The Missing Half of Team Performance: The Social Skills Behind High-Performance Teaming™

The overwhelming majority of businesses and organizations today are incredibly focused on adopting processes, tools, and frameworks to supercharge their teams’ productivity and quality, but in doing so they are solving for only half of the problem.

Whereas the team approach is often seen as a solution to cognitively complex tasks, it also introduces an additional layer of cognitive requirements that are associated with the demands of working together effectively with others. [1]

We are incontrovertibly human. When working in teams, we are humans working with other humans. Unlike a software program, the daily inputs and outputs of our lives are far too complex and changing to conceivably map and understand in a finite way; the potential derivations of our interpretations and reactions throughout the course of simply living our lives is, literally, infinite and unknowable.

Yet in virtually every business, organization, and team across America, we are focusing our efforts on establishing and implementing process, creating standardized operating procedures, rules, guidelines, policies, and training programs to build great (productive) teams. In doing so, we are ignoring the very thing which actually creates a high-performing team: us.

It actually isn’t rocket science: the interactions of the team members, not their individual intelligence, experience, education, or technical skill, is what determines how effective and how high-performance the team will be.

[T]he number one factor in making a group effective is skill at deep human interaction. That’s a remarkable finding in itself when we consider that groups are hardly ever evaluated on that basis. Everyone seems to think that other factors— leadership, mix of technical skills, vision, motivation— are more important. They matter, but not nearly as much as social skills… Social skills were the most important factor in group effectiveness because they encourage those patterns of “idea flow,” to use [Dr. Alex] Pentland’s term. Slicing the data in another way, those three elements of interaction [short & rapid idea generation, “dense interacting,” and turn-taking on idea-sharing and feedback] were more important than any other factor in explaining the excellent performance of the best groups; in fact, they were about as important as all the other factors— individual intelligence, technical skills, members’ personalities, and anything else you could think of— put together. [2]

To put the above a bit more succinctly, the best teams are not characterized by having the most intelligent, most skilled individuals; they are characterized by the quality and quantity of the team members’ social interactions.

There is an incredibly valuable point in this: the traditional focus on an individual’s knowledge, experience, and skills in a technical or process domain is only half of the story in building high-performing teams. The other half of the story is understanding how they perform in team environments and how well they contribute to a team’s overall performance and effectiveness.

Teaming Metaphors

A useful metaphor for the technical versus non-technical and social skills is live theater. Think of technical skills, scholastic education, and work experience as simply foundational elements of your business’ or organization’s ability to perform.

They are the stage, the lighting, the seating, the curtain, the orchestra’s space. Those elements are the theater.

However, the actors’ and actresses’ abilities to perform on that stage, to create something memorable and incredible – those are the social skills, the non-technical “secret sauce” of how the team actually performs together. For that great performance to occur, you need more than just the stage and the lighting – you need the performers and the magic that happens when a great team produces what a great team can.

Or consider the difference between watching a great football player play, and a great football team play. (This applies to both types of football.) A team of individuals with a star or two will never come close to achieving what an amazing team can achieve, regardless of their star power.

As I reported in my Harvard Business Review article “The New Science of Building Great Teams,” my research group and I have collected hundreds of gigabytes of data from dozens of workplaces. What we found was that the patterns of face-to-face engagement and exploration within corporations were often the largest factors in both productivity and creative output. [3]

Learning Social Skills

So what happens when you’ve hired the most technically skilled, scholastically educated people, and their social and teaming skills are virtually non-existent? Fear not – there is great news

Growing numbers of companies have discovered what the military learned long ago, that the supposedly ineffable, intractable, untrainable skills of deep human interaction are in fact trainable… Businesses can’t even begin to get better until leaders acknowledge that these skills are the key to competitive advantage, that methods of developing them may be unfamiliar, and that measuring the results will never be as easy as gauging operating efficiencies. If companies can get past those obstacles, which in most organizations are more than enough to stop managerial innovations dead in their tracks, then they have a chance. [4]

Yes – trainable.

