Posted: 20 Apr. 2016 05 min. read

Could the art of conversation drive high performance and redefine leadership?

What defines high performing teams?

What defines high performing teams?  It’s a given that teams must execute the tasks they have been assigned both efficiently and ably – but really that’s just performance. 

Following this logic, high performance could be defined as extreme levels of efficiency and faultless execution. But could high performance refer to something qualitatively different?

A precise definition is elusive – but there’s something in the mix of a team’s commitment, energy and output that makes high performance different.  I call this “focussed buzz that delivers extra” – and it is particularly potent when the team comprises people who think differently to each other.

If you have ever worked in a high performing team, you’ll know what I mean. Not only are these teams more creative and able to solve the complex problems that elude others, but they are also fun.  We all want to work in these teams because they bring out the best in us as individuals. And that effect is measurable – in fact, one of the questions we use at Deloitte to assess people’s experience of working in a high performing team is the degree to which a person agrees: “I am inspired to do my best work”.

And of course if everyone, or even most, of the team agree that they are inspired to do their best work – you can be sure that in these teams there is buzz, focus, delivery and ‘extra’.  I’m interested in what creates these effects.  I have been intrigued by our research that shows how inspiration and speaking up – especially in a diverse thinking team – play an important role.  In particular, when people strongly agree that they are inspired to do their best work, they also are likely to agree: “I feel confident to speak up, even if I have a view that differs from the majority”.

There’s something going on in these high performing teams in which people perform at their individual and collective best.  Along with many others, we’ve been researching three potential drivers:

  1. People: The composition of the team
  2. Conversation: The dynamics and content of the team’s conversation
  3. Leadership: The way the team is led
    We also looked at a fourth:
  4. Biases: Whether social and information biases (that keep people and conversations anchored to the status quo) are actively mitigated.

There’s a lot in each of these four drivers, so let’s just focus on one: the dynamics of the team’s conversation. The fundamental question is whether the conversation is collaborative – that is, are the team members exploring issues and elaborating on each other’s points of view, or is the conversational flow lopsided, truncated or perhaps almost non-existent?

Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland and his team from MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory have taken an innovative approach to measuring conversational flow.  As a result they have helped to identify the hallmark behaviours of a highly collaborative team – and to quantify the impact on high performance.  Indeed, so confident are they with their measures, they can now “foretell which teams will win a business plan contest” just by looking at conversational flow data.

The innovative measurement tool?  Sociometric badges which not only capture who is talking and for how long, but also their physical movements. It turns out that people in a high performing team make 5 signature moves when talking to others:

  • They share talk time: there is a lot more turn taking and a lot less speech giving.
  • They actively talk and actively listen: when someone is talking they are animated and use hand gestures – so people know that they are fully engaged in sharing. When someone is listening they face the person directly, watch the person’s face and visibly respond.
  • They speak to each other directly: team members talk to each other across the circle, and not just to the leader.
  • They speak to each other in side conversations: not all of the talking is done in group meetings, and sidebar conversations promote and deepen connections.
  • They talk to others outside the team: exploring information and ideas with people outside the team helps test thinking and introduce new ideas.

These moves suggest a very different model of leadership than one based on hierarchy or command and control. A more modern model is to think of a leader as an architect – designing the team environment, creating scaffolding, building bridges, and integrating diverse voices.  We call this inclusive leadership – and it also has signature traits (commitment, courage, cognisance of bias, curiosity, cultural intelligence and collaboration) – each of which are very measurable.

This is an exciting time to be (re)thinking about what defines high performing teams. We intuitively recognise the buzz created by being part of such a group. And now that we can measure performance outcomes we know that optimal performance is more a matter of science than luck.

Juliet Bourke is the author of Which two heads are better than one? How diverse teams create breakthrough ideas and make smarter decisions (AICD, 2016).

Meet our author