No matter what industry you are in or what job you do, you probably have experienced the frustration of working within a dysfunctional team — one marked by drawn-out discussions that led nowhere or heated conflicts that made communication difficult. To function properly, teams need to communicate effectively. How can you improve the odds of that happening?
Consider that when joining a team, people have a strong desire to feel accepted by the other members. This desire can lead individual members to prioritize “fitting in” over contributing unique information and adding maximum value to the team. For example, research has shown that teams are biased toward repeating information rather than adding new information to the discussion. Why? Because repetition helps members appear competent in the eyes of others.
In addition, members are more likely to talk about information that they share with other team members than information that only they have. Thus, individual team members’ need for social acceptance may hinder the team’s ability to share and integrate information they need to accomplish their tasks.
One remedy is for team members to devote some time to highlighting their different ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives. Robin Ely of Harvard Business School and David Thomas, the current dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, found in a qualitative study of diverse teams that openly discussing the unique qualities of different team members and integrating diverse perspectives allowed individuals to feel valued and respected. The team members were able to apply their unique knowledge, perspectives, and identities to the task at hand, which enhanced their cross-cultural learning and performance.
One psychological process that can heighten individual team members’ contributions and the team’s outcomes is relational self-affirmation, I recently found in my research with Julia Lee of the University of Michigan, Dan Cable of the London Business School, and Brad Staats of the University of Carolina in Chapel Hill. Relational self-affirmation involves asking individuals from a team member’s preexisting personal network (friends, family, and coworkers) to write narratives about times the individual made a distinct contribution.
In our studies, we asked participants to provide a list of names of people in their professional and personal network. We then reached out to these people to ask them to share a story of an experience when they had seen the participant at his or her best. Here are two such narratives about participants in our research (their names have been changed to protect their privacy):
Laura has good forethought for business and does anything and everything she can to help keep us employed. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, here in Florida we did not really think much of it. But Laura was obviously worried that it would impact her business, because a lot of our accounts receivables are in the NYC/New Jersey areas. She ended up borrowing from her retirement savings to keep the business going. I even suggested that maybe she could let the couple of part-timers go, but she responded that the people there always gave their best, so she wouldn’t want to do anything less for them. It took about six months to get things back on track, but we all managed to keep our jobs thanks to Laura.
I first met Mike in the early ’80s. He was in a wheelchair and smiling, I remember. When he could come to school, he was in pain but was full of grit. As teenagers, we did not see Mike as special [i.e., different]; he wanted to be one of our classmates, and he was the one with a smile that could light up the room. Today, I realize just how much determination was transmitted in his smile.
We gave each narrative to the person discussed in it and asked them to identify the strengths highlighted in the stories about themselves. By making individuals more self-aware of their unique strengths, this exercise made it more likely that they would contribute their unique information and qualities to the team, we found. In fact, this approach reduced individuals’ concerns about social acceptance, resulting in better information exchange within the team.
Thanks to the various strengths they bring to the table, teams have the potential to outperform individuals yet often fail to capitalize on this potential. Finding ways to let team members know about how their behavior positively affected others in the past can offset concerns about social acceptance that come with exposing one’s unique perspectives and identity to others. Making people aware of their own strengths results in better communication among team members and thus higher levels of performance.
About the Author
Francesca Gino is a professor at Harvard Business School, a faculty affiliate of the Behavioral Insights Group at Harvard Kennedy School, and the author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She cochairs an HBS executive education program on applying behavioral economics to organizational problems. Twitter: @francescagino.