just how it can.

Idea Summary

What we usually consider to be ‘elusive’ group dynamics that characterize high-performing teams, such as; energy, creativity, and shared commitment - are actually observable, quantifiable, and measurable qualities. And as such, teams can be taught how to strengthen them.

The key lies in understanding the patterns of communication associated with productive teams, which include; energy, engagement and exploration. Using specific techniques and formulas, leaders can actually calculate the levels of these three dynamics, and see where weaknesses lie.

Communication is the single most important thing to measure when gauging the effectiveness of a group. Looking at teams with varying performance levels across a range of industries, the research team at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory equipped participants with electronic badges that collected data on their individual communication behaviour. For example; tone of voice, body language, whom they talked to and how much.

Consistently, the data confirmed that communication plays a critical role in building successful teams. Firms can now obtain the tools and data they need to accurately dissect and engineer high performance. As such, building great teams can be seen as a science – rather than as an intangible ‘art’, as it once was.

As a result of these findings we can see that successful teams share several defining characteristics:

  • Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet;
  • Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic;
  • Members connect directly with one another - not just with the team leader;
  • Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team; and
  • Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.

Therefore, there are three critical aspects of communication that affect team performance:

  1. Energy: this is measured by the number and nature of exchanges between team members. Normal conversations are often made up of many exchanges, and in a team setting more than one exchange may be going on at a time.
  2. Engagement: how team members communicate with one another. This reflects the distribution of energy among team members. Teams that have clusters of members who engage in high-energy communication while other members do not participate - don’t perform as well.
  3. Exploration: this involves communication that members engage in outside their team. Higher performing teams seek more outside connections, and scoring well on exploration is most important for creative teams that need fresh perspectives, such as those responsible for innovation.

Business Application

In order for management tasks such as team building to be objectively analysed, there are certain formulas that have been developed through this research to calculate energy, engagement, and exploration. That data in turn can be applied in three steps:

  • Step One: Visualisation: maps can be created of how a team is doing on the dimensions above. These maps starkly highlight weaknesses that teams may not have recognized.
  • Step Two: Training: using the maps as a training tool, team performance can be improved through iterative visual feedback.
  • Step Three: Fine-tuning performance: map energy and engagement against performance metrics.

There are also specific techniques for improving energy and engagement measurements, including simple but effective approaches such as reorganizing office space and seating. Similarly, setting a personal example, policy changes, learning to interrupt less and listen more actively can all help drive necessary change within teams.

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Idea conceived

  • 2012

Idea posted

  • January 2013

DOI number



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