The Neuroscience of Collaboration: Building Strong Teams
Humans have an innate ability to connect and collaborate. In fact, some say it’s a biological need. As we grow and develop we crave human interaction – regardless of how extraverted or introverted we might think we are. So if we genuinely desire to collaborate, why is effective team collaboration and engagement often one of the most difficult things to achieve in the workplace?
The Amazing and Unique Human Brain
No two brains are alike. Our brains are shaped by our genetics, our environment, our experiences and our thoughts. Human brains can regenerate, prune unused circuits, grow, and reduce in size. We create mental maps for the things we know and do and our maps are unlike anyone else’s, therefore we all think differently. Our tendency to use abbreviations, high level terms and jargon increases the likelihood of miscommunication and misperception. We can never be exactly on the same page as another person.
The SCARF Model
You have no doubt heard about the SCARF model of neuroscience which sets out a framework for threat and reward, based on the five domains of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. If not, you can get up to speed by reading this short article. Given we all come from a slightly different position or level of understanding, it makes sense that we might easily feel a threat response to the behaviour of a team member in the workplace. Being aware of this threat response and working to reduce or eliminate it is important for strong teams.
Our brain also makes a decision as to whether someone is a “friend or foe” upon first coming into contact with them. Unfortunately, the brain defaults to foe in most cases. It can take some time to move a person from the foe to friend zone. If we think someone is like us (i.e. a friend response) we are more likely to trust them and believe they are on the same page as us. If we have a foe response it is likely we will distrust the thoughts and actions of a person, and we are unable to collaborate effectively. A lack of trust and empathy is a barrier to collaboration. Bringing new team members together early and looking for connections and elements of similarity will help reduce the foe response and increase trust. When we build strong personal connections we secrete a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin can minimise the threat response and enable us to view another as friend and ‘just like us.'”
Supporting an Environment of Collaboration
In the workplace the team leader or manager can do a lot to control the climate within a team. Understanding how to minimise threat and maximise reward is an important skill for every people leader to develop. A team culture of reward will create the best environment for collaboration, as well as innovation and engagement.
The alignment of personal purpose and goals with organisation purpose and goals is also important. Shteynberg and Galinsky also reported findings that “participants pursued goals more intensely when they were aware that similar others were experiencing the same individual goal”.
It might also be worthwhile checking out Managing with the Brain in Mind, an article by David Rock. It provides a good overview of SCARF in action and lots of interesting points on leading in a brain-friendly way.
Ten Tips for Building Strong Teams
Below are my ten tips for people managers for improving collaboration and building strong teams:
- Ensure everyone knows the purpose of the team, and their place in the team.
- Set and uphold the ground rules for interaction and behaviour.
- Communicate and interact in a way that promotes a reward culture.
- Spend time building relationships and fostering trust.
- Create opportunities and allow time for team members to interact at a personal level.
- Foster self-awareness to see the alignment goals and purpose with that of the organisation.
- Be fully present during conversations.
- Be open and honest when going through change; help the team to understand what can be controlled, what can be predicted, and what is still fluid.
- Recognise and reward staff in ways that suit their personality and reward triggers.
- Provide team members with the opportunity to learn, grow and undertake work they find meaningful and feel rewarding.