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The Neuroscience of Teamwork

By : Dr John Eliastam | Smartchoices

Many people I speak to at workshops describe a kind of disconnect when it comes to teamwork. Tasks and projects involving teams occupy around half of the average person’s workday. But, for many people, working in teams is a frustrating experience that often doesn’t produce great results. Recent research in neuroscience suggests that the challenges of teamwork are largely a result of our biology. The way our brains are wired is both our biggest asset and the source of our greatest problems. Our brains have developed with powerful survival mechanisms that trigger emotional reactions to threats, whether these are real or perceived. The challenge for leaders and organisations is to harness the brain’s capacity for connection, meaningful bonds, and collaboration, and avoid the powerful biological responses that are often at the heart of broken relationships and failed teams. Recent insights from neuroscience can help us to do this. When the elements described below are present, they trigger certain brain activity, and this results in healthy, high performing teams.

When leaders can be “real” – open about their own weaknesses and mistakes as well as their strengths, or accept feedback and input from team members, it creates a climate of openness and trust. This is due to a chemical in the brain known as oxytocin, which is a key ingredient in trust. Paul Zak, the author of The Neuroscience of Trust, showed that when we trust others they reciprocate by becoming more trustworthy and more trusting because their brains create oxytocin. This makes us feel more trusted and trusting, which generates even greater trust in them.

Simon Sinek, the author of Start with Why shows that a sense of purpose triggers the limbic region of our brain. This is the part of the brain that produces emotions, gut feelings, and things like loyalty. Research has shown that the limbic system influences our decisions and behaviour, rather than information, instructions or persuasion, which are processed by the rational, thinking part of the brain called the neocortex.

Paul Zak also discovered that when a team is assigned a difficult but achievable task, the moderate stress involved causes neurochemicals to be released that increase people’s focus and reinforce social connections. The need to work together to reach the goal results in brain activity that coordinates people’s behaviours. This only takes place if the challenge is achievable and has a clear end point. Goals that are vague or unattainable just discourage people.

Zak’s work also highlights the power of recognition in teams. Recognition not only releases oxytocin, which fosters trust and collaboration, but it also inspires others to aim for the same levels of excellence. Neuroscience shows that recognition needs to occur immediately after a goal has been achieved, and be tangible, personal, and public for it to have the greatest impact.

Multiple studies have shown that psychological safety is a key feature of great teams. In her TED talk, Harvard Professor Amy Edmundson defines this as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

Research has shown that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. A study at Google found that managers who cared about the success and personal well-being of subordinates outperformed those who did not in both the quality and quantity of their work. Regular one-on-one meetings with other team members create empathy, break down barriers, generate enthusiasm, and improve communication.

The positive feelings that arise from what I’ve described above are contagious – but so are the negative ones that exist in dysfunctional teams. The activity of mirror neurons leads to something called emotional contagion, in which people “catch” each other’s emotional states. One way or another, brain activity and the emotions that accompany it will determine your team’s performance. Over the next few issues of Business Hi-Lite, I will unpack these in more detail and describe the practical ways in which organisations can harness these insights to build the kind of strong, cohesive teams that drive performance.

Edmundson, A. 2014, Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Garvin, D. 2013, How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management, Harvard Business Review

Sinek, S. 2011, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, London: Penguin

Zack, P. 2017, The neuroscience of trust, Harvard Business Review