5 Ways to Leverage Social Relationships for High Performance in Teams

Strong interpersonal connections have long been identified as one of the essential requirements of high-performing employees. But getting team members to connect and value each other’s company is also one of the most challenging tasks leaders face. And physical distance, such as that imposed by the pandemic, makes it even more difficult.

Even so, a recent survey of over 1,000 US-based office workers sheds light on how high-performing teams continue to succeed even when they’re working remotely. The study was led by Ron Friedman, a social psychologist, author, and the founder of ignite80, a company that provides training intended to boost team performance. Friedman’s findings highlight how close social relationships are used to advantage by effective teams. In an article published in Harvard Business Review last October, he explains how.

  1. High-Performing Teams Use Telephones 65% More Frequently

Friedman’s research identified that high-performing team members communicate with their colleagues by telephone 65% more than average workers. This is because they understand that real-time, voice-based conversations lead to more fruitful engagements and even improve well-being. This is in contrast to most people’s expectations—many of us consistently undervalue telephone communication.

With a wealth of technological options, identifying the best way to connect with others isn’t always easy. Research shows most people make suboptimal choices, selecting text-based media because it’s easier and it seems to involve less awkwardness. In reality, phone, video chat, and voice chat mechanisms create stronger social bonds without any increase in awkwardness, even when conversing with strangers.

  • High-Performing Teams Hold Better Meetings

High-performing teams are twice as likely as their peers to start meetings with check-ins to keep the team informed of each individual’s progress. In addition, high-performing teams are significantly more likely (39%) to require participants to prepare beforehand and are 26% more likely to have an agenda. These basic best practices for meetings help ensure productive meetings that save time, money, and cognitive bandwidth. In turn, productive meetings lay the groundwork for better relationships among team members. In contrast, poorly run meetings are time wasters that drain participants’ mental energy.

  • High-Performing Teams Bonding Over Personal Interests

High-performing teams aren’t more productive because they spend all their time working. Instead, they invest in activities that form closer friendships and promote better teamwork later on. For example, Friedman’s survey found high-performing team members spent 25% more time discussing non-work-related topics with colleagues than their peers. They were also more likely to meet up with colleagues over a beverage.

It doesn’t matter what teams talk about, either; typical conversations ranged from discussing major sporting events to books and family. Research has shown that a critical aspect of interpersonal interactions is developing a sense of generalized “shared reality” about the larger world. This is true both between close partners and strangers. So, rather than discouraging conversations about non-work-related matters, management should foster opportunities for employees to develop authentic connections over shared interests.

  • High-Performing Teams Exchange Recognition More Frequently

Workers perform better if they feel recognized and appreciated for their efforts. It’s common knowledge that under certain conditions, employees value the good opinion of those they admire more than financial rewards. The data collected by ignite80 shows high-performing teams receive validation from their managers almost 80% more frequently than peer groups. But even more interestingly, these teams’ members give and receive more praise, too—over 70% more than their average peers. In other words, praise does not only come from management in high-performing teams. It appears that they develop a culture of positive reinforcement and validation.

  • High-Performing Teams Express Emotions Authentically at Work

Friedman’s team discovered that members of high-performing teams were significantly more likely to express their emotions freely at work. This was true of positive emotions, but also negative emotions, expressed through complaining, sarcasm, and even cursing.

While there’s a point at which such behavior becomes unprofessional, it can be a good sign that people feel comfortable letting their colleagues know their true feelings. Suppressing negative emotions can drain a person’s cognitive resources and reduce their productivity. In contrast, research demonstrates workers who feel safe to express themselves authentically are happier and more productive. Friedman’s research indicates psychological safety also boosts team performance.

The Takeaway

Friedman’s and ignite80’s work clarifies that creating high-performing teams is not just a matter of hiring good people and providing them with the right tools. Teams need opportunities to connect authentically at a personal level, too. Better communication practices that lead to more productive and deeper engagements between team members can be quickly and cost-effectively introduced, even for remote teams.

Remote and hybrid work arrangements offer workers greater autonomy than traditional office-bound employment—and autonomy is also a critical requirement for high performance and employee wellbeing. Still, relationships and connections among team members matter. It’s in all parties’ interest to get the balance right.