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The changing habits of our teammates and ourselves

Why do conscientious employees sometimes act noncommittal, sullen, or controlling on teams? Why do we share the last shrimp cocktail with our colleagues, but guard our thoughts from them? Why is cooperation among professional teammates so unwieldy?

One unusual, simple answer may be: habits, influenced by our past and present experiences. They’re born out of disappointments, disagreements that went unresolved, or personal insecurities.

Instead of habit, some people might attribute negative team behaviors to a bad attitude, implying an immutable nature. I disagree. By seeing their behaviors as learned habits, we can judge our teammates as the competent coworkers they are; they merely need to change a few actions.

And, important for self-awareness, we can tolerate seeing ourselves in these actions. After all, as flawed humans, we all span the spectrum as teammates. Do you believe no one ever silently criticizes your meeting behaviors?

(Of course, over the years we’ve collected helpful team habits, too, like bringing daylight to dim meetings, doing our share of the work, or digging for treasures during brainstorming.)

Before we can replace the unhelpful team-related habits we’ve picked up during the expedition we call a career, we must become aware of them. Do you preach more than listen or roll your eyes at a suggestion? Do you ever ignore the expressions on your teammates’ faces because you don’t like what they may mean? Could you be physically closing off your body in attempt to reveal nothing? (In fact, you’re revealing a lot.)

Here’s where it pays to seek professional assistance. An objective outsider, such as a business mentor or a speech coach like me, will help you identify your habits on teams.

The next step is identifying which habits interfere with success. Which of your actions negatively influence your team’s productivity and ability to complete projects? When do you resort to these habits?

Finally, we reduce the frequency of these habits by replacing them with new ones. We learn to be the teammate our colleagues look forward to collaborating with.

iSpeak Clearly guides you through foundational skills in volume of voice, body language, and tone, and how they impact communication on teams. Building awareness of these components in yourself and others is necessary for changing team outcomes.

* * *

Unhelpful team-related habits (like interrupting, giving in to frustration, or dominating the conversation) block a group’s capacity to tackle projects well, a characteristic of teams known as collective intelligence.

Teams that demonstrate high collective intelligence become more than the sum of their parts. By functioning as a collective unit (in essence, multiple people operating as a single brain) they do more than they can as individuals working in tandem.*

But teams aren’t guaranteed high collective intelligence, and surprisingly, collective intelligence is not built on the characteristics we might guess: group members’ individual intelligence, the quality of the leader, or how much teammates like each other. Collective intelligence is related to our social skills, the consistency and longevity of members on a team, and gender.*

Social skills are one of iSpeak Clearly’s cornerstone themes, so we’ll focus there.

One of the driving forces for collective intelligence is social perception. It’s our ability to read how our actions affect others. A high level of social perception means we can, for example, read the nuances of our colleagues’ faces and body language, seeing passing frustration, pride, anger, or excitement. Then we can adjust our actions in response.* When we exhibit high social perception, we tend to show our teammates respect, we consider wide-ranging ideas, and we identify with those who are different from us.

The more members of a team who exhibit high social perception, the greater the chance for high collective intelligence. For example, women typically score higher than men on tests of social perception, and teams comprised of a female majority score highest for collective intelligence.* (That’s how gender comes into play in collective intelligence.)

Woman or man, all of us can improve our social perception abilities. Virtually any person can learn and practice, for example, to influence listeners with his spirit by inflecting his voice upward; virtually any person can practice taking genuine interest in her colleagues; and virtually any person can practice sharing the mic—that is, giving everyone an equal chance to speak and contribute.

Consider reaching out to me or another qualified speech coach to learn and practice your social perception skills and increase your teams’ capacity for collective intelligence.

* Source: Hidden Brain podcast: The Secret to Great Teams.

5 helpful habits for teams to develop social perception and collective intelligence

  1. From the first meeting, set a “mindful minute” or “party starter” tradition.
    You don’t know what emotional energy people are carrying into the conference or Zoom room, so give people a mental transition to the team meeting. Depending on your aim, play instrumental focus music, play “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang, or get everyone doing arm stretches. 
    In my workshops, after a break, I do a mindful minute of breathing exercises to transition and reset the audience’s mind. This transition is important for us because the brain likes certainty, and a habitual mindful minute or party starter trains the brain to focus awareness on something new.
  2. Add to the positive energy in the room by opening your body language.
    When others are speaking, either relax back in your chair or turn your body to face the speaker. When it’s your turn to speak, scoot forward and lean into the group.
  3. Channel curiosity toward others’ perspectives.
    When one person hasn’t spoken much, ask him what he’s thinking and be genuinely interested in his answer. Curiosity leads to tolerance, helps teammates relax, and positively feeds the cycle of contributions.
  4. When you get to speak, use your turn wisely.
    Prior to any team meeting, envision your ideal outcome. Rehearse examples, analogies, or stories in case you struggle to make your point. Color your stories with personal details that cultivate interpersonal connection.
  5. Know the team’s purpose and goals. (The most obvious habit to instill in your teams but frequently forgotten!)
    A team’s purpose is often ambiguous. Each team member ends up having her own unspoken interpretation. With everyone working toward different goals, how could there not be conflict?

Even though collective intelligence is a group characteristic, it’s built on individual behaviors affiliated with social perception. We know behaviors can be changed or replaced.

So think about the possible outcomes of having better teams: more visible accomplishments, greater excitement with your work, more sales, a promotion, freeing up time for personal goals, or even beating other teams.

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