Although it should come as no surprise, due to the fact that we all share the common trait of being – well, human – it is good to know that we can actually focus on and learn those critical skills which enable us to team effectively with other humans.

The military and commercial aviation have been doing this for decades already.

Yes – decades.

The fact that the social and non-technical skills teams need to reach high-performance are trainable and able to be improved upon over time, just as one would improve their knowledge of emerging coding practices or new technologies, is not conjecture or hypothetical experimentation. In fact, it has been operationalized and regularly improved for years.

High-Performance Teaming™

Founded in Crew-Resource Management (CRM) fundamentals, High-Performance Teaming™ provides teams at every and any level with the social, non-technical skills they need to perform at the highest levels. It targets exactly what makes effective teams – the ability for team members to engage in regular, high-quality interactions and input-feedback cycles to build the Shared Mental Models (SMMs) and communication loops which drive team performance and output.

Specifically, High-Performance Teaming™ builds the critical social skills teams need in:

  • Communication – the mechanics behind speaking and listening, non-verbal signals and cues, the human factors (culture, language, personality) which influence our communication patterns, and how to affect them through awareness.
  • Assertiveness – the behaviors behind respectfully asserting knowledge and opinion, and how to handle those assertions in a team.
  • Situation Awareness (SA) – the team’s ability to build a shared conception of their environment, and the degree to which it matches reality; requires Shared Mental Models, operational analysis, spatial awareness, etc.
  • Goal / Mission Analysis – the ways in which the team plans, executes, and learns based on their shared model of tactical to strategic goals; driven by alignment, communication, SA, and powers Decision-Making.
  • Decision-Making – utilizing collective intelligence of the team and leveraging the team’s SA combined with Goal / Mission Analysis to build consensus on solutions to complex problems, which in turn will drive execution and directly impact performance.
  • Agility – the ability to remain flexible and adapt to change; resilience in the face of a changing environment and rapidly evolving problem-set.
  • Leadership – one of the critical enablers to team effectiveness in non-flat environments, effective leadership is vital to creating Assertiveness, leveraging team collective intelligence in building SA and Goal / Mission Analysis, and getting to the correct decisions which enable organizational execution in a time-critical manner.
  • Culture – another enabler of team cohesiveness and resiliency; purposefully constructed and monitored through Shared Mental Models, Culture is a powerful contributor to Alignment, which is critical to reducing waste/churn and helping teams remain resilient and goal-oriented.
  • Empathy – the foundational element in every social skill; the ability to recognize and respond appropriately to the thoughts and feelings of others.

If you’ve gone through multiple team processes (traditional project management, Scrum, XP, SAFe, etc.), and you’re still wondering why your teams are not producing and improving, ask yourself if you’ve been solely concentrating on the Technical Skill & Process side of the equation – the side which only effects what processes teams are using to organize and conduct their work.

If you have, perhaps it is time to start giving your teams the social and non-technical skills they need to actually improve how they work together. Scrum (for example) is a great process which sets the stage for the performance, but High-Performance Teaming™, grounded in the science behind Crew Resource Management and team effectiveness, is the tool set your teams need to actually perform.

Contact AGLX Consulting today to bring those social skills to your teams!

 

Chris Alexander is a former U.S. Naval Officer who flew the F-14 Tomcat, and is Co-Founder and Executive Team Member of AGLX Consulting, creators of the High-Performance Teaming model.

  1. Cooke, N. J., Salas, E., Cannon-Bowers, J. A., & Stout, R. (2000). “Measuring team knowledge.” Human Factors, 42, 151-173.
  2. Colvin, Geoff (2015-08-04). Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will (pp. 126-7). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  3. Pentland, Alex (2014-01-30). Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science (p. 93). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  4. Colvin, 2015 (p. 204).

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