The Hidden Face of Top Performing Teams: What MIT Studies Reveal.

MIT researcher Alex “Sandy” Pentland devoted the past few years to researching the communication habits of over 2500 members of various teams within 21 different organizations (See Harvard Business Review, April 2012).


Using electronic sensors, she began by recording, measuring and analyzing different aspects of team communications including: who was speaking and to whom, the length of discussions, non-verbal behaviors such as postures, facial expressions, tones of voice and arm and hand gestures. These results were then compared to each team’s performance.


At first glance, some results were relatively obvious, including the one which states that communication plays an important part in a team’s performance.


What was particularly revealing however, was that a group’s communication style has a greater impact on performance than all other factors combined together such as: individual talents, personalities, combined abilities and even the content being discussed!


Travail ensembleIn other words, the effectiveness of team communication has a greater impact on performance than all other factors put together. Instead of measuring the personalities of each member by using different psychometric tools, a more efficient way of improving performance would be to understand and act on the types of communication that prevail within the team.


Another interesting point is the researcher’s description of the three dimensions at work within any team and their impact on performance. These are:

  • the team’s energy level, which can be measured by the amount and type of exchanges;
  • the level of engagement, defined by the energy distribution amongst members;
  • the willingness to explore new possibilities, solutions and ideas. This is measured by the communications and connections established between members and with other individuals, within and outside the organization.


High-performing teams have a high energy level where all members equally partake and in discussions; communications are brief and energetic; members interact and collaborate, not only with the team leader, but with one another; and communications are mainly face-to-face. The most high performing teams are also constantly looking to establish connections outside of their group.


Another important point is the way a team is structured. An example of a low energy team is when the power and influence come only from the formal leader. In such cases, the team’s energy depends on the formal leader and one or two other individuals associated to him/her.


Informative meetings and briefings may be efficient, however members of hierarchical teams are much less efficient when it comes to discussing challenges, innovating, solving problems or making decisions. Hierarchical teams are also less engaged and mobilized because the knowledge, expertise and ideas of many of its members are not included in the decisions made.


Mission commune


In my opinion, these results are supportive of the shared leadership model, defined as a dynamic and reciprocal influence between individuals mobilized by a common goal. At the heart of this model, the goal, not the formal leader, motivates and engages members of the group.


Do you agree? Is there another, or many other factors that have a greater impact on a team’s performance?


Edith Luc, Ph.D,


©2012, Edith Luc. All Rights Reserved.

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