In the previous posts, I shared that building a one-team environment requires leaders to communicate a clear and compelling purpose, cultivate trusting relationships, and build supportive mechanisms. These efforts stand a greater chance of succeeding in an environment where honest and open conversations thrive. In this blog, I’ll explore how leaders and team members can advance the conversations which build high-performing teams. If eyes are the windows to the soul, then the words and phrases we use are the windows to our beliefs and thoughts. It’s true for people and for organizations. An organization’s conversations offer insight into its culture, its values, and its potential to realize the benefits of working together as a high-performing team. Teaming behaviors and conversations are by their nature interactive. They occur as needed interchanges to establish trusted connections between people. Team members share information, apply critical thinking, and value constructive debate to make sound decisions. They personally and collectively expend energy on the tasks required to move the team toward its goals.

Leaders Establish Operating Guidelines and Set the Tone

It is the leader’s responsibility to establish the operating guidelines for effective teaming interactions. How are teams organized? How do team members discuss and then commit to team decisions? How do team members talk to and listen to each other? How do they ensure all ideas are heard? A leader instills key phrases which verbalize the teaming culture an organization wants to develop and sustain.

A leader instills key phrases which verbalize the teaming culture an organization wants to develop and sustain.

Jeff Bezos famously did this by making “disagree and commit” an operating principle of Amazon.  A company I once worked with expressed a similar belief, “It’s OK to disagree, but ultimately we must all commit to the decision.” To spotlight this, I was part of a team practice where, when the final decision was on the table, team members would stand up to show their commitment to the decision. Regardless of prior discussions, each team member was forced to move from casually voicing or nodding agreement to physically demonstrating commitment to the decision by getting out of a chair and standing. This created a snapshot view of personal accountability and obligation among all the team members. It also eliminated the unsound practice of assuming silence means commitment and made it difficult for members to renege or disavow their commitment. The words and phrases we establish as habits within our organizations can impact team productivity and decision making, both positively and negatively. I’ve witnessed the consistent use of one-team collaborative language practices in high-performing organizations. Here are a few examples of these high-impact statements: “I’d like to make my thinking visible. Please tell me your thoughts behind that idea. Let me test my understanding. Let’s poll the team to see where we stand.”  The pervasive use of such language signals the organization has purposefully adopted teamwork messages and collaborative language.

What We Say and How We Say It Matters

How team members communicate with each other is vital to the success of the team. MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory studied the impact of communication patterns on team performance1. In their study, team members were equipped with electronic badges that collected data on their communication behaviors. The sensor data enabled them to analyze body language, tone of voice, who each team member talked to and how frequently. They also tracked such attributes as how much each person talked, gestured, listened and interrupted. The study not only confirmed that communication is critical for successful teams, it also found that communication patterns were an important predictor of a team’s success.

Communication patterns were an important predictor of a team’s success.

The study revealed that in successful teams everyone talks and listens to each other in roughly equal amounts; with roughly the same frequency and energy. No team members are isolated or minimized. This suggests building a great team is not just putting smart and talented people together in a group to accomplish something. To develop successful teams, we should also observe how team members interact and coach the team so their patterns of interaction stimulate and enhance the team’s energy and commitment. This means the leader and the team members must understand and adapt to individual communication needs. For example, how might an introvert and an extrovert communicate in a meeting? What needs to be done to make sure the introvert has an opportunity to speak? Or how might someone who is comfortable “thinking out loud” communicate differently from someone who prefers to digest and ponder before speaking?

A Story About Trust and Enriching Team Conversations

I was once on a team where one of the members was a creative and confident person. She had lots of ideas and could also talk very fast – especially when her ideas were flowing. I like to listen, take in the ideas that are offered, and then comment. In this case, her ideas were coming so fast, I couldn’t think, much less speak. The eyes of the other team members told me they were feeling the same. I put my hand on her arm and gently interrupted, “Ronda, your ideas are really great, but I am having a hard time processing all the things you are saying. Please continue thinking, but could we pause a minute to let us catch up with your thoughts?”Ronda stopped and agreed. The other team members and I captured the ideas she had suggested, and we began a more tempered discussion. Ronda added more ideas, but this time at a pace that was workable for everyone. This intervention was possible because as team members we understood each other’s communication styles and could recognize when they were conflicting. Because we trusted each other, the interruption was not taken as a personal affront, but as a desire to openly discuss and consider the valuable ideas Ronda was contributing.

Leaders Must Align Their Actions to Their Words

As we discussed in the second blog, a teamwork environment can only become real when it rings true—when leaders’ actions and words align. Consider how one-team messaging could be stifled by unintentional actions. Do leaders dominate meeting discussions? Do leaders dismiss or denigrate team members who openly share their concerns during decision making? Are favored individuals recognized over team results and contributions? Leaders’ actions are the key and their actions always speak louder than their words.

 I recall a colleague once saying, “It’s difficult to talk your way out of something you acted your way into.”In the next post, we’ll share some tips for transforming groups of people into effective work teams. Creating and sustaining a one-team environment is complicated whether or not you have the word “leader” in your title. We help companies create environments for great teamwork.

Get in touch to see how we can help.

This blog post is the third installment in a series about creating a One-Team organization. 

  1. “One Team” Lays the Foundation for All Teams 
  2. “One Team” Starts with Leadership and Thrives on Trust 
  3. One-Team Conversation Connect People
  4. The Four Fundamentals of Successful Teams

[1]The New Science of Building Great Teams, Harvard Business Review, April 2012.