Too much positivity increases Risk

The article Organizational Culture: An Overlooked Internal Risk in Business Week has useful data about how employees tend to hide bad news:

  • Nearly half of executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to company performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by being the bearer of bad news.
  • Only 19 percent of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news material to company performance.

The article points out that the corporate culture drives this behavior and the employee intent is not likely malicious. Clearly, there is a confirmation bias in most organizations.  The article points out that there are likely to be several reasons for this:

  1. It affirms your preexisting emotions (you wanted the meetings to go well and believe in the strategy)
  2. it reflects well on your own performance (it’s your job to communicate in a compelling way)
  3. it is not incorrect (generally speaking, the meetings went very well)
  4. perhaps you don’t believe your CEO is interested in hearing contrary feedback.

The survey shows that breaking down this communication barrier brings measurable benefits to the organization. The article suggest that managers should encourage employees to speak up, help eliminate the fear of retaliation (through actions, not just words) and educate employees how to speak up / escalate issues constructively.

So what specifically can be done?  We can encourage skepticism and questioning in R&D teams.  We can reward failure to encourage risk taking and communication of bad news.  Furthermore, a questioning environment actually is shown to drive innovation.

What Makes Teams Smart

An interesting paper in Science extends the concept of intelligence to teams and defines Collective Intelligence.  Based on study of 699 people working in small teams of 2-5 people, the study found that team intelligence is driven by three factors:

  1. Social sensitivity of team members increases team intelligence.  More sensitive the team members are about social cues such as facial expression, the better the team performs
  2. Teams where everyone participated in the discussion were more intelligent.  If few people dominated the discussion, the collective intelligence went down.  This is something R&D managers should keep in mind.  It is very easy for managers to dominate team discussions.
  3. Teams with women members were more intelligence than others.  This is likely because women tend to have higher social sensitivity than men.

Equally interesting is the list of factors that does not drive team intelligence. (via MIT Sloan Review and
What Makes Teams Smart):

Interestingly, the researchers found that collective intelligence wasn’t strongly correlated with the average intelligence of the individuals in the group — or with the intelligence of the smartest person in the group. They also found, as they wrote in Science, ”that many of the factors one might have expected to predict group performance — such as group cohesion, motivation, and satisfaction — did not.”

So what can you do about improving team performance?  Check out the article How to Keep Your Team Loose.  Or this one on where to focus on driving performance.