“The best way to build a great team is not to select individuals for their smarts or accomplishments, but to learn how they communicate and to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.” – Alex “Sandy” Pentland

Keeping pace with the challenges of a fluid, unpredictable world means businesses are reviewing their structure – and reinventing themselves to operate as interconnected units.

This new mode of organisation, aptly named a network of teams, is built on several fundamental principles, including replacing silos, transferring knowledge and accelerating cross-team communication.

If the future of the enterprise lies in teamwork, polishing workforces to achieve Elite Team status should be at the top of every C-Suite’s priority list. Besides, it’s almost impossible to describe a network of teams without including qualities of a high-performing team.

Both an Elite Team and a network of teams:

  • Function with a high degree of empowerment and rapid information flow.
  • Refer to a group of goal-focused individuals with specialised expertise and complementary skills.
  • Collaborate, innovate and produce consistently superior results.

The business’s survival lies in polishing a collection of teams to a high-functioning network of teams.

A network of teams functions much like a well-oiled military, says General Stanley McChrystal in his book Team of Teams. As an elite military unit, each team is a sub-system of excellence within the bigger sphere of the enterprise. Yet, participants are equipped to support each other on an inter-unit basis. If the situation calls for it, individuals can move from one team to the next as they draw from a strong sense of trust and collaborative communication.

In defining Elite Teams, two critical features appear time and again: trust and communication. Trust and communication don’t function in isolation, as the one paves the way to the other in a perpetual positive cycle.

Trust is the cornerstone of collaborative communication

There’s no team without trust, says Dr Laura Delizonna, an instructor at Stanford University. Studies show that psychological safety is a cardinal part of trust. Psychological safety suggests a space where team members have the freedom to speak their minds without the fear of negative repercussions.

Amy Edmondson of Harvard University has pioneered research on psychological safety. She says psychological safety describes an individual’s perceptions about the consequences of taking interpersonal risks their work environment. It contains beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself on the line, such as asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea.

Delizonna explains that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking one’s mind and creativity. A psychologically safe space invites participants to, as Delizonna puts it, “stick your neck out without fear of having it cut off.”

When team members feel safe to express themselves, they are more likely to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships.

Research from the University of North Carolina has found that positive emotions, like curiosity, confidence, and inspiration, are linked to trust. Those positive emotions, in turn, broaden the mind and help build emotional, social, and physical resources.

A safe and trusting team culture starts first and foremost with the leader. Leaders who exhibit supportive managerial behaviours have a positive effect on self-expression. Research shows the three most powerful leadership behaviours that foster psychological safety are:

  • being available and approachable;
  • explicitly inviting input and feedback; and
  • modelling openness and fallibility.

Leaders’ behaviour and choice of words have a profound impact on whether their team members feel safe to be vulnerable with them. A leader who is worth his salt encourages a culture where teammates feel safe amongst each other. Leaders who promote this kind of philosophy cultivate the pinnacle of psychological safety: an opportunity for a healthy level of conflict.

Constructive conflict invites lateral thinking and problem-solving

The only way to avoid conflict is to avoid opportunities for growth, improvement or expansion, says Prof Neil Kokemuller from Iowa State University. Team interactions that allow for constructive conflict contribute to more significant innovation and creative development.

One of the fundamental differences between an average team and an Elite Team is the capability to handle conflict in a constructive way.

Instead of viewing conflict as a negative, a high-performing team sees it as a strength of the collective group. Diverse views help improve thinking, learning and overall performance.

However, it is the leader’s responsibility to facilitate conflict-transformation skills to convert disagreements into robust ideas. Conflict that surfaces must be depersonalised and dealt with straight away, either between individuals or among the collective team.

Conflict-transformation is a skill that involves self-control, patience and intelligence, says clinical psychologist Sherrie Campbell. She underlines that “it requires that we be real and authentic.”

