Too many negative interactions can drain energy and creativity from a team, leading to poor performance. Even too many positive interactions can have a negative impact, as there is no one to play “devil’s advocate” or even just be the voice of reason. It can quickly lead to group-thinking where everyone says yes without analysing the potential consequences of decisions. Getting the right balance of positive and negative interactions is critical for becoming a high-performing team.
Let’s examine the impact of positive and negative interactions that impact building high-performance teams.
A school was having challenges organising schedules for the upcoming year. In the initial meeting, there were a lot of negative reactions expressed. Teachers were uncomfortable with how the changes impacted their schedules and agendas.
Some people left the meeting before it ended. After three hours of arguing about the right course of action, everyone was tired, frustrated, and angry. And, nothing got decided.
When people are only thinking about themselves, this can easily become a stressor rather than an energy source. Individuals can quickly become defensive and more likely to advocate even more strongly for their position. Instead of trying to understand the logic behind a decision or proposed change, they can become even more entrenched in their position and become even more negative.
They stop asking questions for understanding and fail to consider overall group goals. This can lead to a self-fulfilling spiral and send people into survival mode where they won’t validate even basic truths and assumptions.
Further negative interactions can create even more and lead to breakdowns in open communication.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. After doing some training, we facilitated a second meeting. It happened to be a hot day without any air conditioning, which might have created perfect conditions for tempers to flare.
During the coaching session, we asked teachers to come to the meeting more open to discussing ideas. They had to ask each other at least one question and then try to build on each other’s ideas first. It led to a more positive and productive environment. Negative interactions decreased and positive interactions improved significantly.
In half the time, the group came together to complete the meeting and make all the necessary decisions.
This didn’t just happen because people had a more positive attitude going in. While that certainly contributed to success, they also asked questions that gave others an opportunity to explain their point of view. They openly discussed the logic behind the changes and how they impacted the team and not just individuals. This allowed team members to listen to the needs and wants of others and consider the impact on everyone rather than just look at the impact on them.
People began looking for solutions that produced the best possible outcome for everyone. As this happened, it generated energy and engagement. It created a positive feedback loop rather than a negative one.
Energy, Engagement, Exploration
It’s obviously not as simple as asking people to say positive things rather than negative things. Good discussions require an honest assessment of the pros and cons, but these can be presented in a positive light — which can fuel the three E’s: energy, engagement, and exploration.
Energy can be either positive or negative depending on the interaction. Positive energy enables teams to flourish and bounce ideas off each other. Negative energy limits creativity and participation. People become afraid to participate because they worry their ideas will be quickly dismissed or shot down.
Similarly, engagement can also go both ways. When engagement is focused on asking questions to understand challenges and find group decisions, groups focus on finding positive outcomes for the team. This type of engagement is called Inquiry.
The flip side of Inquiry is Advocacy. When individuals in a group are focused on advocacy, they tend to present their ideas strongly, no matter how good or bad it is, and fail to be open to differing viewpoints. Advocacy can also force team members into survival mode, which reduces participation or leads to total disengagement.
Exploration is about listening. Are team members actually listening to others’ ideas or are they only thinking about themselves? When individuals are thinking just about themselves during interactions, they often discount what others are saying. This can bring out survival mode behaviour in the rest of the team.
Common Qualities in High Performing Teams
Professor Alex Pentland’s team at MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab used a sociometric wearable device to measure interactions, including both verbal and nonverbal interactions. Through the lens of the three E’s, they measured the impact of communication on team performance. They found the highest performing teams displayed several similar characteristics in interactions:
- Each team member talked and listened to others in roughly equal measures.
- Team members interacted with each other and not just with the manager or team leader.
- Team members looked at each other when they talked (rather than just at the leader) and they were animated and energetic during discussions.
- Members of the team regularly interacted with others outside the team and brought information back to the team at large.
We have used 360-degree cameras to gauge the impact of interactions as well. By discretely capturing about 30 minutes of footage from a meeting, we can typically get a good sense of how participants interact (or don’t). After the meeting, we can also analyse interactions in-depth as we review the footage.
This helps show who was engaged or disengaged and help interpret the substance of their interaction. For example, some team members might talk less, but when they do, they provide substantive contributions or provoke thoughtful discussions.
Measuring the interactions independently, however, helps to more objectively evaluate interactions to provide recommendations and coaching to improve performance.
Striking the Balance with High Performance Teams
Most settings will never be totally positive or completely negative. The dynamics within groups are more dependent on the ratio of positive to negative. For example, we see that there needs to be a ratio of between 3:1 and 10:1 when it comes to positive vs. negative. When this ratio is achieved, it builds up to an adaptive dynamic that energises the team and results in high performance.
Negative interactions often carry more weight. When ratios are less than 3:1, negative interactions push people into survival mode and the focus on personal impact rather than team thinking. If the ratio of positive to negative is too high, however, team members tend to become overly optimistic and can overlook realistic concerns.
It takes striking the right balance to build high-performing teams.
When you put it all into words, it sounds so simple: Accept that there is a problem, identify it, and work together to solve it. When put into practice, though, team dynamics can break down and lead to survival mode. It takes a skilled leader and training to strike the right balance.
The Role of Adaptive Dynamics in High Performing Teams
Team leaders play a crucial role in how teams interact. We often see two types of dynamics: fixed-point dynamics and limit-cycle dynamics. Neither produce sustainable results.
In fixed-point dynamics, leaders adopt a very authoritarian attitude and believe they always have the right answer. This adds stressors to the team as debate is often suppressed. This saps energy and can drain morale and engagement.
With limit-cycle dynamics, the leaders are too accommodating of ideas and viewpoints — no matter how farfetched or unfeasible. While this can lead to plenty of positivity, it can also fail to account for potential problems and lead to poor decision making.
The key to making things work is adaptive dynamics. Adaptive dynamics creates a balance between positive and negative interactions. It fosters active discussions and builds energy with enthusiastic discussion. It keeps the team balanced by understanding when ideas aren’t feasible and keeps negativity framed as constructive criticism.
Adaptive dynamics creates the right kind of energy and pushes the group toward productive outcomes