February 2, 2023

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #156 – Using Neuroscience and Wharton Research to Build Shared Mindset and Peak Performance

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with content from Michael Platt’s Wharton School Knowledge in Action article published January 23, 2023

At Allen Austin, we are on a relentless search for content that will enhance the lives and effectiveness of our associates, clients and stakeholders. Solutions we deliver are based on the best academic research available, combined with our own real-world observations, designed to help build peak performance cultures. When I saw this article by Wharton’s Michael Platt, I felt compelled to share it. A critically important principle of the most powerful cultures is a unified leadership team. Most “leadership teams” are not teams at all, just a group of individuals often competing for air time, resources and position. Platt offers simple straight forward tools that will help you build a more cohesive, unified leadership team.

According to Platt, Nano Tools for Leaders® are fast, effective leadership tools that you can learn and start using in less than 15 minutes—with the potential to significantly impact your success as a leader and the engagement and productivity of the people you lead. The goal of this article is to encourage team chemistry through neuroscience.

Bono, in a New York Times interview, said: “It’s interesting to try to figure out what that something is with U2, because we never talk about it…These fairly able musicians who together become way more than they could ever achieve on their own—that alchemy, there’s something I would love to understand about it that I don’t.”

It’s a perfect storm: just as senior leaders have become overwhelmed with demands and crises too numerous and powerful for any one person to contend with, a new study from Harvard finds that the majority of teams— which are so vital to business success—are ineffective. And efforts to improve them, centering on “building chemistry,” are based on hypotheses and hunches; leaders have no real, tangible sense of how to encourage and attain true teamwork, defined as a blend of collaboration, coordination, and partnership.

Recent advancements in neuroscience now point to an answer: shared mindset. Linked to improved cooperation, information sharing, and overall team effectiveness, this critical ingredient has a neurobiological basis; when people cooperate well with one another, their patterns of neuronal activity (engagement of specific areas in the brain) and physiological processes (such as movement and perception) synchronize. A high degree of synchrony has important implications for team success, leading to increased prosocial behavior, subjective liking, empathy, engagement, processing speed, learning, and cooperation—in other words, it’s the secret to shared mindset and chemistry. And neuroscience research suggests that we can act with precision and intention to achieve synchrony in teams.

Seven Action Steps

The seven science-based ideas below can be used alone or in combination to encourage and create an all-important shared mindset.

  1. Eye contact: Brain scans show that when people make eye contact, synchrony increases. When they look away, synchrony decreases. Eye contact activates the mirror neuron system and the cerebellum of the people engaged in social gaze. It helps prepare us to understand the actions and intentions of others. In fact, one study, led by Suzanne Dikker and David Poeppel, showed how two minutes of sustained eye contact between teachers and students in the classroom resulted in enhanced neural synchrony, higher engagement, and subsequent improvement in performance.
  2. Shared purpose: Identifying the group’s purpose is one way to create common ground that transcends demographic or personal characteristics. By deliberately establishing shared purpose, leaders can maximize inclusivity, collaboration, and success.
  3. Deeper conversations: Wharton Neuroscience Initiative suggests using deep conversation prompt cards that encourage discussion of meaningful, values-based topics, cutting through the standard surface-level chat to create more substantial connections faster.
  4. More time together: Trust and affection tend to increase when you share someone’s company more often. Research from Gallup confirms a relationship between turnover and team performance: when team members feel more interconnected, they have almost 60 percent less turnover and score in the top 20 percent for engagement. Research from MIT-Sloan shows that company-organized social events, such as happy hours and team-building excursions, are associated with higher rates of retention. Neuroscience studies also show that the more time people spend with one another, the greater synchrony they exhibit.
  5. Personal gratitude: Letting someone know how much you appreciate them can increase prosocial feelings on both sides—the person expressing the gratitude gets the same boost in happiness as the person receiving it. As a leader, make a point of expressing gratitude to your team.
  6. Music: Listening to music has been shown to increase oxytocin levels, thereby improving mood, motivation, and the ability to create bonds with others. Whether a meeting is virtual or in-person, team leaders can consider having music playing before a meeting starts as people enter the space.
  7. Find and leverage “chemistry creators”: Laboratory research corroborates the existence of chemistry creators and the impact they have on the levels of team synchrony. These people influence the degree of synchrony a team experiences by how much they talk in a group setting. When these people talk, there is greater inter-brain synchrony across the group.

How Leaders Use It

Colleen Maleski, former director for network advancement at Strive Together, a national organization that works to improve outcomes for children “from cradle to career,” uses music to generate better meeting outcomes. This blog post outlines her approach, specific music, and results, showing how “the right music can impact the mood and energy of a room of participants, translating to a greater fervor and enthusiasm for the task at hand—and ideally to achieving the group’s results.”

Matt Richards, associate dean of students and director of athletics at Southern Maine Community College, says his record as the school’s winningest coach is due to his ability to find and encourage chemistry creators—individuals who raise the level of synchrony in a group. A losing season early in his career led him to understand that although he had a talented team and “focused a lot on recruitment, practice preparation, player evaluations, scouting, and film breakdown,” he “never took the time to define what our team was about and mesh personalities.” The next season, he focused on finding and rewarding chemistry creators, explaining what these key team members do and say, while also discouraging what he terms “energy suckers.” “Along with bolstering actions associated with chemistry creators, you have to be on the lookout for energy-sucking behavior,” Richards says. “When you spot it, correct it immediately.”

I hope you find this piece of research valuable.  After five decades of leading and observing high performance teams, the facts are that they don’t always look alike, nor should they. As human beings, we are born with special talents. As each team is a group of humans, each team is necessarily different. The commonalities that exist among the peak performing teams we’ve observed include a high performance and shared mindset, disciplined human capital practices, a shared purpose, clarity in communications and a willingness to measure everything that matters, not just the financial metrics. Give us a shout and let’s talk about elevating the effectiveness of your team(s).

Warmest Regards,

Rob