Emotional intelligence and trust are the key to a winning team

Emotional intelligence and trust are the key to a winning team

In sport and business, says former Ireland rugby captain Phillip Matthews, high-performance culture is down to an underlying dynamic of ‘psychological safety’

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11th September, 2021

What really makes a high-performance team tick? Often, we think it comes down to the right combination of the best skills and brightest minds. As Phillip Matthews sees it, however, high-performance teams require much more than IQ and intellect to achieve the best results.

At the beating heart of any winning team — be it in sport or business — is a finely calibrated system of trust and communication.

“There is sometimes this notion that a high-performing team is one made up of individuals who are each highly skilled and experienced in their own domain, or proven to be highly intelligent,” Matthews said.

“Experience is important and IQ is important, there is no doubt about that. But the research in this area shows that much more goes into distinguishing a high-performing team.

“What really makes a team successful are factors such as diverse thinking and a pattern of communication that is very even, allowing for all opinions to be heard even when they don’t align. Great teams recognise that groupthink is the enemy of innovation.”

A former Ireland rugby captain, Matthews works with business leaders as an executive coach, and was one of the speakers at the Best Managed Companies symposium hosted virtually last Wednesday by the Irish Management Institute.

“In high-performance teams generally, you tend to see a high level of emotional intelligence, whereby people are comfortable being vulnerable, open about their mistakes, challenging others on the team and accepting the same in return,” Matthews said.

This lays the foundations for diverse thinking, collaboration and the innovation both can bring, and the key to this high-performance culture is an underlying dynamic Matthews calls ‘psychological safety’.

“Psychological safety is fundamental. It means that, as a member of a team, you fundamentally trust that, if you openly disagree or say something that is contradictory to the views of another team member — even the team leader — you won’t face negative consequences,” Matthews said.

In order to build this foundation of trust, it’s important that team members get to know each other as people, above and beyond their roles and responsibilities on the team.

“Team members need to know each other personally; to value each others’ qualities, but also accept each others’ weaknesses,” Mathews said.

“There can be no egos, and there are a whole set of conditions here around being open to being vulnerable — in other words, being able to admit your mistakes, being accountable and also open to learning.”

Crucial to an individual’s sense of psychological safety is their ability to inherently trust the intent of other team members.

“This means that, when another team member doesn’t agree with you about something, you’re not thinking ‘they don’t agree with me because they don’t like me’. Instead, you’re thinking ‘they are challenging me because they really care and they want the best outcome for the team’,” Matthews said.

These team dynamics matter now more than ever before because of the added challenges remote and hybrid working practices bring to the table.

“Many will have gone into the pandemic and virtual working as a team without any real understanding of what a real team is, and the very high level of interdependency it brings with it,” Matthews said.

“A sense of psychological safety can be more difficult to achieve when we are working together remotely using virtual tools, simply because we don’t have access to the same range of physical cues we recognise when we are working together in person.

“Psychological safety is about feeling safe to say what’s on your mind, challenge others and hold each other accountable. For teams that didn’t have that coming into the pandemic, trying to maintain performance while working remotely will have been more challenging.

“If you have a situation where people on the team are, for example, thinking ‘I don’t feel I am being treated with respect’ or ‘I don’t think my opinion is valued’, then maintaining momentum and cohesion throughout the pandemic, with the added hurdle or remote video, phone and email communication, will have been even more difficult.”

Team leaders who have faced these challenges in recent months, and whose teams are likely to continue working remotely at least some of the time, may need to intervene to break down existing barriers to healthy communication, trust and accountability.

“The first thing I do with teams is teach them about what psychological safety is, and how high-performing teams actually work,” Matthews said.

“I talk to them about the importance of constructive interaction – having those honest conversations that mean everyone on the team is aligned and can make the decisions they need to make together, while being individually accountable.

“By asking people to reflect and ask: ‘Are these capacities inherent in our team?’ or ‘Do I feel safe to say what’s really on my mind?’, you can help them to work on the problems that exist and get them to a point where they can say ‘It’s true; we’re not as open with one another as we could be’.

“From there, you might start to look at how this might be affecting the performance and efficiency of the team. They might start to see more clearly why some people on the team consistently do more work than others, for example, because people are not being held accountable.

“Ultimately, what you’re aiming for is a fundamental shift in the team dynamics towards a more trusting, open and accountable way of working.”

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