In today’s environment, the team holds the key to business success. So, what differentiates the best? That’s what we asked. Here’s what we found.
We discovered that top performing teams invest time formulating agreements about how they will work together to accelerate their performance as a team. We’ve labeled these agreements, Emotionally Intelligent Team Norms. We’ve clustered them into three categories:
1 – How Members Treat One Another. We as human beings have specific emotional needs that emerge whenever we enter a social system such as a team. For example, we each have an emotional need to belong; to feel cared about; to feel that our ideas and contributions are valued, and that the other members care about us.
These needs are predictable triggers of emotion. When they are satisfied, we relax and focus on the task. When these needs are not satisfied, we become anxious. We disengage. We become selfish and hoard important information. We tend not to listen as well. Our relationships with others become dysfunctional.
Much dysfunctional behavior on teams is the result of unfulfilled emotional and social needs that harken back to our membership and survival in a tribe. In fact, evolution has favored people who can think about emotions, feel emotions and use that information for the benefit of the tribe, or in today’s world, for the benefit of the team.
We found that one way that top teams help members become more attuned to each others emotional and social needs was to invest time – during team launches, or at the beginning of meetings, or at off-sites – in activities that encourages members to get to know one another.
We expected to find that friendly team-member relationships would increase team success. In fact, we found that team success was strongly correlated with team-members’ willingness to understand one other’s attitudes, views, cultural differences, interests, strengths, weaknesses, and, interestingly, their hot buttons.
Members of high-performing teams consistently and frequently told us that they knew each other quite well – well enough to understand each other’s idiosyncrasies and work styles. They used these individual insights to facilitate their work together. For example, one member discussed knowing, what I can and can not say and how close I need to get, and how far away I need to stay from specific team members, to improve discussions and team processes. Another told us in detail that a “hot headed” team member was allowed to cool off, and how a “pessimist” was allowed to talk about the sky falling in. Another team member discussed how she consistently tried to understand personality and cultural differences. She kept this in mind when trying to understand a teammate’s perspective.
In contrast, members of average-performing teams spoke significantly less often about understanding or trying to get to know others. One said that members were just too spread out; yet several of the high-performing teams were equally dispersed. Members of average-performing teams more often viewed getting-to-know-you activities as a waste of time. They didn’t seem to recognize the link between familiarity, appreciating a teammate’s point of view, and how that facilitates the team’s work, and satisfies underlying emotional and social needs.
We also learned that top teams developed norms that specified how they should address unacceptable team member behavior when it pops up. This included how they should confront members who do not follow through, or complete tasks on time; how they should talk about members who display negative body language; how they should give feedback to those who multi-task during meetings; and, how they should address members who dominate conversations or repeatedly interrupt others.
Some even went a step further and discussed the pros and cons of how members should share this feedback – in-the-moment, at the end of a meeting, or in a one-on-one meeting later. Others provided specific techniques, tools and skills training on topics such as giving and receiving feedback, conducting difficult conversations, impact and influencing and negotiating win-win agreements.
2 – How Members Learn and Operate as a Team. This second category of emotionally intelligent norms focuses on how the team can leverage the full potential and brainpower of members. The best teams do not want to hear from one or two people. They want to hear from everyone and they want members to think and work collaboratively.
Leaders on the top teams we interviewed invested time and resources when necessary to engage members in discussions designed to fine tune how they were operating. They recognized that learning and reflective discussions were necessary to find ways to do things better, faster, and more collaboratively.
We found, for example, that top teams would routinely conduct lessons- learned discussions, particularly after reaching milestones. Members, for example, spoke about meaningful debrief sessions after a governing body meeting. They focused on what worked, what didn’t work, and what they should do better next time.
Some also told us they would sometimes deploy a team survey. They explained that the advantage of a survey was the anonymity factor. Members are often more open and self-disclosing when completing a survey. Plus, these surveys often enable teams to compare themselves to other teams, and compare their progress as a team from time 1 to time 2.
