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How to Build a Team and Promote Teamwork: 10 Essential Skills

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There is magic in a team.

The right teammates can exponentially grow the power of individual members — if the science of teams is leveraged correctly. And that’s what this post is all about!

Talent wins games but teamwork wins championships

Michael Jordan

Have you ever seen a well-oiled people machine going full throttle? Let me tell you, it’s a sight to be seen. A few weeks ago, I was training a sales team on nonverbal science at a cutting edge software company. These teammates knew the drill: they knew each other and they knew exactly how to play up their strengths and cover each other’s weaknesses. As they discussed pitching a big fish client, I listened in amazement as they strategized the details. It went something like this:

Team Leader: “Alright, guys, we are going to deploy our Warm-Lead Plan with Client X. Tracy, that means you take first approach. Sound good?”

Tracy: “Yeah, no problem. I’m going to need Richard to run the numbers before the first meeting so I can blow them out of the water right out of the gate.”

Richard: “That’s easy, but I think with this client they are going to want a glossy spread. If I get the numbers to Jim by next week you think we can put together a magazine type brochure to leave with them?”

Jim: “Oh yes, I think I can pull together a great leave behind. I think I should break it into 2 parts and then Team Leader can use Part II to follow up with them after meeting with Tracy.”

Team Leader: “Done. I’ll get it into my schedule to follow-up 3 days after Tracy gives me the lowdown from the intro meeting.”

I have trained and worked with hundreds of teams in action and found there are very specific habits of top performing teams. This is one of the reasons I chose Team Genius as one of our Science of People book club books. In this post, I want to explore the research done by Rich Karlgaard and Michael Malone for Team Genius and some of our own science behind effective teamwork.

The Science of High Performing Teams

How can you effectively manage, integrate and join a team? Check out the tips below on how high functioning teams operate:

Step #1: Self-Questions

Do you know your team? Are you up for the challenges of transforming your group into a high-performing machine? Karlgaard and Malone kick-off their discussion of teams with a set of 20 self-questions. These are questions you should start asking before making big changes. I whittled these down to 5 power questions that will set the groundwork for your success:

  • Are you in the right team in the right moment?
  • Can your team stay ahead of the changes in your industry?
  • Are your teams the right size for the job?
  • Do you have the right people in the right positions on your team?
  • Is your team prepared for a crisis, disruption or change in leadership?

Step #2: The Pleasure in Team

We like to think (especially in the US) that individual success is paramount. But in fact:

Humans are genetically wired for teams.

Team Genius

As humans we know that we need other people to forage enough food, help us build structures to live in and live beyond mere subsistence. Together we leverage many strengths.

Prosociality: Kaarlgard and Malone argue that humans are wired to cooperate. So much so that we feel rewarded in the brain every time we help someone else–this is why giving back to others, donating money and helping our community feels so good.

Some researchers have studied how we as humans share resources. They have found that no matter your gender, race or ethnicity, people typically choose to share between 40 and 50% of what they have–even when the recipient is anonymous and there is no penalty for hogging!

Working well with other good people makes us feel good.

Step #3: The Magic Number

What is the ideal number of people for a team? Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has studied groups throughout history–everything from ancient religious communities to African tribes and found that the same human group sizes appear over and over again. He calls these ‘clusters of intimacy’:

  • Clique: 5 members
  • Sympathy Group: 12 to 15 members
  • Bands: Up to 35 members
  • Dunbar’s Number*: 147.8 members

Dunbar found that if a group expands to over 150 members it will split apart. They found, for example, that the Yanomamo people split their tribes in two every time their groups approach 200 members–and they have been doing this for centuries.

Why is more than 150 too big? The brain cannot handle more than 150 connections at once. For every member of a group, the number of connections go up. A pair of people have one connection between them. A troika has 3 connections. A 4 member group has 6 connections. A 5 member group has 10 connections. The bigger the group, the more personalities, relationships and strengths to remember.

Step #4: Team Chemistry

Our Biology plays a big role in how we integrate with teams:

  • Oxytocin: Oxytocin is the hormone that helps us feel bonded to others. It is crucial for our empathy and social intelligence. Research has shown that oxytocin helps us identify facial gestures more quickly, it speeds up our processing of positive social information and enhances group trust. In other words, it is the chemical explanation behind team cohesion.
  • Mirror Neurons: Mirror neurons help us understand and filter what we see in the world. “Italian neuroscientists found them by accident while monitoring a particular cell in a monkey’s brain that fired only when the monkey raised its arm. One day a lab assistant lifted an ice cream cone to his own mouth and triggered a reaction in the monkey’s cell. It was the first evidence that the brain is peppered with neurons that mimic, or mirror, what another being does. This previously unknown class of brain cells operates as neural Wi-Fi, allowing us to navigate our social world. When we consciously or unconsciously detect someone else’s emotions through their actions, our mirror neurons reproduce those emotions. Collectively, these neurons create an instant sense of shared experience,” said Dr. Daniel Goleman.

Why is this important for us to know? Our biology is suited for us to have good team interactions. Don’t fight it, embrace it. Here’s how:

Step #5: It’s In the How

Dr. Daniel Goleman performed a study called Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership and found that how we communicate with our teammates is just as important as what we communicate. In a Harvard Business Review article, he explains it this way:

In a recent study, our colleague Marie Dasborough observed two groups: One received negative performance feedback accompanied by positive emotional signals—namely, nods and smiles; the other was given positive feedback that was delivered critically, with frowns and narrowed eyes. In subsequent interviews conducted to compare the emotional states of the two groups, the people who had received positive feedback accompanied by negative emotional signals reported feeling worse about their performance than did the participants who had received good-natured negative feedback. In effect, the delivery was more important than the message itself. And everybody knows that when people feel better, they perform better.

