High Performance Teams Need People Who Like Each Other

We spend a high percentage of our waking hours interacting with our work colleagues.

Conventional wisdom has it that coworkers don’t have to like each other; they just need to do their jobs.

According to some very interesting research coming out of Carnegie-Mellon and M.I.T. (not exactly epicenters of the “touchy-feely” school of business management) conventional wisdom, once again, turns out to be more conventional than wise.

Their study makes the case that liking your coworkers is much more than a “nice to have” luxury item, it is an essential element of high performing teams.

Practically everything a business needs to do in our hyper-connected warp speed world needs to be done by teams of people. This new research suggests that it’s not enough for the people on these teams to be intelligent, skilled and task-focused.

To perform at the very highest level the people on these teams need to like each other.

So what does “liking each other” mean in behavioral terms and how does this help teams to boost performance?

If you observe the following behaviors in a group, the odds are that you are looking at a high performing team:

  1. Everyone has the opportunity to participate and talk in roughly the same proportion
  2. Before and after the formal meeting people may hang out and socialize a bit
  3. Team members share personal stories and emotions with each other.

These three indicators are associated with higher performance levels because they effectively create a psychologically safe environment for people to speak up, take risks, be themselves, energize one another and confidently do their best work.

It goes without saying that teams also need to be competent and hard-working to reach the highest performance levels, but the research makes clear that group success is more than the sum of individual skills.

Two critical takeaways from this research are:

  1. Great teammates make each other better. The pleasure of performing well and achieving something of value is facilitated and amplified by the experience of camaraderie.
  2. Toxic relationships among employees are more than simply annoying distractions; they are a major obstacle to productivity and should be addressed with a commensurate sense of urgency.

These findings are buttressed by some fascinating neuroscience research that is leveraging the most advanced brain imaging technologies. Neuroscientists are now able to see on a CAT scan that the experiences of feeling excluded, betrayed or unrecognized at work evoke the same reaction in the brain as physical pain.

When we feel pain it triggers a stress response which immediately reorients us, physically and psychologically, to defend ourselves against the perceived threat. Once the stress alarm is activated work focus, analytic thinking, creative insight and problem-solving decline precipitously.

In other words, productivity goes out the window.

Many companies are beginning to recognize the true price of incivility and disrespectful behavior in the workplace and are developing systems to ensure they are hiring, teaching and rewarding collegiality.

In the EAP world we see how much management time is wasted on dealing with the fallout from rude and inconsiderate behavior in the workplace. We also see the results in our office on the faces of employees whose health, well-being and personal lives have been harmed by the toxic behavior of coworkers and supervisors.

It doesn’t cost a business anything extra to realize the competitive advantages of having an environment that prioritizes collegiality, mutual respect, open communications, civility and fairness.

This new research makes it clear, however, that organizations lacking a psychologically safe environment will bear the steep price of missed opportunities for creative and productive collaboration.



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