Team communication and the link with performance

“…team communication plays a critical role in furthering team performance”

An American research team has carried out some interesting research to explore the extent to which communication has an impact on team performance. Published in the January 2018 edition of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, the researchers wanted to explore the level of communication need to achieve high performance across a variety of conditions.

The research

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis, examining 150 studies covering 9,702 teams. Working in pairs, they coded the studies against three areas:

  1. Team characteristics – familiarity, virtuality and leadership structure;
  2. Task characteristics – type of task and degree of interdependence; and
  3. Communication type – content, quality and frequency.

They also did a deeper dive in to types of communication, looking at eight different categories of communication:

  1. Unique information sharing – i.e. information that is already known by all team members;
  2. General information sharing – i.e. the level and frequency of information shared;
  3. Knowledge sharing – i.e. team members sharing expertise;
  4. Openness of communication – i.e. level of comfort in talking openly with each other;
  5. Content analysis coded – i.e. communicated rated independently and cateorised;
  6. Information elaboration – i.e. the extent to which information is shared an elaborated on;
  7. Self-report of frequency – i.e. subjective assessment of amount of information; and
  8. Objective measures of frequency – i.e. objective analysis of things like emails.

Following their analysis, the researchers conducted follow-up exploratory analysis to see if certain factors, such as type of research study, impacted the results. They were confident from this additional analysis that there was no impact.

The findings

“Quality was found to have a significantly stronger relationship with performance than frequency, providing support to the idea that too much communication may impart unnecessary noise that mitigates, rather than enhances, performance”

  1. Communication is significantly and positively related to team performance.
  2. The relationship between communication and performance is stronger in teams where there is familiarity.
  3. The relationship between communication and performance is stronger in face-to-face teams than in completely virtual teams. Although the researchers did find a similar degree of strength for hybrid teams (i.e. mix of face-to-face and virtual working).
  4. There is little discernible difference between teams with shared leadership and teams with hierarchical leadership, in relation to communication and performance.
  5. The level of interdependence between team members had no clear impact on communication and performance. Although the researchers urge caution with this finding as the majority of studies they examined mainly looked at interdependent teams, with very few looking at independent working. This meant they had no equal basis for comparison.
  6. The type of task being carried out did not have a clear impact on communication and performance. It didn’t matter whether it was a cognitive-based task or an action-based task.
  7. The quality of communication had a bigger impact on performance than the frequency of communication.
  8. The content of communication didn’t seem to impact performance, with no real difference between content which was interpersonal in nature or task-focused.

Implications and solutions

“…as familiarity increases, team communication becomes even more strongly related to team performance”

A key message I always give in my high-performing team workshop is that building and maintaining high-performing teams takes a long time and a lot of consistent effort. Communication and engagement, in particular, takes time, care and dedication. This comes up time and time again when I research high-performance teams in organisations across different sectors and so, it is helpful to have this latest research to back this up.

This research offers some food-for-thought for team managers, namely:

  1. Level of familiarity is key. How well do team members know each other? How well do they know you and vice versa? Scheduling in regular team building and development is crucial for developing strong bonds. This means a mix of formal (such as away days or training) and informal (such as lunching together or a night out).
  2. Are you communicating too much, too little, or just right? Ask your team for their feedback on tone, content and frequency of communication. This is particularly important if your team is 100% virtual. Developing some ground rules for communicating well can be a good place to start.
  3. How do you ensure quality communication? Good tests for this include ease of understanding but also the level of recall people have of messaging.
  4. It’s not just about your communication with your team members. It’s also about how they communicate with each other. How good would you say that is? How respectful and open?
  5. The research didn’t explore how teams communicate with other teams (surely an important part of overall organisational performance?) However, there’s no reason you can’t. For teams who have high familiarity, they can develop their own language. A short-hand if you will. This can be excluding of other teams yours might need to work with. By testing quality of communication with other teams, you can ensure that not only is your team high-performing but they are working in a way with others than ensures successful projects.

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