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The Science of Teams

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 4/11/2015 Vanessa Van Edwards

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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 No. 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 five 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 No. 2: The Pleasure in Team
We like to think (especially in the U.S.) 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 in the book 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 percent 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 No. 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, per Dunbar. For every member of a group, the number of connections go up. A pair of people have one connection between them. A troika has three connections. A four-member group has six connections. A five-member group has 10 connections. The bigger the group, the more personalities, relationships and strengths to remember.
Step No. 4: Team Chemistry
Our Biology plays a big role in how we integrate with teams:
  • Oxytocin: According to Team Genius, Oxytocin is the hormone that helps us feel bonded to others. It is crucial for our empathy and social intelligence. Research in the book shows 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, according to Team Genius. "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.
Step No. 5: Prosocial Behaviors
Rapport is when team members who show genuine respect and likeness towards one another even during challenges, according to the book. Team Genius says are three 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.
Team Take-Aways:
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.
Want a Science of People trainer to help at your next offsite or retreat? Learn more here.

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