This is crucially important. The best teams don’t have to be problem free. Nor do team members have to shirk from challenges or honest feedback. Directness + Warmth is key. Goleman shares this example:

It certainly made a difference at one university-based hospital in Boston. Two doctors we’ll call Dr. Burke and Dr. Humboldt were in contention for the post of CEO of the corporation that ran this hospital and others. Both of them headed up departments, were superb physicians, and had published many widely cited research articles in prestigious medical journals. But the two had very different personalities. Burke was intense, task focused, and impersonal. He was a relentless perfectionist with a combative tone that kept his staff continually on edge. Humboldt was no less demanding, but he was very approachable, even playful, in relating to staff, colleagues, and patients. Observers noted that people smiled and teased one another—and even spoke their minds—more in Humboldt’s department than in Burke’s. Prized talent often ended up leaving Burke’s department; in contrast, outstanding folks gravitated to Humboldt’s warmer working climate. Recognizing Humboldt’s socially intelligent leadership style, the hospital corporation’s board picked him as the new CEO.

Bottom Line: Share laughs, show open body language, lean in and build nonverbal warmth as you verbally get to know each other.

Step #6: Prosocial Behaviors

I want to take the last point one step further. When I talk about nonverbal warmth, I am talking about that difficult to master, but amazingly powerful quality called rapport. Rapport is when team members who show genuine respect and likeness towards one another even during challenges. There are 3 different prosocial behaviors that elicit nonverbal warmth and happier teams:

  • Humor: The top rated leaders have been shown on average to elicit laughter from their subordinates at least twice as often as their less successful counterparts. Funny is worth the effort. My friend David Nihill is amazing at helping anyone become funnier.
  • Happiness: “When leaders display happiness, it improves their followers’ creative performance–and interestingly, when they’re sad, it enhances those same followers’ analytical performance. In other words, when the team members think the boss is happy, they feel liberated to try out new ideas; and when they think the boss is unhappy they hunker down into survival mode.” -Team Genius.
  • Cooperation: Kaarlgard and Malone also report that when team members witness cooperative behaviors they tend to feel a greater sense of morality–making them even more likely to cooperate. Plainly, small acts of cooperation encourage bigger ones.

Step #7: Extroverts vs. Introverts

I found one small point in the book highly interesting–how do you balance group over-contributors and group under-contributors? Here are some interesting facts and tips:

  • Fact: Teams tend to assign more weight to the contributions of their extroverted members–these teammates also contribute the most.
  • Tip: Researcher Bonner found that the only safe way to get more accurate contributions is to make data highly visible and share the accuracy of each member’s ideas.
  • Tip: If introverts feel uncomfortable sharing ideas, a formal mechanism for sharing needs to be put in place.

Special Note: Don’t think you’re an introvert or extrovert? Me neither! I am an ambivert, are you?

Step #8: Learn As We

Not only do teams outperform individuals, but also individuals tend to learn better if they are learning as part of a group. (Why Groups Perform Better Than Individuals). When you learn alone you don’t have people to brainstorm with or challenge your opinions. Team learning is an important benefit of team genius. Instead of having team members research and report back, try having teams learn as a group and teach each other small parts of a larger problem that has to be pieced together. This is a great team building exercise and can help reset verbal feedback and speaking patterns.

Warning: Avoid the echo chamber. ‘Learning’ is not voicing or repeating the same ideas. Learning is about challenging, questioning and probing ideas.

Step #9: Communication Patterns

I love the work by Alex Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, and he uses a ‘sociometer’ to track communication patterns between people. He found that there are patterns of communication between great teams. I summarized the major differences here for you:

  • High Frequency: The best teams typically exchange communications a dozen or so or times per working hour.
  • Talk Ratio:  The best teams have members that talk and listen in equal measure.
  • Outside Sources: Pentland found that the best teams tend to connect with multiple outside sources frequently when they feel their team is lacking in an area.

I was SHOCKED to see how often strong teams communicate and how they do so. Merely talking about ideal frequency of communication between team members can be extremely clarifying.

Step #10: Team Neurodynamics

Whether you are already on a team or are working on forming one you need to understand your team’s brain power. Kaarlgard and Malone give an in-depth discussion of how your team’s brain power works, but here are some of the most salient tips:

  • Metamemory: One interesting aspect of team knowledge was something that I had never considered–knowledge of our knowledge. Metamemory is when teammates have a common understanding of who knows what, which member has a particular skill set and what the team and each member doesn’t know. When you know what you know and what you don’t know you can assign tasks, solve problems, get help and brainstorm much faster.
  • Cognitive Diversity: One of the most provocative discussions in the book was about diversity. The authors argue that teams need skill diversity as much as they need racial, gender and economic diversity. They call these whole-brain teams. The question is: how diverse are your team’s skill levels? Do you have all of the brain power you need?

Team Take-Aways:

There are so many nuggets in here for teams and the best tips differ depending on your team’s size, goals and history. I have to say, I struggled with this article because some of the tips are best for team managers, while others are best for team players and others still are for people who want to create teams but haven’t yet. Hopefully this post has given you some insight to how powerfully teams can be leveraged. Here are some big ideas for you to consider:

  1. Establish norms of communication for your team–how, when and how often.
  2. Take stock of your cognitive talents and bring transparency to the data.
  3. Devise a process for learning together.

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