What’s the most important word for business teamwork?

Interesting article on Harvard Business Review right now. Follow the bouncing ball here:

1. As a species, humans weren’t big enough or scary enough to survive pre-historic times without banding together in groups. Hence, from an evolutionary standpoint, we’re hard-wired to basically want to work together with others.

2. The social connectivity thing is so valuable that when those bonds are frayed, it’s like a physical hit. In other words, you can get dumped, take an Aspirin, and feel better. Honestly.

3. When you think about how important socially connecting to others is, you would thus initially assume that workplaces are really effective — after all, most white-collar work in the modern era is done in teams, and a lot of blue-collar work is as well. But yet, teams aren’t that effective — and neither are managers, generally — so that begs the question: Why?

4. Here’s one potential reason: “teams” often equates to more and more meetings of a group of individuals, but the actual work you do (after those meetings) is individual, and not in a team. Think about it: in college, if you had a group assignment due, chances are you all met and discussed it — then you assigned individual portions to individual people, who went and worked on it by themselves and sent it to a person whose individual job it was to put everything together. This is pretty common.

5. So … could one word change everything? Here’s Harvard Business Review:

In Carr and Walton’s studies, participants first met in small groups, and then separated to work on difficult puzzles on their own. People in the psychologically together category were told that they would be working on their task “together” even though they would be in separate rooms, and would either write or receive a tip from a team member to help them solve the puzzle later on. In the psychologically alone category, there was no mention of being “together,” and the tip they would write or receive would come from the researchers. All the participants were in fact working alone on the puzzles. The only real difference was the feeling that being told they were working “together” might create.

Carr and Walton, FYI, are Prinkya Carr and Greg Walton of Stanford.

Sooooo …. what happened?

The effects of this small manipulation were profound: participants in the psychologically together category worked 48% longer, solved more problems correctly, and had better recall for what they had seen. They also said that they felt less tired and depleted by the task. They also reported finding the puzzle more interesting when working together, and persisted longer because of this intrinsic motivation (rather than out of a sense of obligation to the team, which would be an extrinsic motivation).

The word “together” is a powerful social cue to the brain.  In and of itself, it seems to serve as a kind of relatedness reward, signaling that you belong, that you are connected, and that there are people you can trust working with you toward the same goal.

That’s a video of Walton talking about “encouraging a sense of belonging;” a lot of his research goes towards these same ends. If you think about concepts like “employee engagement” or “talent retention strategy,” a lot of them come back pretty simply to these types of things: you’re trying to encourage a sense of belonging in your employees, and in some cases, it could be as simple as one word — “together” — when describing how a project will unfold.

Notice in the above that Group A was told they were “together” but still worked in different rooms. In a work context, then, “together” doesn’t have to mean “on top of each other” — that can annoy people — but it can just mean using a basic cue word and seeing what happens.

This is almost like A/B Testing for employee engagement. Super interesting.


Ted Bauer

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