Foundations of great teams? Start with relationships

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4 mins reading time

tl;dr: check out my miro model to get the key points.

Model of who do we prefer working with
Good informal relationships are they key to better collaboration

Over the last couple of years I’ve started to see that relationships between people appears to play a big role in how successful their teams are. The better the relationship the more willing those people are to share ideas and learn from each other. Which generally leads to much better results for those teams in the long run. Not only that they get those results a lot faster and are typically happier too.

But this is work so shouldn’t we be leaving our personal feelings at the door when it comes to getting things done? What do relationships have to do with anything?

Who do we prefer to work with?

One thing I have seen is that when people like each other they tend to be more likely to work together then people who don’t like each other. Generally for people who don’t get along their interactions tend to be the bare minimum usually resorting to asynchronous methods of communications like email or other group message systems (Slack, Teams etc). They pretty much do anything they can to avoid face-to-face contact.

The problem here is that this can leave messages more open to interpretation and further exacerbate poor relationships. Not only that sharing information this way can at times be slower than simply speaking face-to-face.

But how much do people have to like each other to work together successfully and is there anything we can do to make sure people who do have to work together can get along? 

How much do people have to like each other?

The amount tends to be quite subjective but these types of relationships are usually characterised as work colleagues or sometimes work friends.  They are essentially informal relationships between people who work together where they are very likely to say that the like each other. Multiple informal relationships lead to informal networks which can make working in teams much more productive and enjoyable for the people involved. 

The benefit of informal networks is that they are more likely to lead to collaborative behaviour that enables learning from each other. This in turn can lead to new ideas and innovations. Which all successful teams need.

What can we do to help people get along more? 

By helping people to find more common ground with each other tends to lead people to think of each other as we rather then us and them. This common ground can help people to see that they are similar to each other which can lead to familiarity. Both of which can help towards more positive reciprocal behaviours towards each other. All three of these (similarity, familiarity and positive reciprocal behaviours) benefit us psychologically by making us feel good.

Feeling good to think and collaborate

When we feel good we are more likely to think freely rather than when we feel threatened and are looking to protect ourselves. When we are threatened our brains actively limits resources from working memory. Working memory is a key component for analytical thinking which you need for creative insight and problem solving.  

The level of collaboration is also improved as when we feel good we are also more accepting of people’s differences and more willing to take interpersonal risks with other people.  Interpersonal risks are very personal to the individual but can typically be classified as:

  • Looking incompetent because you don’t know something when you think you should 
  • Thinking you are being disruptive by wasting someones time by asking questions or needing things to be explained in more detail
  • Looking ignorant because you don’t know something  

All three of which can have perceived negative consequences to your reputation.

All these risks need people to be vulnerable in front of others so that they can learn from each other and therefore collaborate more effectively. But if they are unwilling to do this then they are not going to share what they do and don’t know which leads to less effective teams. Essentailly everyone has to figure things out forthemsevles instead of learning it quickly from someone else.

Feeling good means better innovations?

Better team member relationships, feeling good, collaboration and learning from each other doesn’t guarantee that the team will come up with best and most efficient solution to a problem. What it does do is create the right conditions for those solutions to found and implemented.  

Not only that a team that enjoys working together and is able to work through their differences is more likely to keep doing this repeatedly and get better at it every time they do. Therefore leading to more ideas and increased likelihood of the team finding alternative solutions to problems. One of which might just be that innovation your organisation has been looking for to give them the edge over their rivals.

What are the trade-offs to all this harmony?

There is a risks of overly harmonious teams though. This is that they are less likely to challenge each other and are more likely to go with the flow. Which could actually lead to less innovation and creativity. As they are more willing to just accept the first idea rather than challenging it which could risk the team harmony. So some level of “creative abrasion” is needed to help people productively challenge ideas.

But again good working relationships will help stop challenging situations from causing so much tension that people begin to refuse to work with each other.

Is there data that back this up?

Research by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo for their 2005 paper Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks backs up a lot of the ideas above. Their data was based on surveying 4 large organisation and collecting over 10,000 data points on work relationships.

You can find my notes in this model.

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