The Learnable Art of Group Chemistry

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timthumbWhen I was in fifth grade in College Gate Elementary, Mrs Hershberger taught me that the best questions were big, obvious questions. So here are three:

  • In sports, why do underdogs win so often, and odds-on favorites fall on their faces?
  • In business, why are some meetings insanely fruitful, and others are torture?
  • In life, why do certain families have an easygoing vibe, while others behave as if they’re unwillingly strapped in a runaway mine car?

The answer is always the same: group chemistry. Which, for many years, was a synonym for “magic”: sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. Who knows why?

That old view is changing, thanks to the new science of sociometrics. Sociometrics uses new technology to give us an x-ray of why certain groups create success, and others create frustration. It’s like Moneyball, with social skills. And the takeaways promise to be nearly as useful and powerful.

Here’s one example that I love: Dr. Marcial Losada studied 60 business teams and tried to determine if there was a set of factors that led to high performance. He analyzed their interactions, focusing on three ratios:

  • 1) positive comments vs. negative comments
  • 2) asking questions vs. advocating for their own position
  • 3) talking about others vs. talking about themselves

The data was stunning. It turned out that high-performing teams had positive/negative comment ratios three times higher than the medium-performing teams, and 15 times higher than the low-performing teams. High performers had question/advocacy ratios 1.6 times higher than the mediums, and 21 times higher than the lows, and other/self ratios 1.5 times higher than the mediums, and no fewer than 31 times higher than the lows.

In short, the chemistry of the high performers depended not on magic, but on social skills and group habits that can be learned. There’s a lot to dig in here, but I’m drawn to a few takeaways.

  • 1) First, make sure people feel safe. If people don’t feel secure and unthreatened, group chemistry has zero chance of happening. As researcher Dr. Barbara Fredrickson writes, “When we are in a state of relative safety and satiety, when there are few threats demanding intense, narrowed attention, positive emotions allow us to pursue our long-term interests.”
  • 2) Be positive, but not too positive. Losada has located a sweet spot in the range between three and 12 positive comments for every negative comment (above 12:1, performance nosedives). And, as he points out, the comments can’t be mindless rah-rah positivity — they need to connect to something real.
  • 3) Avoid self-absorption at all costs. The high-performing groups were notable for their balance — they made about one mention of themselves for every mention of someone else. The low-performing groups, on the other hand, barely mentioned anyone else at all. They were staring at their belly buttons.

Which leaves two possibilities: maybe those low-performing groups are full of clueless, hopelessly dysfunctional people. Or, on the other hand, maybe nobody ever taught them how this stuff works.

Hmmmm. I wonder what Mrs. Hershberger would say?


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5 Responses to “The Learnable Art of Group Chemistry”

  1. Zanetti says:

    Would love to see you write a book about this topic. Obviously group chemistry would be much much more complicated.

  2. This is an important topic to peel back and enjoyed your comments. I believe that one capacity that fosters group chemistry is listening. With this capacity comes respect, empathy, non-judgement, all ways of being that foster innovation and high performance teams.

  3. Converted to practices, these observations can materially improve group performance, and are of great value to people in positions of leadership. Thank you.

  4. Jason Bucata says:

    Just recently stumbled upon your blog. The part here about the questioning/advocacy ratio reminded me of this blog post by Jeff Atwood, wherein he praises Steve McQueen’s character in “The Towering Inferno”: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2009/02/are-you-an-expert.html

  5. Great blog post! Speaking from the perspective of a professional musician who has spent many hours in orchestra rehearsal, I have witnessed group behavior at is best and worst. If the rehearsal situation is one in which the musicians feel threatened, we do indeed narrow our focus. For us, this means trying to play as accurately as possible out of fear instead of listening (which as another a previous comment mentions, is arguably the most important thing one can do in an orchestra or corporate meeting).

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