Communication patterns in teams: designing for synergy

Diversity and inclusion

The key variable governing team performance is the way members of the team communicate with each other. Alex Pentland and the the MIT Human Dynamics Lab confirmed that this is in fact the single most important predictor of team performance; as significant as all other factors – personality, content of discussions, skill, intelligence etc. – combined! Keith Sawyer’s study on the conditions for group flow in sports teams and performing arts groups also suggested that factors related to communication greatly influenced the state of flow for the collective group.

A few highlights to take away from this body of research:

  • Communication needs to be balanced between all team members to keep engagement levels high. There needs to be equal participation and a good amount of conversation not just between the leader and the team members, but also between members separately
  • Face-to-face communication is best, followed by video meetings and tailed by emails and texting. One-to-one communication is vital in addition to whole team meetings
  • Everyone needs to balance talking with listening. One of the defining characteristics of successful improv groups like Jazz ensembles is “deep listening” – where team members really listen to each other without preconceived notions. This is balanced with the creative contribution that members make, something Sawyer called a “blending of egos”
  • Team members periodically need to interact with people outside their own team. Exploration is the word they use to describe this – and bring back ideas and information to the work of their own team
  • The best ideas and most fruitful interactions do not necessarily occur in a conference room. They are much more likely during a break, over coffee in the hallway or other social setting – free-wheeling and spontaneous

Which begs the question – how are we to access these rich layers of communication from behind a screen? As we find ourselves confined to dispersed, virtual working models for a while yet, how can organisations set their teams up for optimising communication as a necessary condition for group productivity?

At The Arts Quotient, when we create a workshop experience (or a performance for that matter), we think a lot about the space within which the interaction happens; the way people will be seated, the kind of conversation that can generate, props that will support such conversation and much more. This focus on the set-up significantly changes the way people participate, energy levels in the room, and the extent to which they are motivated to invest effort beyond the workshop room as well.

For virtual teams also, it is important to think about the space within which the interaction happens, tools and devices available to manage participation, nurture positive energy; in other words, the design of team conversations.

Here are a few ideas drawing from our experience in the arts, our work with teams, and our study of synergistic teams.

  1. Institute mechanisms for connects beyond work-related meetings: A lot of teams only meet once or twice a week in a large group over Skype or Zoom. They rely on email, text and individual connects in between meetings (naturally under current conditions). But when designing for synergy, a key factor is that team members need to dialogue not just with their leader, but with each other as well. Encourage one-to-one connects, even less formal ones.One law firm has begun a coffee catch up amongst peers (who typically work in different practices and do not, therefore, have work as a reason to connect). You could use a buddy system with more experienced members chatting with new joinees regularly.
  1. Track how communication is occurring to identify gaps and rectify: Keep tabs on which team members are interacting most frequently and who are the most likely to get left out. Similarly, during meetings, who gets maximum air time and who speaks the least. Everybody has different styles of communication and the leader will need to consciously address how to engage each one. And certainly, the leader alone should not be doing all the talking in a team meeting! Simply making leaders aware of where the gaps are will equip them with a sense of what to watch out for and course-correct during meetings.
  1. Make liberal use of storytelling: In a study of a jazz ensemble in Ireland, researchers found that the leader used a lot of jazz lore to not only induct new members into the rules of jazz but also to challenge them creatively, to create a sense of camaraderie and community. In an online avatar, a team tends to very easily lose out on this sense of community, which is the glue that binds people collectively to a vision. It is important for team members to experience their contribution as part of a larger journey. The stories carry the why and how of the team effort and makes it much more interesting for even new comers to absorb the culture of the team. Not only leaders, but other members of the group could be encouraged to share stories as well. Storytelling lends itself easily even to a virtual platform!
  1. Employ tools that can generate more participation during virtual meetings: (surveys, polls, whiteboard, etc.). Often, working virtually makes it hard to ‘read’ the room. Such tools equip leaders to get a sense of the pulse of a room. Allowing for anonymous inputs can also give more voice to the otherwise silent members of the team
  1. Ensure a personal connect is established: Leaders need to find time to talk to people individually and tune into their colleagues at a personal level too. If you feel that you are already stretched in terms of your time, remember that communication is probably the most important aspect of the leadership role even in ‘normal’ times. Especially in the context of COVID, they will appreciate your support to help them negotiate with their environment. If this falls into place, your team will be able to take care of a lot of the ‘task’ aspect of work for you.
  1. Allow for ‘empty’ creative time for all team members: With constant meetings and check-ins, people can feel fatigued. Professionals need time away from their teams to explore new ideas and learn about things outside. This is valuable to the team’s learning and creativity too. So encourage your team members to take that time, to upskill themselves, and bring in new possibilities. Support people by recognizing anyone who brought in some new thoughts/energy, encouraging them to register for courses and seminars, etc. As a leader, you also need time away from your team to network, learn, explore. Plan for this and use it well.

The early part of the Covid response has been about staying operational and survival. But for long term growth, we need to think creatively about how to get teams involved, engaged in, and excited about new opportunities, ideas, etc. Since the start of the crisis when teams went online, a lot may have changed for them in terms of interaction patterns and many things that teams and leaders do could be counterproductive. An evaluation of what negative practices are evolving and replacing them with constructive ones will push the boundaries of team creativity and effectiveness, even in remote models!


Sawyer, Keith (2015) Group flow and group genius 

Pentland, Alex  (2012) The new science of building great teams 

Kenny, Ailbhe (2014) – ‘Collaborative creativity’ within a jazz ensemble as a musical and social practice.