Using Social Network Theory to Build More Effective Teams

Brian Uzzi, from Kellog School of Management, has done some interesting work on social networks and team performance.

He found that the most effective teams include:

  1. a mixture of both experienced people and individuals who are new to the field
  2. some people who have worked together before and some who haven’t.

This may be because this mixture will create a team who:

  • are starting with some pre-existing relationships of trust which can be built on if handled well
  • are more flexible – there is likely to be an inherent tendency to question and cross fertilize idea’s

In order to get the most out of the team once you have selected the right members:

  1. Have some team values conversations – What do we want the work of this team to stand for?  What do we want to think when we look back on this team?
  2. Develop some behavioural agreements – How will we deal with conflict?  How will we give each other feedback? etc
  3. Have an attitude of acceptance  – working in a group inevitably involves some difficult moments
  4. Be curious – about both the newcomers (What are their strengths and interests? What are the triggers that can cause them problems?) and also those you have worked with before (Try not to assume that you know who they are and what they do best, see if you can see them afresh as you start this project together).

How To Transform a Team

Sometimes teams become unhappy. Just like in a bad marriage, all the interactions become loaded. Problematic behaviour is noticed and ruminated upon. Attempts to improve things go unnoticed and wither. People are in pain and at a loss how to improve things.
So what needs to happen to change things?
My work with unhappy teams suggest a few ideas
1. Explore the situation with curiosity – are there some real world problems that are adding to the disharmony? Things like lack of role clarity, lack of resources, unclear expectations? Fix these.
2. Acknowledge – the pain; the impulses to act out that pain and make things worse; the many attempts that people have made to improve things; the feelings of hopelessness, ‘Things are never going to get better’.
3. Develop some team values. At all costs avoid motherhood statements here. Find the words that express what, deep in their hearts, team members want this team to stand for. The team values statement should be a clarion call – something so powerful that people are willing to face the pain of taking action to sort the mess out. To take action over and over again even if it doesn’t seem to lead to change. Change is slow and hard won – we often need to labour unrewarded for a while before things improve.
4. Agree on behaviours and actions that align with those values. What would your customers, colleagues etc see and hear you doing if you were living those values?
5. Make a plan for when they relapse. How will you respond when someone doesn’t live your agreed values?
6. Encourage them – be a cheerleader in the tough times.
Do all this with compassion, curiosity and openness and perhaps, just maybe, things might change.