We also found that the best teams created norms that supported openness and honesty during team meetings. Some even used props such as a picture of an elephant or a red flag. Whenever someone on the team wanted to speak up and speak out about a topic, or just felt uncomfortable about the flow of a discussion, all she had to do was raise the elephant or the red flag. That would send a signal for the team to pause, take a time out and address her issue or concern.
We also found that high-performing teams created norms that helped them remain optimistic and decisive during challenging times. Optimism has clear advantages in a team. Neuroscientists have found that stress reduces the brain’ ability to process information and make effective decisions. In contrast, positive emotions such as optimism increase a team’s ability to be expansive, creative, and to take in and process new ideas.
When challenges were presented, the high performing teams refused to get caught up in fear or negativity. They maintained an emotionally intelligent norm of optimism. They did not achieve this by stifling negative emotions, but by “quickly moving past non-productive discussions” to discussions focused on ways to overcome challenges.
One team with whom we worked appointed one rather negative and pessimistic member as the ambassador of optimism. It became his job to pull the team back whenever they were spiraling downwards.
Average-performing teams reported that they were significantly less optimistic when facing challenges. They were significantly less able to move past non-productive discussions during difficult times, and significantly less able to act decisively when facing problems.
We also found that top teams developed norms that enabled them to address issues and conflicts in a proactive and decisive manner. High-performing teams work hard to anticipate where problems might occur. The leaders of these teams, in particular, frequently challenged their members to think ahead about what problems and questions might arise in the future. They would often ask to hear any and all anticipated criticisms.
The high-performing team leaders were also tenacious in their preparation for stage-gate or functional reviews. They made sure the team gathered potential questions, criticisms, and “deal-breakers” in advance, and proactively thought through the best responses to those issues before the meeting. As a result, members of top teams felt a sense of efficacy – that they could overcome any problem or obstacle, that they could solve problems proactively and not wait until there was a crisis brewing.
3 – How Members Engage Stakeholders. This third category of emotionally intelligent norms reflects the fact that no team is an island. Teams have senior leaders and functional leaders to whom they report. They have customers, suppliers and other teams with whom they work. These stakeholders too have emotional needs and interests that need to be addressed and satisfied. So, the best teams pay careful attention to their key stakeholders.
Members from both the high-performing and the average-performing teams we interviewed discussed the difficulty of getting work done in a constantly changing environment. For example, they shared the frustration they often felt when their sponsor changed directives in mid-stream. They described themselves as, living in a cloud of uncertainty not knowing if and when changes would be handed down from above.
Management’s action or inaction can profoundly influence both average and high- performing teams. When senior leaders leave teams in the dark, they set the stage for teams to struggle and lose focus. However, the high-performing teams in our research rated themselves as interacting more frequently with governing bodies. As a result, they were able to get the information, direction or decisions they needed in a timely manner.
Top teams not only work hard to build these critical emotionally intelligent norms, they also work diligently to enforce them. For example, one team leader with whom we spoke talked about his rule of no multi-tasking during his conference calls. When we interviewed the members, they confirmed that when they attended his meetings there was no multi-tasking. When we asked him what he or other members did when a member was seen multi-tasking, looking at their phone or texting, he stated that this simply did not occur. His team members concurred. This was normal behavior, and they didn’t deviate from this agreed upon team norm.
We also found that average teams did not invest much if any time intentionally building or enforcing team norms. As a result, members often held back information, disengaged and avoided difficult and constructive conversations. They did not demonstrate enough of the pro-social actions and team behaviors that were necessary prerequisites for innovation and high team performance.
The model below illustrates how these norms impact a team’s climate and its performance.
Our research, as well as the research of our colleagues, has found that these basic tenets are the foundation for building a true high performing team. Perhaps, it’s time to tune up your teams and empower them with emotionally intelligent team norms.