Making of a team

Create a culture of collaboration to build a great team, emphasises Daniel Coyle in 'The Culture Code'

Published 3 years ago on May 05, 2018 4 minutes Read

It’s useful to look at the bad apple experiment in this light. Nick was able to disrupt the chemistry of the groups merely by sending a few cues of nonbelonging. His behavior was a powerful signal to the group – We are not safe – which immediately caused the group’s performance to fall apart. Jonathan, on the other hand, delivered a steady pulse of subtle behaviors that signaled safety. He connected individually, listened intently, and signaled the importance of the relationship. He was a wellspring of belonging cues, and the group responded accordingly.

In recent years, Pentland and his team have used sociometers to capture the interactions of hundreds of groups in post-op wards, call centers, banks, salary negotiations, and business pitch session. In each study, they discovered the same pattern: It’s possible to predict performance by ignoring all the informational content in the exchange and focusing on a handful of belonging cues.

For example, Pentland and Jared Curhan used sociometers to analyze forty-six simulated negotiations between pairs of business students who played the role of employee and boss. The task was to negotiate the terms for a new position, including salary, company car, vacation, and health benefits. Pentland and Curhan found that the first five minutes of sociometric data strongly predicted the outcomes of the negotiations. In other words, the belonging cues sent in the initial moments of the interaction mattered more than anything they said.

Another experiment analyzed a competition in which entrepreneurs pitched business ideas to a group of executives. Each participant presented their plan to the group; the group then selected and ranked the most promising plans for recommendation to an outside group of angel investors. Pentland found that the sociometers- which tracked only the cues exchanged by presenter and audience and ignored all the informational content-predicted the ranking with nearly perfect accuracy. In other words, the content of the pitch didn’t matter as much as the set of cues with which the pitch eas delivered and received. (When the angel investors viewed the plans on paper – looking only at informational content and ignoring social signals – they ranked them very differently.)

“The executives [listening to the pitches] thought they were evaluating the plans based on rational measures, such as: How original is this idea? How does it fit the current market? How well developed is this plan?” Pentland wrote. “While listening to the pitches, though, another part of their brain was registering other crucial information, such as: How much does this person believe in this idea? How confident are they when speaking? How determined are they to make this work? And the second set of information – information that the business executives didn’t eve know they were assessing – is what influenced their choice of business plans to the greatest degree.”

“This is a different way of thinking about beings,” Pentland says. “Individuals aren’t really individuals. They’re more like musicians in a jazz quartet, forming a web of unconscious actions and reactions to complement the others in the group. You don’t look at the informational content of the messages; you look at patterns that show how the message is being sent. Those patterns contain many signals that tell us about the relationship and what’s really going on beneath the surface.”

Overall Pentland’s studies show that team performance is driven by five measurable factors:

1. Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, leaping contributions short.

2. Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are genetic..

3. Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader.

4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.

5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information to share with the others.

These factors ignore every individual skill and attribute we associate with high-performing groups, and replace them with behaviors we would normally consider so primitive as to be trivial. And yet when it comes to predicting team performance, Pentland and his colleagues have calculated nothing is more powerful.

“Collective intelligence is not that different in some ways than apes in a forest,” Pentland says “One [ape] is enthusiastic, and that signal recruits others, and they jump in and start doing stuff together. That’s the way group intelligence works, and this is what people don’t get. Just hearing something said rarely results in a chance in behavior. They’re just words. When we see people in our peer group play with an idea, our behavior changes. That’s how intelligence is created. That’s how culture is created.”

They’re just words. This is not how we normally think. Normally, we think words matter; we think that group performance correlates with its members’ verbal intelligence and their ability to construct and communicate complex ideas. Bit that assumption is wrong. Words are noise. Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: We are safe and connected.

This is an extract from Daniel Coyle's The Culture Code published by Random House Business