Turn Groups into Teams


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

Turn Groups into Teams

“Committee—a group of men who individually can do nothing but as a group decide that nothing can be done.”

— Fred Allen

From grade school onward, we’ve learned to dread group projects. The reasons are many:

  • They are inefficient and frustrating.
  • Personalities derail progress.
  • One or two voices dominate, and everyone else stays quiet.
  • Yes-people simply applaud any idea the leader presents.
  • A few individuals actually do the work, making the rest of the group superfluous.
  • The group is dumber than the individuals in it.

Yes, these descriptions match many groups. But imagine if your work groups could have the opposite profile:

  • The group is efficient and energizing.
  • People work well together.
  • Each member shares perspective and expertise.
  • The leader facilitates a real exchange of ideas.
  • All group members take on a portion of the collective work.
  • The group is smarter than the individuals in it.

Is such a mythical group possible?

In her new book The Extended Mind, Annie Murphy Paul provides specific strategies for turning a fractious collection of individuals into a group that exhibits all these qualities—and indeed exercises collective intelligence. Effective teams are founded on synchrony.

What is synchrony?

Synchrony means moving at the same time, in the same way. Groups can be synchronized both physically and psychologically.

How can we physically synchronize groups?

Physical synchrony occurs when group members in the same place use their major muscle groups in the same way and at the same time.

Paul cites numerous real-world examples of how groups synchronize themselves physically:

Soldiers Marching (via Wikimedia Commons)
  • Soldiers march in close-order drills, getting individuals to act and think as a single unit.
  • Japanese citizens, from pre-schoolers to centenarians, do morning calisthenics at exactly the same time, in a prescribed order—unifying classrooms, boardrooms, and the whole society.
  • Churchgoers stand, sit, kneel, speak, and sing in unison, transforming individual believers into a united congregation.

Clearly, work groups cannot be asked to perform drills or religious rituals. However, they can use other physically synchronizing activities to get individuals to connect:

  • Mirror movements: We unconsciously mirror others’ body language to express synchrony, but we can also consciously do so. To connect with others in your group, assume the same body language and energy. If the person leans forward, lean forward. If the person crosses legs, cross legs. You’ll find that bringing your bodies into sync brings your attention into sync as well.
  • Use your eyes: Look at whoever is speaking and show with your facial expression that you are listening. Point your gaze in the same direction as others in your group. When presenting to the group, use visual aids to direct team members’ eyes to a common focus. Shared attention synchronizes groups both physically and psychologically.
  • Take a walk: Have a small group meet during a walk around a block or two. Have a larger meeting begin with a five-minute circuit of the parking lot. Group members will move together, synchronize their steps, and sit down later fully oxygenated—ready to think.
  • Take a break: When group work stalls, tell everyone to stand up and stretch. They will gladly move their major muscle groups, mirroring each other. When group members sit again, they will be better synchronized and refreshed for collaboration.
  • Take a meal: When groups share meals—especially served “family style,” such as pizzas in the center of the table—the physical act of lifting food, chewing, swallowing, and drinking links the members. Dining together creates a primal sense of tribe.

How can we psychologically synchronize groups?

In addition to physically syncing groups, we can get group members to feel together and think together:

  • Connect with group members. Before launching into business, spend a few moments reinforcing human connections. Annie Murphy Paul suggests asking each group member a simple question: “How are you feeling?” (not “How are you?”). Participants sometimes respond with fairly superficial answers, such as “I’m hungry” or “I’m warm,” but often someone will volunteer something deeper: “I’m worried about how we’re going to complete this renovation by December 1.” Some even offer personal stories that bond group members together, creating trust. “I’m trying to decide if I should get a cat to replace Gato. I don’t want to be alone, but I don’t know if I can put up with the heartache of losing another friend.” Starting a meeting with this sort of honest sharing helps the whole group empathize—literally feeling together.
  • Set a common goal. Individuals gather with many different goals—to impress the boss, to avoid ridicule, to promote a specific idea, to get out of the meeting as quickly as possible. The goal of the group needs to supersede all of these. State the goal up front, using “we” language and aligning it with the needs of group members:
    • We need to come up with another best-selling product.
  • Tell a story. After stating the goal, tell a story that relates to the main topic at hand, but that also includes an emotional component that can connect group members.
    • Remember when we developed the Instant Garden? “Just roll out and water!” It was a lot of work to design and produce, but the market loved it. People who didn’t have the time or expertise to garden suddenly could. That felt great! We need to innovate something else as cool as the Instant Garden.
  • Record group thinking visually. On a whiteboard or flipchart, record ideas in lists, Venn diagrams, pro-con charts, SWOT analyses, and other visuals. These records allow group members to focus their thoughts and collaboratively shape them. Leave these visuals where group members can review them after the meeting.
  • Create a shared experience. Set up your next meeting as an “escape room.” Set a clear goal (e.g., “We need our 10 strongest new-product ideas to present to management.”) and a ticking clock (e.g., “We have until 10:15.”). The common challenge, the perceived peril, and the scarce time will synchronize group members emotionally and psychologically. They will become a team, and their shared success (or failure) will bond them for other collaborative work.
  • Use competition as well as collaboration. Instead of having 12 people work together on a problem, have four subgroups of three try to solve it, and then report back to the larger group. “Each subgroup needs to present at least five new product ideas. Then we’ll select the top 10 to send to management.” Subgroups give every member a voice, and competition among subgroups makes everyone want to present a solid solution. Then have the whole group work together to select the best solution—or to create a new one drawing from the various options.

Where can I learn more about group work?

Watch for next week’s eTip, which focuses on helping groups think—and avoiding groupthink. You can also learn much more about synchrony and collective intelligence in The Extended Mind by Annie Murphy Paul.


Get More Support

Refer to the Write for Business Guide, Courses, and eTips for more help with working in teams.