Is Your Team’s Performance Problem Really a Connection Problem?

Several years ago, while I was on the road traveling, I was moved from one office to another where I worked. I knew the change was happening and was thankful my colleagues were kind enough to move my stuff. Connection

When I got back to my office that next Monday, I had to set about the work of getting my office (including my technology) up and running again. So, I plugged in my computer and my phone, connected the cables, and powered it all up.

But, my phone wouldn’t work. I tried a number of different things to get it working, including unplugging it and restarting it a couple times. Nothing worked.

Finally, I reached out to our resident IT guru for help. I explained to him what wasn’t working and all the things I had tried to fix it.

He walked into my office, picked up the phone and looked at the bottom where the cables connect. Then, he unplugged the two cables, switched them, and plugged them back in. And, my phone worked.

I’ve never forgotten this experience. It burned a rule of thumb into my brain:

When it doubt, check the connection.

This isn’t just true of technology. Over the course of my career, I’ve found that at the core of so many organizational challenges, whether it’s with employee engagement, performance or innovation, is a damaged relationship (i.e. a faulty connection).

I was reminded of this lesson last week when I heard Michael Arena, Chief Talent Office at General Motors, speak at the Careerbuilder Empower Conference.

He shared a few case studies for how his team is using Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) to improve engagement and performance. If you aren’t familiar with ONA, it’s a tool that creates a visual map of relationships within a group of people.

In one case study, they used this tool (among others) to diagnose the differences between team performance within a call center at GM. What they found was that the higher performing teams were better connected to one another. The network strength (relationships) within the team was significantly stronger than the lower performing teams.

They had a connection problem.

So, they decided to try increasing the connection to see what would happen. Michael even joked about the sophistications of the interventions they used because they seemed almost too simple to be effective. For example, they changed how they offered breaks to the lower-performing teams. Instead of staggering breaks where a few people took breaks at a time, they started sending the entire team on break at the same time.

The goal was simply to improve the relationships and connectedness within the team to see if it improved performance.

It did.

Their ONA and performance measures revealed after their “connection-building” interventions and experiments that network cohesion (a fancy ONA term for network strength) increased by 30 percent. At the same time, productivity increased in these teams by nearly 25 percent.

This is pretty powerful. Underperforming call center teams improved performance by 25 percent by intentionally taking steps to help individual team members strengthen their relationships with one another.

On an intuitive level, this should make sense. It’s more fun to work with people we like, so we bring more energy to our work. Stronger relationships also yield increased trust and support, so the work environment improves. Better connection, better performance.

So, the next time a team isn’t performing to their potential, remember the lesson I learned years ago from my IT colleague:

When in doubt, check the connection.


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