Building productive communication patterns is not (only) about fixing meetings

3 minutes read

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I recently spoke with an executive leading a team of around twelve highly capable engineers and designers working on a variety of projects of different scope, complexity, and intensity. He was lamenting the communication in his team – specifically, that people would not bring issues, questions and information to the once-a-week formal team meeting but that so much was discussed informally between team members. In his eyes that led to duplication and made “his” meeting inefficient.

I argued that he was right, his meetings are inefficient, but that this was rather a good thing. People obviously find the information they need to do their work in a self-organized way. Preventing them from doing so, you would have to proverbially lock people up in between meetings (admittedly a bizarre thought – but maybe helpful to make the point). I suggested to the manager that he should reconsider the purpose of the weekly meeting and use it in a way that is difficult to bring about by self-organized interaction (e.g. by using it for a dedicated learning intervention or for joint problem solving instead of redundant information sharing or round-the-table status updates).

Communication patterns are among the most significant drivers of team success

Empirical research by MIT’s Alex Pentland has shown that communication patterns are one of the most significant predictors of team success – more so, for example, than team members’ intelligence, motivation, or functional skills. How you communicate and collaborate in your team can make or break its success. Leaders must enable and role model productive communication including equal engagement across the team, lots of energetic face-to-face interaction, and regular exploration of new ideas outside the team. One precondition for such healthy patterns to emerge is that leaders make it safe to fully engage. Teams must grow the social fabric that allows members to pitch into the team’s buzz. What does not help but rather inhibits such behavior are strict and hierarchy-bound interaction rules such as the boss-led meeting (which apparently, and productively, was constantly bypassed in the above example). No energetic debate and no agile problem solving and decision making will arise in such settings. At best it is boring, at worst it is an engagement killer as people learn that it is the most rational and self-protective tactic to just shut up. As a result, misguided leadership approaches in conjunction with the institutional logic of hierarchically structured organizations inhibit the very behaviors that we know drives high team performance.

Learn more about the basics of productive communication patterns and how to support them in the teams you are member of or which you support with our Team Kit.