One way to confirm whether one idea reflects reality better than another is to see if scientists in different fields, working independently, come up with results supporting that idea. If researchers with no reason to agree look at very different aspects of life and come up with the same conclusions, you are closer to a fundamental truth. Long before Columbus "discovered" the New World, educated people knew Earth was round because of evidence from what today we call the fields of astronomy, physics, transportation, and others.
Striking, then, was an interview I heard with an evolutionary biologist on National Public Radio. "Evolutionary Biology is a subfield in biology that is concerned with the gradual change in the traits of living organisms over generations, especially the emergence of new species," according to Biology Online. David S. Wilson believes the concepts of evolution apply not only at the genetic level, but at the level of communities. Discussing his work to apply his knowledge of evolution to community change, he provided a list of conditions that encourage helping behaviors in groups of people working on community projects. I was stunned to hear advice that could have come straight from any evidence-based book on effective teamwork (including mine, of course). Wilson is a professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton Univ., part of the State University of New York.
Wilson said he has long studied why cooperation and selflessness, called "prosociality" by scientists, would have evolved. Given the concept of "survival of the fittest," selfishness seems to make more sense. (There turn out to be good reasons to be selfless from the genetic standpoint, among them building a support network or ensuring that related genes survive through the survival of kin.) Wilson's work in the city of Binghamton bore this out. He measured prosociality in individuals there and compared it to where they lived and their social networks. He found that "if you're a highly prosocial teenager, you're likely to be surrounded with social support from family, neighborhood, school, religion, (and) extracurricular activities," Wilson said in the interview.
Prosocial behavior is a good thing to have in business teams, obviously. You may have seen here or elsewhere the term "organizational citizenship behaviors," which are prosocial actions in a business setting. It perked up my ears, then, to hear host John Ydstie ask what enhances prosociality. Here is Wilson's list:
If you're a regular reader of Teams Blog, these have to sound familiar to you. Despite the eye-rolling the mention of mission statements brings sometimes, they are proven to improve performance when created by the team (not handed down to it) and actively used in decision-making. Wilson's #2 and #4 link with my recommendations to use action items and formal project management (even for non-project teams) and to let teams self-assign tasks. Per his #3, building buy-in as part of decision-making is far more effective for creating full support on important issues than making the decision and then trying to build buy-in. His "graduated sanctions" and "fast, fair conflict resolution" match my calls for the team to create a self-enforcement procedure for team discipline and for the use of formal conflict-resolution techniques like those in my book. Empowerment, which I harp on regularly, equals autonomy. And the Company Culture Change service from TeamTrainers tries to establish across the enterprise team structures supporting all these concepts. A good team can fail in a bad environment. I have seen high-performing teams get killed when their creators moved on.
Scientific crossover has popped up in many interesting ways in my consulting work. The first book-length project I did in my earlier journalism career was on the science behind romantic attraction. Much of what I found regarding that shows up in business, usually unconsciously, in hiring, work relationships, and compensation. The overlaps between the supervisor-employee relationship and the parent-child relationship are well documented. Though rarely spoken of in the workplace, no one in my classes shows surprise when I bring it up. Finally, the list of research fields represented in my bibliography ranges far beyond management and social psychology to economics, computer science, and others.
Wilson has applied his concepts to a "Design Your Own Park" project and a program to help kids at risk for dropping out, he said in the interview. A student had to have flunked three classes the prior year to enter the Regents Academy. Yet, Wilson said, "after its first year, not only did the students do much better than the comparison group, but they actually performed on a par with the average high school student on the state-mandated exam."
What business leader wouldn't like those kinds of results?
Action Item: Pick one item from Wilson's list, and create a task list with due dates for implementing it in your team. Then give it to your best friend at work and ask them to hold you to it.