In a fascinating webinar presented by Sounding Board, the very first question touched on a topic that far too many organizations overlook:

“Why do you think organizations and talent development professionals, in particular, should be interested in neuroscience?”

The conversation offers an engrossing look into how we can use our understanding of brain function as an applied tool in order to better understand people’s needs and motivations — thereby having positive benefits for organizations, as well.

In terms of neuroscience, most organizations are interested in the brain’s reward center. This is why many focus on things like monetary compensation and awards as a way to boost morale and encourage employee engagement. However, this approach can be limiting. After all, what makes a person feel truly rewarded? What really motivates people to give extra effort? Unfortunately, the answer is often misunderstood.

Before offering a perspective, Heidi Grant, Ph.D., expanded the presenter’s initial question to ask:

“More broadly… why should they be interested in science?”


As she explains further, looking at teams dynamics through a scientific lens can shed light on issues we may otherwise overlook. For instance, it can help us understand why some teams thrive while others flounder — and how we might change the latter’s paths to benefit from the former’s successes.

The Illusion of Transparency — It’s a Trap!

As Dr. Grant explains, there is a term used in psychology called the “illusion of transparency” that describes the idea that we feel like everyone around us should automatically know what we are thinking or feeling. And this is especially true in teams. We naively believe that our teammates should be able to intuit what we are thinking or feeling, so we often fail to express ourselves accordingly.

This is especially dangerous when teams are in conflict. Members believe that they know what the other team members are thinking and feeling, but more often than not they’re wrong. Thus, there is a breakdown in communication which ultimately leads to the relationship becoming fractured.

When this happens, individuals find themselves in a perpetual cycle of feeling like they are rejected. In turn, that feeling of rejection is perceived as a social threat. Our brains treat perceived social threats in the same way as physical threats. Unsurprisingly, this internal dynamic isn’t always recognizable for the average person, let alone trying to identify this as a possible culprit for under-performing teams.


Are High-Performing Teams Really a Well-Oiled Machine?

We often think of high-performing teams as being well-oiled machines. Jay Van Bavel, Ph.D. uses a similar analogy to point out that using neuroscience in understanding team dynamics is a lot like taking your car to a mechanic when there is an issue. You drive the car every day, but when something goes wrong and you can’t work the problem out yourself, you take it to a mechanic.

Yet, they aren’t going to start changing out parts willy-nilly. Instead, they rely on a systematic approach that involves diagnosing the issue and then acting accordingly until they fix it. The same concept applies to people. You can throw all the incentives you want at the team, but if you’re not addressing the source of the issue, it won’t be effective.

The Vastness of Our Minds is Overwhelming

Once we identify the problem, it may not be the end of the matter. As Dr. Van Bavel points out, sometimes the problem is just the tip of the iceberg. In those cases, you have to go back and look at the bigger picture. There may be a number of things going on with your team that need to be addressed before they can function effectively again. And, oftentimes, those underlying issues may boil down to the remarkable number of cognitive biases that shape the human condition.

How the Brain Functions When Working in Teams

On the outside, it can be a captivating sight to behold when a team is working together with what seems like a hive-mind. Interestingly enough, what we can see on the surface is, in this case, exactly what we see on the inside. When scientists put EEG caps on teams and watched them work, highly effective team members’ brain waves actually synched together.

As the above Tango dancing EEG experiment shows, in order for the dancers to glide effortlessly across the floor as one, they need to sync their brains together. And, this same concept applies to teams that are working well together. Some would say that in order to achieve such synchronized grace, they would need to become almost intuitively connected. But, is intuition a natural form of brain-to-brain interfacing? And, does this B2B interfacing contribute to group identity?

The Neuroscience of Cohesion

Teams aren’t just about performing together at the top of your game; they’re also about taking what has been learned and applying it to other situations. Each time you collaborate with teammates in order to learn something, there are certain parts of your brain that activate. Even the most self-interested people will activate the altruistic parts of the brain when they see that they are working towards a shared goal that benefits everyone equally.

However, the only way to activate those parts of the brain on highly self-interested people is by finding the right common goal. Once that goal is identified, the person may still be acting purely in their own self-interest, but the concept of the self they are protecting changes to one that represents the whole team.

This is an extraordinary process that we don’t yet fully understand, but it helps explain why some people who seem like they could never work together will unite under a common goal when called upon to do so. After all, cooperation is hardwired into our DNA. And, when the right situation presents itself, the instinct to cooperate will overshadow out even some of the strongest self-preservation instincts.

So, What are the Main Attributes of High-Performing Teams?

As we can see, the best way to ensure the effectiveness of a team is through understanding how it functions and operates on every level. There are specific characteristics that high-performing teams have in common.

The neuroscience behind effective teams illustrates some of these attributes:

Not only for the individual and the team but for the entire organization, as well. Teams that are clear about who they are and what role they serve in the larger scheme of things are more effective. Such clarity ensures that each member’s efforts are valued, respected, and ultimately fruitful.

This is the strategy behind developing a strong understanding of organizational culture. If employees are able to identify how their own roles fit with the company’s mission, they will better understand how their work contributes to the big picture.

A member of an effective team is able to clearly define what is expected of them. Similarly, they are also clear on what they expect from their teammates. When it comes time to collaborate, the members know one another’s expectations and can work together with clarity and focus.

A key element in building a team with high morale is clear, effective communication. In addition to knowing who they are and what their roles are within the organization, members must also possess strong interpersonal skills in order to function well together.

Effective teams do not have “downtime.” They are able to stay on task and prioritize the various things they need to accomplish. This is especially important in today’s fast-paced environment, where tasks and projects can quickly pile up.

Trust. Without it, a team is doomed before they even start. It is vital that members of the team feel like they are heard and respected. This allows them to not only freely communicate their opinions but also function well together despite any disagreements that may arise at times.

Continuously learning is vital not only for personal development but for teams, as well. If a team is not willing to learn and grow, they will never be able to keep up with the fast-paced changes surrounding them.

In the end, effective teams are not perfect. They have their struggles and challenges just as any other group does. What makes them effective is that they overcome those challenges together as a team.

The Takeaway

Understanding what shapes a high-performing team is complex, but it’s also interesting and worth exploring further. It’s not enough to just create a team and hope for the best. Successful teams require effective strategies, careful thought, close alignment with other teams, self-awareness, emotional intelligence…the list goes on. But when done right, it provides an amazing experience for everyone involved.

High-performing teams, like the ones we discuss in this article, are an essential part of any organization’s success. As a leader, how you understand the science behind team dynamics is as important as how you build and develop your teams.

If you want to establish yourself as a thought leader, you need to have an effective strategy. Contact me today to get started on your journey.