Sally led a small team of four professionals in a fast growing non-profit that was fiercely committed to impacting the community’s quality of life. She was a dynamic speaker, effectively promoting their programs. Sally and her staff were clear about their roles and goals and met regularly to track progress and they had good systems and processes to support their efforts. Each team member had experience in their field, a solid track record and an above average level of communication skills.
To anyone, they looked like a winning team; yet, despite their many assets, their results were mediocre. Like many talented people, they were much more effective when they worked individually rather than as a team. Somehow when teamwork was necessary, which was often, their performance suffered.
Why would a team such as Sally’s have such poor team performance, equipped as they were with experienced business leaders and strong organizational fundamentals?
According to research conducted over the past 15 years by emotional intelligence experts Vanessa Urch Druskat and Steven B. Wolff, what Sally’s team lacked was group-level emotional intelligence (EI). This type of emotional intelligence is more complex than individual emotional intelligence (and so is not necessarily present when individual team members are themselves emotionally intelligent) because the group must be aware of and able to regulate the emotions of its members, the group’s own emotions or moods, and the emotions of other groups with which they work and interact.
To investigate the role of team EI on group performance, Druskat and Wolff conducted a study with 109 teams across 6 companies (4 of which were Fortune 500) that examined social capital and the presence of three conditions for group effectiveness—trust among members, a shared group identity, and a sense of group efficacy. Their results showed that teams who exhibited team emotional intelligence generated these three necessary conditions and performed 25% better than teams that did not.
Their work suggests that the social science principal that defines behavior as a function of a person in a specific environment, has critical applications for predicting the effectiveness of teams. For example, otherwise collaborative, assertive people will exhibit totally different behaviors in a climate that suppresses free expression. In the case of Sally’s team, because Sally was an extremely performance-driven leader, she allowed no time to build relationships or express needs or preferences when the team gathered. She ran meetings with attention to efficiency, driving discussion of tasks without regard for interpersonal interchange or sensitivity to how her style affected the group. As a result, the team felt pressured to produce, feared her disappointment, and competed for her approval. Worse still, when problems were raised, it was in an atmosphere of blame. Because they felt unsafe in the group, members protected themselves, which resulted in a failure to objectively analyze issues and imagine solutions.
To help well-intentioned leaders like Sally build emotional intelligence within their groups, Druskat and Wolff developed a tool that guides the team in establishing norms that acknowledge and regulate emotions on the individual, group, and cross-boundary levels. This allows the team to intelligently use the emotions that arise naturally in a team to help it learn and increase its effectiveness. Most importantly, the tool gives each team a language and format to express their frustrations and perceptions in a way that leads to the productive resolution of challenges and conflicts and the effective integration of all the wisdom available in the team.
By building in processes for sharing experiences and perspectives, recognizing contributions and enforcing group norms, Sally’s team was eventually able to reset its dynamic and improve its performance. Though the transition was admittedly challenging to negotiate, team members now have a sense of safety that enables them to demonstrate their power as a cohesive team. Moreover, Sally is relieved of the pressure to monopolize meetings and is better able to spend her time on higher-level opportunities.