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Key to effective teams: Smarter communication rather than smarter people

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

What do the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, and the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, have in common? First, they are incredibly wealthy, successful and influential women within their respective fields. Second, they both rely on their teams to help perpetuate the success of their organizations and themselves. When their teams perform well, it shows up on the stock exchange and in their financial statements. Unfortunately, teams do not always function or perform to the best of the individual members' abilities and the scrutiny of the organization's performance falls to the leader. If you are a CEO, manager or supervisor, how do you ensure your teams perform successfully?

What attributes build an effective team?

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The single best predictor of job performance is intelligence. Based on this statement, if Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson were on a team, they would perform better than a group of average Joes, right? New research shows this is a faulty assumption. The best teams have a high level of collective intelligence that emerges through communication and social sensitivity, meaning that a group is more than the sum of its parts. It is not about adding up all of the IQs in the room, rather it is the interactions between team members that must be taken into account.

Communication

Often managers pair their best people together on projects but are repeatedly disappointed when the teams fail to meet expectations. Assembling your top performers together without addressing communication styles and preferences means you may as well admit defeat before the project begins. Want your teams to work effectively? Open the lines of communication.

Improving communication

So where do you begin to improve communication? Open communication is when employees trust one another to be honest when giving feedback, they can express ideas freely, and dissent is encouraged. Teams with high levels of trust can freely express themselves and are ultimately more effective. There are various strategies to ensure that your employees engage in open communication, the most important point to remember is that open communication starts at the top.

  • Incorporate open communication into your culture. If employees are exposed to open communication consistently and early on, utilizing it in a team setting will be much more natural.
  • Encourage open communication often. Ever had an idea you thought was brilliant, but others thought it was ridiculous? As a leader, it is your job to encourage creative thinking. Einstein once stated his next greatest idea, after the theory of relativity, was to add an egg while cooking soup so that he could have a soft-boiled egg and not have to wash two sets of dishes. Even incredibly intelligent people have some crazy ideas.
  • Reward open communication.

Social sensitivity

Revisiting our super star team of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Neil deGrasse Tyson, while full of intelligence, the team is missing a key component according to new research. That key is a woman. Recent reports show that Fortune 500 companies who have a higher proportion of female board directors have higher financial earnings. Similarly, teams with women tend to perform better than teams without. However, it is not as simple as women are better than men. It simply boils down to an attribute that some individuals have more or less of: social sensitivity.

Social sensitivity is the extent to which you empathize and accept (not necessarily agree with) another individual's viewpoint, at the same time understanding social norms. For example, when people laugh at a funeral, chances are their level of social sensitivity is low. It just so happens that women have mastered this attribute in comparison to most men, and therefore the attribute has been characterized as feminine. However, this does not mean that only women can display or master social sensitivity, men can as well. According to Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, exploring and developing social sensitivity in teams is as simple as "[creating] opportunities for team members to express their feelings and for others to respond to them."

Take responsibility for your teams

As a leader it is important to remember and recognize that not everyone likes to work in teams, and not every social scientist believes that teams are effective. J. Richard Hackman, a leading expert on teams, outlines mistakes managers typically make when creating and utilizing teams that ultimately leads to their demise.

  • Not every task needs a team.
  • Do not create a team and then proceed to manage the individuals in the team. You need to manage a team as a team.
  • Do not overstep boundaries that you, as a leader, have drawn. Allow freedom to evolve.
  • Do not make the team only rely on you. Let them know they can reach out to other people as well.
  • Do not forget to teach new skills as you go. Teams do not know everything, keep grooming individuals.

The best teams do not necessarily have the best performers. The best teams however, have good communication, are sensitive and open to other team members, and are managed well – which sometimes means leaving them alone.

Justin Weinhardt, PhD, (@OrgPsychologist) is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business (@haskayneschool). He is an expert in human resources and organizational psychology, and has a particular interest in understanding how motivation and decision-making change over time.

Sarah Kosowan, is a student leader at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business. She is also a victim of being on one too many dysfunctional teams.

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