Boost Your Team’s Performance—with Neuropsychology!

Three-quarters of all cross-functional collaborations fail in the workplace. Solution: Stop thinking like a group, and start thinking like a team.

By Jonathan Kirschner, Psy.D., and Robyn Garrett

Picture this: You’re in the second hour (and counting) of an afternoon project team Zoom meeting that was supposed to run for just one. You text your sitter to see if she can stick around, because the kids are hungry and it looks like you’ll be stuck in front of your computer for a while longer.

But as you’re fiddling with your phone, you get distracted putting out a few fires in your inbox, and you have to ask your coworker to repeat himself when you hear him mention your name.

The coworker flashes you an agitated look. He’s spent the past half hour arguing with the project manager about a shipping mistake that blew up your budget. He doesn’t trust the team to share the blame if the project fails, so he’s pointing fingers instead of owning his mistake.

Predictably, the meeting ends without progress. You close your laptop physically and emotionally drained. The excitement and thrill of innovation that was there when the project started is gone, now replaced by stress. You reopen your laptop and email that hungry recruiter who’s been stalking you.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone.

High-performing teams can provide organizations incredible advantages over the individual (Society for Human Resource Management,2018). Teams can take on more complex work than individuals (Goodwin, Blacksmith, & Coats, 2018), make better decisions than individuals (Blinder & Morgan, 2000), and produce tremendous gains in areas including customer experience, employee satisfaction, and operational performance for their organizations (Hanlan, 2004).

Organizations seeking to innovate advances in their domains have moved from traditional hierarchies to networks of teams (Deloitte, 2018), with employees and managers reporting at least a 50 percent increase in the amount of time spent on team-related tasks over the past 20 years (ibid, 2016). 

To create transformative cures for cancer could require a team of academic scientists, pharmaceutical leaders, and technologists. Modern teams span departments, geographies, and even companies; Sanofi’s partnership with Google and GSK’s partnership with 23andMe are only two examples of how collaboration and teaming have become central to future success.

But for all the promise of teams, most never reach a state of high performance. As many as 75 percent of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional and, as any manager can attest, teams composed of exceptionally talented individuals often struggle just to meet their objectives, much less exceed them.

And when your team fails, there’s a good chance you fail—which is how you might find yourself talking to a headhunter on your way home from a long, late, exhausting day.

A Good Team Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

The 1992 Summer Olympics were the first games in which professional athletes were allowed to compete, and the U.S. men’s basketball team was loaded with NBA superstars. The Dream Team, which included Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, David Robinson, and Charles Barkley, dominated its way to gold, winning each game in the tournament by an astounding average of 43 points.

The 2004 men’s team had similar star power, including Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Shawn Marion, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tim Duncan, and Lamar Odom. However, the team stumbled through the tournament, losing three games (the most ever for U.S. Olympic basketball) and taking home the bronze—the first non-gold medal since 1988.

Despite their outsized status, the 1992 team was able to overcome its individual egos and cohere as a team. The 2004 team, by contrast, played like a group of all-stars (Limpert 2012).

In business, we tend to view the terms group and team as interchangeable. However, the distinction between a group and a team is paramount to understanding why some teams struggle and others succeed.

On the one hand, groups are collections of individuals who have individual goals, do independent work, and fail or succeed based on their individual efforts. Teams, on the other hand, share common goals and depend on each other to accomplish those goals (Hogan Assessments, 2014).

When the individuals on a team coalesce around a common mission, it can achieve parabolic outcomes. One plus one no longer equals two. On a high-performing team, one plus one equals three. 

This outcome isn’t magic. Instead, it’s rooted in well-researched and understood neuroscientific underpinnings that we can exploit to bolster team performance. Here are four key concepts you can use to boost your own squad, starting now.

Concept #1: The Teaming Chemical

Oxytocin is a powerful neurotransmitter produced in the hypothalamus and secreted into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland. Most people know oxytocin as the love or cuddle hormone, stemming from studies that connect oxytocin to maternal behavior, selective social bonding, and sexual pleasure (Deangelis, 2008). But oxytocin plays a critical role in the workplace as well.

Studies indicate that oxytocin can build trust between individuals (Kosfeld, 2005), and we know that trust and safety is an essential psychological condition for effective teaming. High-trust teams experience greater cooperation and collaboration (Wilson et al, 2007; Das & Teng, 2004). Moreover, their members experience lower levels of chronic stress and therefore show higher energy and engagement (Zak, 2016).

