Centaur Stage is a weekly video series produced by Cosmic Centaurs, and this second season is all about the magic of teams. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 3:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, is joined by some incredible guests to share insights, opinions, and perspectives about what makes teams cohesive, high-performing, and happy.
In this first episode of the season, and the first of the team dynamics chapter, Marilyn and Connie Hadley discuss what makes a team, a team, and the dynamics that enable them to bring more than the sum of their parts. Connie shared her insights on meetings, asynchronous work, the importance of connections between team members, and psychological safety.
Watch the full episode here.
Dr. Constance Noonan Hadley, also known as Connie, is a researcher and speaker on the future of work, psychological safety, loneliness, well-being, team dynamics, and inclusive cultures. Her goal is to help organizations identify and address pain points so that work life can be improved for all employees.
Her work has been published in Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Wired, and other outlets.
Connie holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and a BA from Princeton University.
Previously, Connie worked in the fields of management consulting at McKinsey & Company and in marketing and operations at General Mills, Inc. Her favorite extracurriculars include advising the MBA Internship Fund for Social Impact at BU and serving on the Board of Trustees at McLean Hospital, a leader in mental health.
About The Topic
To introduce the topic, Marilyn first highlighted the difference between teams, and other forms of people working together. She quoted an article she is co-writing with Jo Santos, Affiliated Professor of Practice in Global Management at INSEAD: “Group Work is a two-word expression, whereas teamwork is written as a single word. In many ways, this is the perfect metaphor to explain the difference between the two. The first is a collation of the work of two or more individuals, while the latter is a melded output, where the work of each individual is indissociable from that of the team.”
To understand what makes teams what they are, and how team members can come up with an output greater than the sum of their parts, it’s important to look into the dynamics between those team members. To underline the most important dynamics to consider, Marilyn mentioned a 2015 study done by a group of researchers in Google’s People Operations, code-named Project Aristotle. This study found that the five major components that make teams high performing are psychological safety, dependability, structure & clarity, meaning, and impact.
Marilyn started the episode by asking Connie how she would define a team.
Connie agrees with Marilyn’s note that not every group of people working together can be considered a team, and mentioned that she does not like the dictionary definition of a team, which places an emphasis on the group part instead of the design and dynamic aspect.
Connie then referred to Richard Hackman’s main components of what defines a team. According to him, teams have a:
Clear and motivating direction towards a certain goal (Connie added that direction needs to be cohesive as well).
Sense of boundedness: knowing who is on the team and who isn’t.
Sense of stable membership: one of the reasons people might not know who is on their team and who isn’t is because there are shifting doors for membership. It’s unrealistic to expect a team to have the same members from beginning until the end, but some sense of stability is important.
Clearly defined roles: everyone has a place on the team, everyone knows what they’re doing, and how they’re contributing.
Sense of integration: having the characteristics mentioned above is not enough, as you could still have people work in parallel without combining their ideas and implementation processes together. “That doesn’t make a team”, Connie said. “A team should be more than the sum of its parts, that old phrase”.
“It’s the sense of synergy that you get when you combine different inputs. That’s how I would define a team”, said Connie.
What makes a great team?
When asked about what makes a great team, Connie mentioned the role of norms (in addition to having the right foundation and place), and emphasized on the role of psychological safety.
“Psychological safety is the feeling that you can take a risk within a team by sharing a new idea, asking a tough question, raising a concern, or admitting to a mistake. Those are all indicators that your team set norms or rules that it is okay not to be perfect. It is okay to take a chance, you wouldn’t be penalized for it. I think that is a really big aspect of teams", Connie said.
Connie went on to elaborate that psychological safety needs to be explicit. “People can intuitively know that they can do these things, but they do not operationalize them. It’s really important to make it explicit, especially at the beginning. How are we going to work together? What is expected, and what is not? Once you have that kind of clarity and communal decision making, it carries the team throughout, so you can continue to reassess your norms.”
The importance of connections between team members
Connie shared her insights from a time she studied the internal mechanisms in people working in a highly stressful environment, to learn how they pace themselves and take care of themselves. “It turned out through my research, that what had the biggest impact were the conversations people had with their colleagues. People need to process these emotions, and they rely on the people around them, as those could provide more helpful support. To be able to have those conversations, you need to understand context, and actually know those people.”
She elaborated that it’s not that people are instrumental, but having those conversations is important to enforce a sense of belonging. Investing in personal connections can enable open-channeled communication, which can be used to offer help, provide ideas, and face challenges. If we know someone, and we have something in common, and they have shown vulnerability to us in previous conversations, we’re more likely to feel comfortable. It is possible to do that remotely, but it takes a lot of intention, effort, and courage.
Connie specified that once you have the connection, it doesn’t mean it is done, you have to maintain it, and having tools (in remote settings) and common interests can help. Marilyn mentioned here the role of AION in doing that with her remote team at Cosmic Centaurs, as it provides them an opportunity to connect. She elaborated, “Sometimes, it can be about how we’re feeling, and sometimes, it’s about what news is going on. We don’t have to use it everyday, but knowing the door is open helps a lot.”
Marilyn then asked Connie if teams require leaders. “It depends!”, she answered. “There are no absolutes. But, I think teams need leadership. So, without that there will be inefficiency. Whether they need designated leaders is up to them, if the team can self manage that's fine.”
Conflict in teams
Moving on to conflicts in teams, Marilyn asked Connie what aspects of conflict are bad for teams, and are they worse for remote teams?
