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Here’s what you’ll get out of this blog post:
– you’ll understand the norms of the highest performing teams and why those should be part of any team leader’s playbook;
– you’ll understand the value of communicating your organization’s purpose within your company;
– you’ll have a framework with which to ask the most difficult questions;
– and you’ll have a series of provocative questions that are meant to spark critical thinking about your specific team.

What’s in the Team Leader’s Playbook?

If you’re curious about what makes the strongest teams, it probably means that you are someone who spends a good deal of time communicating with other people in meetings, over emails and phone calls. People who spend a lot of time communicating are the influencers and leaders in their organizations and communities. If you feel like you spend all day doing this, you’re not alone. The amount of time that managers spend communicating on teams has increased by 50% over the last decade. And for that time to be well spent, we must think about the way we communicate. It’s not just the questions you ask. It’s the tone of voice you use and whether you’re creating an environment in which everyone gets a chance to speak.

The surprising thing about the highest performing teams is that they are not always comprised of your best, brightest, most conventionally successful people. To build a great team, it’s immaterial whether they have a similar cultural or educational background. It doesn’t matter if they grab beers together on Fridays.  And it doesn’t matter what their educational pedigree is. Instead, the thing that matters is what norms are considered appropriate within the team.

From doing a decade of research, Google analyzed the norms of its highest performing teams. Google was interested in optimizing the collective intelligence of its teams and it had the data, the time and the research capacity to investigate that. These norms are the key takeaways you need to have as a team leader’s playbook.

The two norms that Google discovered ranked above all others were:

“Conversational turn taking” – where members spoke in about the same proportions.
“Social sensitivity” – where members of the team were able to pick up on body language, tone of voice and other non-verbal communication among other members.

The amazing thing is that these norms weren’t necessarily part of the Google onboarding or training process, but there was a climate characterized by trust in these most successful teams. The most successful teams are energizing to be a part of, regardless of what the individual members have in common. The thing that was significant about the highest performing teams was that the group norms coalesced around being socially aware of how everybody else in the group was doing.

For the engineers and developers at Google, this might have been unexpected- but it’s not technical aptitude that creates the best teams.

The norms

Ok, so what characterizes “conversational turn taking”?
This could mean that within the conversation, each person comments on each topic at hand for about the same amount of time. Or it could mean that each person speaks when the conversation turns to their area of expertise, and other group members listen. It could be that a central leader facilitates this, watching for evenness, or it could be that leadership shifts throughout the group so that people in the group feel comfortable monitoring each other to ensure that everyone gets the floor. The reason this is interesting is that it means that people who might not normally speak up will get a chance to share ideas without the fear of being ridiculed. It means that within the norms of the group, they are meant to share ideas that might not be fully formed. And this can be where innovation comes from. If your organization is working to establish its value proposition and promote innovation, and yet your teams are dominated by one or a handful of people speaking, you’re putting yourself at risk of not ever hearing the ideas that you most need to hear.

And what characterizes “social sensitivity”?
Social sensitivity is the ability to pick up on non-verbal cues that group members send out. This can be quantified with a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes“. This test shows a series of real human faces with everything cropped but the eyes. If you score well on this test, you have high social sensitivity. If you don’t score as well, some research suggests you can get better at this and improve your score.

Here’s an example of one of the “Mind in the Eyes” faces:

A sample "Mind in the Eyes" image

(this face is panicked.)


If you’re not sure how you and your team would rate on conversational turn taking and social sensitivity, you should ask. Even if you think you know the answer, you might be surprised by what your team says.

Asking better questions is part of building a better team and a stronger organization. If you pause to reflect on the teams of which you are a member, there are probably behaviors you’ve seen that contradict the norms of the highest performing teams. How do we get better at finding the root cause of those behaviors and moving them closer to these high performing norms?

When it comes to asking questions that get at the root of an issue, there’s a format that has worked well for us. It provides structure to getting at some of work’s biggest challenges. This structure is borrowed from Susan Scott, the author of “Fierce Conversations.” We’ve detailed the setup of her interrogation style in our post, “How to Have a Conversation.” The basic structure is this:


Name the issue.

Select a specific example that illustrates the behavior or situation you want to change.

Describe your emotions about this issue.

Clarify what is at stake.

Identify your contribution to the problem.

Indicate your wish to resolve the issue.

Invite your partner to respond.

The reason to consider this conversation format is to understand that business is an extended conversation. If we can have better conversations, we can build better businesses. Each business relationship that exists is there due to the people involved in the transactions and the kinds of conversations that they have. This is true for the vendors we choose, the customers we most want to attract, and even the people we hire. Each of those decisions was made because of the people involved and the conversations we had. It’s easy to wrap logic around emotional decisions once we’ve made them.

So I’ll leave you with with some thought-provoking questions that are a starting point for having the conversations that need to happen in your organization. These questions are meant to be provocative. If they generate difficult emotions, use those to start discussions with your team. Here are the questions:


What is the level of collaboration, alignment and accountability of my executive team?

When is the last time I had a conversation and felt like it enriched the relationship?

What is the most important thing our team should be talking about?

What if nothing changes relative to the most difficult conversations I need to have?

What is the conversation that I have been aoiding, that if I were to have it, could change everything?

Further reading and source material:

Google’s Quest to Build the Perfect Team
Mind in the Eyes Test
Improving your Scores on the Mind in the Eyes Test
Fierce Conversations

Arline – Team Leaders Playbook PDF from Arline Welty’s presentation at our 2016 Customer Conference sessions.

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