Team Building & Communication: How to Improve Productivity

By Chuck Doran and Megan Winkeler

What makes a team effective? What low-cost, high-impact team building methodologies can we use to improve productivity? Companies and organizations worldwide grapple with these questions as they try to get the most from their workforce, but the answers are often nebulous. An entire industry of team building workshops and seminars thrives with the promise of creating more productive employees, but how can an organization really know if these services provide the solution?

Even the People Operations team at Google, having some of the best data and analytical minds working together, were stumped: what makes one team more productive than another? And how can a company create an environment that fosters more productive teams? A group of researchers analyzed 180 teams and struggled to find the common link. Some productive teams were composed of close friends while others kept work and life separate. Teams filled with like-minded experts were just as likely to be unproductive as a team filled with a diverse set of backgrounds and skills. Some productive teams had a clear hierarchy; others took a less structured approach.

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Realizing that the answer did not lie in the “who” of a team, the researchers analyzed teams’ group norms: the unwritten rules that drive individuals to act certain ways within a group. They found that group norms had the greatest impact on teams’ productivity. In particular, teams that fostered a sense of psychological safety among members also fostered more creativity, productivity, and long-term effectiveness. The best part: the teams that fostered psychological safety typically followed two basic group norms:

1. Members speak for similar amounts of time. Everyone gets an opportunity to contribute and share in the distribution of conversation and debate.

2. Members share social sensitivity. They are able to sense how others are feeling based on verbal and nonverbal cues, and they react accordingly.

When people have space to speak within a group and know that their team members care about their personal feelings on some level, they are more likely to take part in interpersonal risk taking – to contribute new ideas and approaches without fear of professional repercussions. This allows teams to build off of one another’s ideas, be honest about their skills, ask for help and advice, and provide feedback.

So how can you foster these team building norms in your organization? Hone your communication skills and try the following strategies:

  • Start with ice breakers:  They may seem cheesy, but ice breakers are a low-cost, high-impact way to improve psychological safety and develop more productive group norms on your team. Structured ice breakers provide all team members with an equal opportunity to speak, and they also foster a stronger sense of social sensitivity as you learn more about one another. Before a weekly meeting, you could start with a go-round discussing something interesting about each team member that people might not guess. Of course, you can take a less structured approach as well. Invite everyone to name a T.V. show, movie, or book they’ve been enjoying so that you can add it to your list. What’s important is that all team members talk, and all team members listen.
  • Utilize small group discussion:  MWI’s negotiation and mediation trainers often manage up to twenty five participants in workshop discussions, which inevitably paves the way for strong personalities to lead and quieter participants to take a back seat. To ensure that all participants feel involved in the discussion, trainers regularly break participants in smaller groups. Then, the small groups report back to the larger group. This allows people who prefer not to speak in front of large groups to share their perspectives and have a more vocal small group member report it back to the large group. If you notice that your team’s meetings are dominated by a few main speakers, change your process to allow for small group meeting prior to a large group discussion. Not only will this allow team members more even speaking time, but it will also improve your team’s overall brainstorming productivity. Research from MIT found that the most creative teams “diverge before they converge.” Those teams that had team members brainstorm as individuals or in small groups and then converge to share their ideas were the most productive.
  • Reward interpersonal risk taking:  Think of the last time someone offered an out-there solution for an ongoing issue in your department or work group. Or maybe someone asked a question that had a fairly obvious answer. Perhaps a coworker named an unproductive dynamic that had the potential to create some discomfort. These kinds of interpersonal risk taking activities are important in a productive team, but some teams’ group norms create a culture in which people are punished for doing so. If you notice this dynamic on your team, take steps to reward interpersonal risk taking. For example, if someone suggests an idea that will not work well, avoid immediately dismissing it. Instead, try to build on what might work about it or use it for inspiration. Case studies show that building off of a variety of ideas in a brainstorming session leads to solutions that would not have been apparent before. Sometimes, an idea that will not work can jumpstart one that will. In your next team meeting, encourage this kind of thinking and reward those who contribute by taking their idea seriously and picking out what could work.

If you want to see more productive team building in your work group and organization, lead by example and implement these strategies. You don’t need your supervisor’s approval to thank a coworker for naming an uncomfortable dynamic or to meet separately with a group of team members who don’t get much airtime during meetings. As you try these strategies, let us know how it goes in the comments below.

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