The perils of talking too much

Mar 25 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Managers often get blamed for failing to communicate properly with their teams, but too much talk - and talking about the wrong things - can be just as bad as being all buttoned up.

Research by academics from the University of North Carolina has suggested that when teams talk they tend to discuss information they already know and that "talkier" teams are often less effective than those that just get on with the job.

With teams becoming ever more virtual and globalised, how they communicate and share information is becoming a much more important issue, the study argued.

But the analysis of approximately 4,800 groups and more than 17,000 people published in the Journal of Applied Psychology concluded that most teams actually spend a large proportion of their time discussing information that is already known by the rest of the group.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best performing teams, it argued, were those that shared new information rather than going round in circles.

Groups whose members talked more openly during meetings generally tended to be on better terms with one another, but that did not necessarily mean they also performed better, lead researcher Jessica Mesmer-Magnus cautioned.

"What this suggests is that teams who talk more amongst themselves aren't necessarily sharing useful information," she said.

"Therefore, they're not actually coming to a better result. Rather, it's more important what the teams are talking about, than how much they are talking," she added.

Teams communicated best when they were engaged in tasks that required them to come up with the correct or best answer rather than a consensual solution.

For example, teams were more effective when selecting candidates for, say, a job opening when they had been encouraged to share their unique insights and to work to determine the best solution, rather than simply striving to arrive at the quickest consensual answer.

And, in a finding that potentially raises uncomfortable questions about the benefits of diverse workforces, while team members were often chosen because of their diverse professional and personal backgrounds, teams tended to share more information when they were composed of members of similar backgrounds.

"This highlights the conundrum surrounding team tasks," pointed out Mesmer-Magnus.

"There's a separation in what teams actually do and what they should do in order to be effective," she added.

What managers therefore needed to be doing to enhance the productivity of their teams was to be better structuring team discussions and promoting a more co-operative team environment, Mesmer-Magnus advised.

On top of this highlighting team members' skills and knowledge was also a good idea, as was focusing on communicating new and unique information.

"Teams do have a distinct advantage over individuals in the work setting. But leaders should be aware of how to effectively maximise their team's potential with effective communication," emphasised Mesmer-Magnus.

Managers could also take away some lessons from the sports field when looking at how to motivate their teams, as new research from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School has argued that teams that are losing by just a bit at half time are often the ones that are more likely to come back and win the game.

The lesson here for managers is that employees are often best motivated, and thus perform better, when they are close to, but just short of, an important goal, it argued.

Effective goal-setting should therefore be about picking milestones that are within easy reach, such as passing a close competitor in sales, advised Devin Pope, Wharton professor of operations and information management and co-author of the study.

Focusing on goals that were close and achievable could well be more motivating than setting lofty but unrealistic goals.

"A lot of tools are used in the workforce to motivate people, such as wages, bonuses, etc. While surely these things can have motivating effects, one should not underestimate the potential importance of psychological motivation as well," he said.