Use Social Cues to Improve Team Performance


I was delighted by this sight while walking in my Minneapolis neighborhood the other day. Three dog trainers each with a group of 10-15 dogs marching happily together around the lake.  I followed them for a while and was impressed by the coordination within the groups.  It looked like a dog parade.

The dogs were generally walking in unison, not pulling on their leashes, following their leader, and not resisting the movement of the group.  I was really surprised when one dog stopped (to take care of some dog business) and the rest of the group not only stopped walking immediately, but most of them sat down. I know dogs are natural “pack animals” and they follow the lead of the alpha male, but these were dogs that don’t spend a lot of time together; maybe walking together once or twice a week.  And some of the animals had certainly never been in the same group before today.  How do they know what’s expected and how to behave?

This got me thinking about teams that we work with in the design and construction world.  Groups of specialists come together as temporary teams to accomplish a specific set of tasks, while learning to work together and navigate the unique personalities, capabilities and idiosyncrasies of their team members.  However, teams in AEC industry do not always behave as well as these dogs did.  Why do some temporary teams quickly learn to function in a highly collaborative way, while others never get past the “storming” stage of Tuckman’s storming, forming, norming, performing group development model?

There are many factors that impact team performance, but the sight of these dogs made me wonder about one concept in particular.  That is the idea of how social cues impact behavior of individuals within a group. In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Health explain how these cues help make up “the path”, a metaphor for the environment all around us that helps us understand what is expected of us.  You can think of the path as the set of signals and norms that tell us how to behave in a particular situation.

This “path” concept became very evident to me when I was on the site of a large client.  I was headed from one meeting to another between office buildings.  As a walked outside between the buildings trying to find my way, I started to feel uneasy. At first I thought it was about my concern for getting lost and being late to my meeting.  But it was something stronger than that.  Was I uncomfortable because maybe I wandered into a restricted area? No, there were plenty of other people walking in the same area.  As I kept walking I finally noticed something that made me freeze in my tracks. Everyone around me was wearing full construction PPE.  I must have turned off the main path and onto the edge of the construction site.  I instantly felt naked without my hardhat, vest and safety glasses.  I quickly turned around and headed back inside, apologizing to several strangers on my way back.

Maybe I walked past some signage or barricades, but that’s not what caused me to realize my mistake – it was the behavior and appearance of the people around me that finally helped me realize something just wasn’t right.  I was picking up on the social cues of those around me.

We are always giving and picking up on these types of cues without thinking much about it.  Is it acceptable to throw your trash on the floor in a restaurant? Probably not. How about in a movie theater? A ballpark?  We decide how to behave largely by following social cues and other signals from our environment, not formal rules. I’ve never seen a sign at ballpark that reads “please throw peanut shells under your seat”.

In the project environment, we see the same type of well-established unwritten “standards” that govern the behavior of the group.  Is it acceptable to open your laptop and check emails during a meeting?  Do meetings start on time, or is it acceptable to walk in late? Do we ask for and make reliable commitments as part of our work, or do we accept fuzzy language like “I’ll do my best”, or “I hope to delivery that work on time”.  I’ve been on many projects where types these detrimental behaviors are accepted, and the work suffers. I’ve also been on projects where behaving like that would leave you feeling as naked as me without my hardhat on a construction site.  The cues and norms set the expectations and greatly influence the behavior of the group.

By now you might be wondering why this matters.  What can you do about the cues that already exist in your environment?  The good news is that you can actually change the environment from which people are getting their cues, thereby having a positive impact on the behavior of your team.  In fact, it might be easier than you think.

There’s a great video of one person changing what’s acceptable for the crowd at an outdoor concert.  Very quickly, he and a couple new friends are able to change the social norms for behavior of the group, and it only takes two minutes. Watch the video here and you’ll see what I mean. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW8amMCVAJQ.

Try an experiment for yourself.  Look for a problematic behavior in your team and see if you can influence the underlying social norm that supports it.  For example, if cell phones are disrupting your meetings, try stopping the conversation every time someone picks up their phone. You don’t need to post a sign, or make a declaration, just start changing the norm.

I tried this once in a four-person meeting with a high-level manager who was notoriously distracted during meetings. I’ll call him Paul.  During the 30-minute meeting, which we had worked for two weeks to schedule, Paul immediately started peeking at his phone.  A minute later, he was typing text messages and emails.  I could see that we were about to lose our only chance to have a real conversation with Paul. I felt like I had to try something.

Without making any declarations or even asking Paul to stop, I simply paused each time he looked at his phone. The other two people in the meeting noticed what I was doing and began almost immediately doing the same thing.  Each time Paul looked at his phone, the conversation instantly went silent.  Paul didn’t pay much attention at first, but he soon started feeling uncomfortable. While typing one of his texts, he noticed the silence and said, “please continue, I’m listening”.  My only response was, “that’s OK, we’ll wait”.  Altogether, we probably spent about five minutes of the first ten in complete silence.  Then, remarkably, Paul put his phone away and we had a valuable, focused discussion for the rest of our meeting. After Paul left, the other two participants said they had never seen Paul stop texting for that long in a meeting – ever.

Our little group of uncoordinated (and outranked) individuals had a huge impact on the detrimental behavior of another.  We were able to change the social norms that defined how we behave, at least for that one small, short meeting.

I’m often amazed at how small cues can greatly affect the behavior of a group, for good or bad. Start watching for these cues in your environment and think about how they are impacting your team.  Can you eliminate some of the negative signals you are sending?  Even better, can you display your own cues that spur positive behaviors?  See if you can get a follower or two to join you.  Who knows, you might start a revolution, or at least a parade!

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