Campbell’s advice, summarised, is that the more the leader – and the teammates – engage in collaborative conflict, the better communicators they become. This is not to say that they should try to create conflict, but the intention is not to be afraid to participate in conflict when it arises.

Delizonna advises leaders to “approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.” Conflict implies the possibility of loss; a perceived loss triggers attempts to re-establish fairness through competition, criticism, or disengagement. Conflict aligns with universal needs of respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. The leader who recognises these deeper human needs, naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language in conflict situations.

In an environment where participants are safe to disagree with each other, team members tend to work more effectively across boundaries. This safe space lowers the interpersonal risk of asking for help, seeking feedback, or delivering bad news. It also increases inter-team communication and coordination.

The three dimensions of team communication

Open communication across the enterprise can impact the success of a single project, says Guy Martin, an engineer and director of open source strategy at Autodesk

Martin explains how inter-team collaboration contributes to a company’s overall culture and its long-term goals. Markedly, open communication also cultivates high-performance teams.

Transparent communication is a non-negotiable attribute to a high-performing – or Elite – team. Alex Pentland of MIT undertook a series of studies on teams and their performance on different tasks. He found that the type of communication within the unit was the single most significant predictor of team performance.

With the team leader setting the pace for success, Pentland says the type of communication hinges on three critical dimensions: Energy, Engagement, and Exploration (or the Triple-E approach).

  • Energy is the number of communication exchanges among team members.
  • Engagement is the distribution of communications across team members (for instance, engagement would be low if most team members are quiet and only a few team members interact, even if it is with high energy).
  • Exploration is the extent to which team members communicate outside the team to gather information to solve problems or share solutions.

Teams with high levels of energy, engagement and exploration are most likely to meet the criteria of high-performing teams. They are also most likely to be comfortable with inter-team knowledge transfer, unorthodox ideas and constructive conflict.

In a follow-up study, Pentland built on the Triple-E approach and found that high-performing teams share these defining characteristics:

  • Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
  • Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
  • Members connect directly with one another – not just with the team leader.
  • Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
  • Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.

Pentland’s research underlines how excellent leaders democratic with their time – communicating with everyone equally and making sure all team members get a chance to contribute. They listen as much as, or more, than they talk and are usually very engaged with whomever they listen to. They also connect their teammates with each other and are comfortable to share ideas. Lastly, they are appropriately exploratory, seeking views from outside the group but not at the expense of their team’s engagement.


Ajit Kambil, 2015. Drivers of team performance. Deloitte. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/insights/us/articles/team-performance/DUP_1389_DoYouHaveATeam.pdf

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, 2012. The New Science of Building Great Teams. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams

Brittany Shoot, 2018. Create high-performing teams with open communication. Slack. Retrieved from https://slackhq.com/high-performing-teams-open-communication

SHRM, 2019. Developing and Sustaining High-Performance Work Teams. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/toolkits/pages/developingandsustaininghigh-performanceworkteams.aspx

Julia Rozovsky, 2015. The five keys to a successful Google team. Re:Work. Retrieved from https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/

Kari Boyle, 2017. 5 Benefits of Workplace Conflict. Queens University. https://irc.queensu.ca/articles/5-benefits-workplace-conflict

Laura Delizonna, 2017. High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it

Martine Haas & Mark Mortensen, 2016. The Secrets of Great Teamwork. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/06/the-secrets-of-great-teamwork

Randy Conley, 2019. The 5 Causes of Psychological Safety and Why You Need to be a Safe Leader. Leading With Trust. Retrieved from https://leadingwithtrust.com/2018/10/08/5-causes-of-psychological-safety/

Sherrie Campbell, 2016. The 10 Benefits of Conflict. Entrepreneur South Africa. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/279778

Tiffany McDowell, Don Miller & Dimple Agarwal, 2016. Organisational design: The rise of teams. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2016/organizational-models-network-of-teams.html

Enjoyed our thinking?
Get in touch to understand how we can support you.