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Trying to Develop an Effective Team? Don’t overlook this key element

Source |linkedin  | By|Jacqueline Ackermen

Teams are complex – “lots of moving parts,” as the saying goes. But focusing on one or two underlying aspects of team functioning might make that complexity more manageable. For instance, how often do leaders consider working on empathy (or social connectedness) in teams? The research would suggest it’s an integral component in effective teams – and it might not be getting the attention it deserves.


While working with an executive leadership team recently, we had a discussion about what was hampering the team from operating at the highest level. Most of it will seem familiar to any executive team: Not having enough time to focus on strategy and vision. Prioritizing the many tasks executives have in front of them daily, if not hourly. Ensuring that the teams below them are hearing the messages from the top and are motivated to carry out the company’s mission. None of this was surprising.

What was more interesting, and perhaps more fundamental to this team’s effectiveness, was how the team was interacting. They weren’t listening to each other. They were talking over each over. Social cues seemed off. Some people weren’t speaking while others were dominating. Comments that should have sparked conversations weren’t picked up on.

It became clear that this, not a focus on strategy or fixing fire drills, was the team dynamic that we should be talking about. How this team communicated and collaborated with one another was arguably more important than all of the business priorities we’d been discussing.


We are finding in our work and research with teams that this concept of social connectedness is quite powerful in team effectiveness. Teams who lack empathy and exhibit poor communication patterns won’t be able to successfully get at their business priorities. They won’t build the required trust to discuss the real issues in a constructive way. Team empathy is the price of admission and little of importance can be accomplished by a team seriously lacking this quality.

A study at MIT analyzed teams that were exceptional at decision-making. When looking at what differentiated these teams from teams that struggled to perform, they noted that the effective teams were consistently more able to read one another’s subtle cues in mood and demeanor. Essentially, the teams that had more empathy and time with each other were more effective.

We tend to think of leaders who have more empathy as being able to more effectively build relationships with others and connect with their teams, but this capability is rarely discussed as a team trait. Being alert to one another on a team can help with understanding what each team member needs to be effective and how to view things from the other’s perspective. Team empathy makes the team more resilient and better able to tackle problems productively.

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