Use it: Simple, intentional actions can increase trust and safety. Minor interactions—eye contact, small talk around the water cooler, and human touch—produce surges of oxytocin. Smart teams can leverage this natural chemical by strategically weaving oxytocin-producing moments into their day-to-day operations.

For virtual or hybrid teams, this means taking advantage of video communication whenever possible. For regular team meetings, ensure team members are sitting in a manner where everyone can see each other. 

Just remember: There’s a limit as to how much oxytocin can get produced when driving through task lists and engaging in work-only activities. The most cohesive teams build in opportunities to engage outside of work, deepening the relationships that will yield benefits once back in the office.

Concept #2: Team Alignment: More Than a Feeling

Have you ever been on a team that operated seamlessly, where the members seemed to be on the same wavelength? Recent advances in neuroscience have shown this to be more than a feeling. When people work closely together, their brains and bodies literally sync up.

A study of classroom interaction found that engaged students generated similar patterns of brain waves (Dikker et al, 2017). The more eye contact and face-to-face interaction the students had, and the more they were engaged with the course material, the stronger the synchrony in brain activity between them. And the more in sync the subjects’ brain waves were, the better the outcomes.

Use it: The quicker you can get the team on the same page in a focused manner, the stronger the team’s alignment and productivity. And when it comes to building and protecting synchronicity, smartphones are public enemy number one. By checking their phones during a meeting rather than engaging with the presenter or their peers, teams deprive their brains of the opportunity to sync.

For a quick win here, banish smartphones and other tech from meetings as often as possible. You can further bolster team alignment by starting each meeting with a clear purpose statement for the meeting, along with the desired outcome.

Finally, teams can get on the same neuroplane rapidly through brief team mindfulness activities that leverage synchronized breathing or guided visualization techniques. By sharing a focused, distraction-free experience, team members are more likely to neurologically mirror each other and achieve synchrony.

Time for deliberate eye-contact prior to meetings could be key to getting in sync. In his own research, Dr. Michael Platt, co-founder of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative (an AIIR partner), has found that oxytocin boosts behavioral synchrony, resulting in increased trust, prosocial interactions, and team chemistry (Jiang and Platt, 2018).

Concept #3: Winning Teams Practice

A coach doesn’t expect to win without practice. Why should organizational teams be any different? And yet, teams in business are regularly tasked with producing outsized returns without any practice.

Just as basketball teams build on fundamentals—passing, shooting, offense and defense—organizational teams should practice core skills. Those skills reside within two broad areas: (1) team culture, the skills team members use to successfully interact with one another, and (2) team productivity, the skills team members use to get work done efficiently and effectively. 

Use it: One of the most productive practices teams can adopt is to engage in regular, structured discussions about their performance. 

During his decorated career in the NFL, quarterback Payton Manning was known for poring over footage of games throughout his career to uncover areas where he could improve. Likewise, organizational teams should spend time dissecting their performances and their dynamics. 

Whether through an offsite, team assessment, or team effectiveness program, teams that openly and honestly discuss their strengths and areas for optimization are more capable of identifying and removing obstacles in the way of future success. 

Harvard Business Professor Amy Edmundson noted in an interview with the Harvard Business Review that this candid discussion creates psychological safety among team members. Rather than being the norm, psychological safety—the extent to which team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other—is “unusual, which is what makes it a competitive advantage” (Harvard Business Review, 2019). 

To wit, Google’s two-year internal study showed that psychological safety was the most important indicator of a high-performing team. The study showed that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety were more engaged, less likely to leave the company, brought in more revenue, and were rated as effective twice as often by executives (Rozovsky, 2015).

In an era of continual change, high-performing teams are critical to staying competitive. When teams cohere, they can produce truly extraordinary results. 

Unfortunately, the team experience at the outset of this article is much more common. Distracted team members miss critical moments to connect and form bonds with their teammates, destroying the trust and psychological safety that are the cornerstones of team effectiveness and leaving them feeling drained and disengaged.

By taking our cues from neuroscience, we can put in place practices that help our team members form the social bonds that enable the extraordinary.

Jonathan Kirschner, Psy.D., is founder and CEO of AIIR Consulting, a global business psychology consulting firm dedicated to building amazing leaders through executive coaching, leadership development, and team effectiveness.

Robyn Garrett is the vice president of marketing at AIIR Consulting. Before joining AIIR, she spent 10 years in marketing for the life sciences, where she consulted for over 500 brands.


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