Connie started her answer by noting that conflict can be broken down into different categories, and it can help teams understand whether it’s good or bad. “Conflict about tasks or processes can be very productive, as groupthink can be harmful, because you need tension around the answers and know how to figure out projects. However, interpersonal conflicts aren’t helpful. Suspicions and not liking each other can be upsetting, distracting, and undermining collaboration - the whole point of a team. Although task conflict can be good for teams, it can quickly degenerate into interpersonal conflict. In some ways, the trigger can be good, but it can be a good trigger gone bad. It’s important to diagnose, and look down at the verbal and non verbal communication. What were the origins? What happened? Often it's a meeting, or an email that was really not taken well. Doing excavation work can help the group re-orient to the original content and remove the interpersonal stuff.”
Connie explained, “But the other thing that can happen is, because we carry baggage from others, or just do not know each other that well, without basis for affinity and trust - the minute something bad arrives, we jump into the conclusion that this person is out to get us, or not to contribute.”
“This lateral inference where we see behaviors, and quickly assume an assumption, can be exacerbated in remote settings, as the lack of ability to see things in person can be a barrier to team dynamics.”
What about meetings?
Marilyn then asked Connie about the role of meetings in team dynamics. She answered, “First of all, I get why meetings can be discouraging to organizational life. But meetings are where you have that spontaneous melding, that you can’t just get from handing work to each other, or doing asynchronous work! We get jazzy energy from those interactions, and not knowing where the conversation is going. But teams need to schedule them better.” She elaborated on that point in that meetings are an important vehicle for collaboration, but can get in the way of getting deep work done when they aren’t scheduled properly.
Connie then shared an anecdote about a senior leadership team she was working with. They had an overwhelming number of meetings during the week, so they agreed to having no meetings for six weeks to see if they were still needed. “It turned out, the one meeting that was needed was the unstructured one. The one where they just spoke about what’s on their minds, relax themselves, and have an open conversation. That taught us about the vehicle that meetings provide.”
This echoed with Marilyn, as she highlighted that we need space for human connections: “We can write down information, data, interpretations...there’s so much we can do in writing, but there’s also so much that we can’t.”
Values in team cohesion
Marilyn then asked Connie about the roles values play in team cohesion.
Connie answered, “Values are important, but I think sometimes there's too much of a tendency to screen people and screen out people, to see if they share our values. People almost use them as a litmus test, to see if they're willing to engage with someone or not. I think you want to have a value system that has enough overlap, so that you have those points of affinity, but not so much that everyone is alike. It’s interesting to have conversations with people with different value systems.”
She continued, “A question about making difficult decisions brings out so many value systems. Of course in the beginning people make decisions based on values, but the tougher the dilemma the more they realize it’s not that obvious, and they might have to decide based on a different set of values. Sometimes there are no answers! You need to get creative, and to make a decision based on different points of view. This goes back to the theme of having open conversations in your team: don’t assume the person sitting next to you at a conference table has the same values as you.”
“Get curious about other people’s values, and look not to judge, just to understand. And then hopefully, you will find some common grounds", said Connie.
Marilyn added, “After all, the magic of teams has to do with common grounds, but also with differences. If we were all the same, we wouldn’t be able to leverage that diversity.”
The shift to remote work
Marilyn went on to ask Connie about an article she wrote with Mark Mortesnen for HBR at the beginning of the pandemic, about how companies can shift to remote work, using a model involving triage, stabilization, and long-term care. Connie elaborated on the different steps of the model.
Triage: “When a team needs help, you need to know the underlying problem of what we see on the surface as a dysfunction. And so, we said, let’s use two basic lenses: one that focuses on the task issues, and one on the people issues. And so we gave diagnostic questions. On the task side, are the teams still doing something meaningful and useful? Are their projects still useful? And on the people's side, you need to know, are there people sniping at each other, forming sub-groups?”
Stabilization phase: “It’s the bandage that stops the bleeding. The problem with that phase, is that there might be a team that is already dead, because of the task being diagnosed as not being that important, the team might not be needed. However, you can find a different goal to keep going.”
Long-term care: “We didn’t want people to forget that teams are organisms in a dynamic, changing environment. You can’t fix things and just be done. To keep checking in, and having longer term support, think about what happens outside the team. Think about the context of the team. Do you have a reward system? One that is organizing the team to be collaborative and competitive? Do you have a reward system for people who invest in people? Do you have available coaches and advisors? Do you have the resources to get the job done? These are part of the long term care. It’s about aligning the contexts with the right conditions for success.”
The one thing every team needs is…”Psychological safety. It is the bedrock of great things to come.”
The one thing a team needs to avoid… “Going back to having conflicting reward systems in place. Anything that sets people to pit against one another is deadly.”
A good team leader is…”A team leader who isn't constantly trying to impress others, someone who can take criticism, and wants the best for other people. They do everything they can to help the rest of the group be successful.”
The best book on teams is…”The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmondson”
What's your favorite team ritual... “Sharing good news! We had this ritual in place in my distributed group for fifteen years. At the beginning of every meeting, we all have to share good news, not necessarily related to work. It works as a ritual because everyone has to do it, and so it removes the embarrassment and self-censorship that often happens, because people might think it looks like they are bragging or distracting others. It’s kind of like a rapid fire, and I love it because I wouldn’t know about what’s going on in their lives otherwise! I appreciate them sharing that with me. It makes me feel closer to them. It makes me feel like I know them better.”