The Neuroscience of Effective Collaboration: What the Best Leaders Know about Team Building
Joining a new team can be daunting. Cindy Thomas draws on her studies in neuroscience to explore brain friendly ways to make the transition, build relationships, and foster effective collaboration.
Recently, I accepted a challenging new position, something that created as much apprehension as it did excitement. I had the luxury of having a couple of weeks leave prior to starting, which allowed me to take my time and plan my strategy using what I’ve learned in my studies for the Diploma in the Neuroscience of Leadership. Understanding that our brains are geared towards a threat or reward response provided me with an excellent place to begin. In order to build a healthy group dynamic, I knew I needed to start off on the right foot. Therefore, I took time to research aspects of team building and collaboration.
Know your team members
If possible, it’s helpful to have an informal introduction to the team prior to starting. I was fortunate to have a few open conversations with the previous manager on the performance, strengths, and areas for development for each team member. I then made it a priority to chat informally with each member as a way of breaking the ice in a non-threatening way. My goal was to look for common ground and to get a sense of the various personality styles at play. I wanted to know who was introverted and who was extroverted, what values we might share as a team, how I might create a sense of relatedness between and among us. From the outset, I hoped to encourage a willingness to accept differences.
Managers often mistakenly believe that it’s good to mix it up, that new members bring energy and fresh ideas to a team and that, without them, members risk becoming complacent, inattentive to changes in the environment, and too forgiving of fellow members’ misbehavior.
Actually, according to J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams, the longer members stay together as an intact group, the better they do. As counter-intuitive as this may seem, the research evidence is unambiguous. Whether it’s a basketball team or a string quartet, teams that stay together longer play together better.
The mere presence of others can make us perform better. Social psychology pioneer Norman Triplett noticed that racing cyclists with a pacemaker covered each mile about five seconds quicker than those without. Later research found this wasn’t all about the effects of competition. The presence of other people seems to facilitate our own performance, but more so when the task is relatively separate to others and can be judged on its own merits.
In other circumstances, though, people in groups demonstrate a tremendous capacity for inefficiency. Another social psychology pioneer, Max Ringelmann, found that participants in a tug ‘o war only put in half as much effort when they were in a team of eight than when they were on their own. People can be tempted to slack off when they are able to hide in a group–when tasks are additive, for example, and each person’s contribution is difficult to judge.
Gaining trust: ‘First conform, then lead’
In many contexts, leaders are appointed or imposed from the outside, as in my case; in other situations, leaders emerge slowly and subtly from the ranks. A study from 60 years ago has a lot to say about joining a team. In 1949, Ference Merei observed children at a Hungarian nursery school. He noticed that successful leaders were those who initially fitted in with the group then slowly began to suggest new activities adapted from the old. Children didn’t follow potential leaders who jumped straight in with new ideas. Leaders first conform, then only later, when trust has been gained, can they be confident that others will follow. This has been confirmed in later studies with adults and, not surprisingly, applies as much today as when the original research was undertaken.
Since I was an ‘appointed’ leader, I knew I needed to move slowly if I wanted to be successful. I made a plan to start off as a listener, letting the team members speak first. I encouraged them to offer their opinions, ideas and perspectives, while I remained quiet. All too often, new leaders enter a team full of energy without understanding the subtleties of the group’s dynamics, hoping to make a big splash and impress others with critical perspectives and new ideas. While this isn’t always a bad thing, group members may initially feel threatened or alienated, so it’s worth taking time to (at least) appear to be a team member first before assuming the role of team leader.
A recent study by Matthew Hornsey of the University of Queensland supports this. He found that groups are hostile to criticism from newcomers and are likely to resist, dismiss or ignore it—unless the new leader has proven loyalty first. Consequently, newcomers to a group who want to gain influence and promote change should tread very carefully until they are well-established. Also, it’s critical to remember that adapting new processes from old familiar processes will often be more successful and less threatening than throwing out what everyone’s been used to and replacing it with the new.
This is because we are neurologically designed to respond to new people and new situations as potentially threatening. There is a hormone—oxytocin—that readily occurs in breastfeeding women helping them to bond with their infants. This hormone is also present in couples and other well-bonded groups, including work groups. It is only after recurring positive experiences that oxytocin begins to flow and trust is gained. Leaders joining a new team do well to enter quietly and remain patient. Also, once trust has been gained, it should be considered to be more valuable than gold and protected at all costs.
In research since 1993, Katzenbach and Smith have identified six fundamentals of collaboration that are necessary for high performing groups.
Many managers assume bigger is better, thinking larger groups have more resources to apply to the work. They also tend to think that including representatives of all relevant constituencies increases the chances that whatever is produced will be accepted and used. In reality, excessive size is one of the most common—and also one of the worst—impediments to effective collaboration. The larger the group, the higher the likelihood of social loafing and the more effort it takes to keep members’ activities coordinated. Small teams are more efficient—and far less frustrating.
While powerful electronic technologies do make remote communication easier, face-to-face interaction is still essential. In fact, teams working remotely are at a considerable disadvantage. A number of organizations that rely heavily on distributed teams have found that it is well worth the time and expense to get members together when the team is launched, again around the midpoint of the team’s work, and yet again when the work has been completed.
According to Hackman, the most powerful thing a leader can do to foster effective collaboration is to create conditions that help members competently manage themselves. The second most powerful thing is to launch the team well. And third is the hands-on teaching and coaching that leaders do after the work is underway. Each of these is something new research in neuroscience supports.
New leaders often mistakenly believe that teamwork is magical. They think that to harvest its many benefits, all one has to do is gather up some really talented people and tell them in general terms what’s needed—the team will then work out the details. Actually, it takes careful thought and enormous preparation to stack the deck for success. The best leaders provide a clear statement of just what the team is to accomplish, and then make sure that the team has all the resources and supports it will need to succeed.
Finally, don’t be afraid of conflict. Hackman’s research confirms that when conflict is well managed and focused on a team’s objectives, it can generate more creative solutions than those in conflict-free groups. In fact, disagreements can be good for a team as long as it’s about the work itself. Hackman found in earlier research on symphony orchestras that slightly grumpy orchestras played a little better as ensembles than those whose members worked together especially harmoniously.
Armed with this information, I felt better prepared and more confident in joining my new team. So far, we’ve developed a sense of relatedness and are on the road to building trust—the first and most important steps in collaborating effectively. Based on that, I have great hopes for what’s to come.
See our tip sheet of Muneera Spence’s rules for successful collaboration.
.Cindy Thomas has spent the past six years in site-based Community Stakeholder roles helping construction teams create positive delivery environments for complex and challenging transport infrastructure projects. Through her strategic leadership, Cindy is also able to effectively manage and direct the activities of a large community and stakeholder team while co-ordinating multiple tasks within a constantly changing environment. She has also been inspired to continue her studies in the area of neuroscience and behavioural change.