20 Oct The Magic of Communications for teams
Imagine you’re at a party and there is a magician making her way around the crowd. She has a pack of cards and she fans them out in front of you and invites you to pick a card, any card. Instead of the traditional jacks, aces and kings, her deck is 52 different constructs associated with teamwork. There’s ‘coordination’, ‘anticipation’, ‘backing up’, ‘planning’, ‘problem solving’…each card shows one of these concepts. She asks you to pick three cards without her seeing what they are. You pull out three cards. You have: team psychological safety, transactive memory systems and problem solving. The magician then says, ‘I am now going to tell you the concept that unites all three of the cards you have chosen’. This seems quite impressive since there are 52 cards, which means there are 8×10 to the power of 67 unique variations of three cards in a deck. How could she possibly know the thing that unites every possible combination of constructs? After a dramatic pause, she declares through a big smile: “Communication!”
Like all card tricks, this trick is set up and framed in such a way that it feels impressive in the moment, but the reality is that the answer to every combination was communication, so fundamental is it to teamwork.
But, how does communication fit into the complicated and multidimensional mechanics of teamwork? Teamwork has been scrutinised heavily from an industrial organisational psychology perspective, arguably the dominant lens in teams research. That work has led to the creation of models that lay out the system of teamwork. There is the ‘IMOI’ process model of teamwork (Input-Mediator-Output-Input), which is an evolution of the classic ‘Input-Process-Output’ model (Ilgen et al., 2006). The more contemporary IMOI model considers team processes and emergent states to be so-called mediators, where emergent states are characteristics of the team that develop and emerge over time and have an impact on the team’s performance. Team processes lead to emergent states, for example a team may have an effective way of sharing tasks so that team members back each other up (processes), which may lead to higher levels of team cohesion (emergent state). But where does language and communication fit in here? Is communication an input? You need to communicate in the first place to do the work. Or is it a process? It’s a form of contingent exchange that leads to things being done. Or is it an emergent state? When the team successfully enacts its processes it results in good communication. In some ways it feels like communication is the answer to everything, just like the magician.
And like the magician knew the answer to any combination was communication, for most of the things that a team does, you can probably identify communication as a significant feature of some, if not all, the elements of the process. This begs the question of whether you can really nail down exactly where in the process communication lives. An alternative way to approach the question of where communication fits into teamwork is to reverse it, where does teamwork fit into communication? When you look at the problem from the opposite side, it starts to become apparent that it is very difficult to separate teamwork from communication, they are one and the same thing.
Indeed, almost any ‘act’ of teamwork we can think of comes in a package of communication. Almost any example of a process or emergent state we conjure up manifests principally in communication (for example, team psychological safety is characterised by ‘speaking up’; transactive memory systems -TMS- are networks of knowledge and information constructed through language).
If inputs, mediators and outputs are the tangible structures of team performance, language and communication are the building materials. As researcher, Rachel Finn says, “the functional role of language is highlighted as the fundamental building block of team activities” (Finn, 2008, p. 106). This means that the structures that make teams work are produced, reproduced and maintained in and through language. Social theorist Nikklas Luhman would say that an organization is constituted in communication and it is perpetuated through the very communication it consists of (Luhmann, 2005). From this philosophical perspective, to ask where communication fits into teamwork is asking the wrong question, because communication is teamwork and teamwork is communication. They are one and the same thing. Like the ‘communicative constitution of organizations’ (CCO) that Luhman’s work is associated with, any team would benefit from taking a ‘CCT’ approach, the Communicative Constitution of Teams, one that sees language and communication as being constitutive of teamwork in the first place. So, without communication, teams don’t exist. For teams, communication is not the input, or the mediator, or the output, it’s everything, everywhere, all at once.
Finn, R. (2008). The language of teamwork: reproducing professional divisions in the operating theatre. Human Relations, 61(1), 103-130.
Kozlowski, S.W. and Ilgen, D.R., (2006). Enhancing the effectiveness of work groups and teams. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7(3), pp.77-124
Luhmann, N. (1995). Social Systems. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.