Five Ways to Make Your Team Smarter

Rick Lepsinger

As you may have noticed, most work gets done in teams.  Unfortunately, many people feel the time they spend in team meetings does not produce a productive outcome.  But some teams are able to make high quality decisions and achieve superior results.  A recent study found that, just like individuals, some teams are smarter than others. 

But want accounts for this difference? Even groups made up entirely of smart people often make poor decisions so it’s not just about getting lots of smart people working together.  Even if having smart people on a team would solve the problem, we often can’t control a team’s composition. Teams are almost always made up of individuals with different capabilities, experiences, and intelligence and leaders must be able to work with the “cards they’re dealt.”

So, what are the members of “smart” teams doing that make them more effective as a group? Here are 5 tips to help your team be smarter.

Promote Diversity
Diversity helps ensure the team has access to a wide array of perspectives and talents. Diversity of opinion and perspective, however, often also comes with conflict and differences of opinion. The key is to create an atmosphere of trust and respect so differences lead to better outcomes rather than cause dysfunction.

In addition, beyond diversity of opinion and perspective, research has found that teams with more women on them tend to be more effective.  This is partly explained by the fact that women appear to be better able to read complex emotional states of other team members. Which takes us to the second tip.

Build Emotional Intelligence
Reading the emotional state of others and acting accordingly appears to be a key enabler of team interaction.  Emotional intelligence – awareness of our own behavior and its impact on others and the ability to read others and respond appropriately – is a key characteristic of smart teams.  The combination of self-awareness, self-control and empathy help create an environment that is more conducive to the exchange of ideas, the resolution of problems, and the making of high quality decisions.  This appears to be true in both co-located and virtual teams.

Encourage Participation
The smartest teams leverage the knowledge and experience of all team members and avoid situations where a few people dominate the conversation.  When so called experts dominate there is less opportunity for new ideas to emerge and the danger of repeating past mistakes or applying old solutions to new problems increases dramatically.  Two effective ways to encourage broader participation in team discussion is to ask open-ended questions and invite people who have been silent to contribute ideas.

Assume Value
When we hear an idea that is unfamiliar or different than what we’re thinking its human nature to focus on the negative – what we don’t like.  If you’ve got a diverse team and you’ve been encouraging input from everyone you’re bound to hear things you haven’t thought of and that may be unfamiliar.  Focusing on the negative tends to either shut down the conversation or create a need for the other person to defend and explain their idea.  Either outcome is bad for the team.

To avoid this, start by looking for the positive in what the other person has said.  Assume there is something of value even if you have concerns about some aspects of the idea.  This helps keep new ideas alive long enough to fully explore them and determine their value.  It also helps build trust and respect among team members which are two factors required for the open exchange of information and for team members to be able to have straightforward conversations with each other.

Express Concerns as a Problem to be Solved
Ideas can’t be evaluated or developed if you only focus on the positive elements.  You’ve also got to express your concerns.  Members of smart teams do this in a constructive way that helps advance the discussion.  After you’ve stated what you like about the idea, state your concern in a “how to...” form which is actionable and encourages problem solving.

For example, instead of saying, ‘We can’t push the deadline back a week. We can’t delay the project any longer without looking unresponsive,” it’s more effective to say, “Pushing the deadline back another week would give us more time to make sure we’ve addressed all the issue.  How can we do this and not appear unresponsive?” In this case, you’ve stated your concern in a clear and direct manner but, unlike the first example, you’ve invited the other person to figure out how to solve a problem rather than defend a position.

The smartest people do not necessarily produce the smartest teams.  The real difference is in team processes and skills that build trust and respect and encourage participation and open dialogue among all team members.  By following these 5 tips you can leverage the talent and experience on your team and you make your team smarter.

Transforming your team starts by promoting the right people and training them well.

Rick Lepsinger is president of OnPoint Consulting, a top organizational and leadership development consulting first that specializes in identifying and developing leaders, virtual team building, improving cross-functional team building and enhancing strategy execution. Lepsinger is also the co-author of Flexible Leadership.

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