Powerful Questions in teams
Updated: May 21
One of the biggest challenges facing startups today is the ability to solve very complex problems with (very) smart people in teams. To do this you need to: 1. have complex problems, sometimes ones that have not been solved before - and there are many of those 2. have smart people - they also occur abundantly in many places, and 3. work well in a team. Well, here's a little problem. A problem of this magnitude that NASA is required to address before a group of astronauts are to fly to Mars.
Flying to Mars is a complex problem, one that has not been solved before. The astronauts are smart and talented people, but working in a team in an ICE condition (Isolated, Confined, Extreme) – well, that is a bit of a problem.
This is a very important problem to solve because when executives deeply understand how to form teams and the value of team intelligence (it seems that there is such a thing), they increase the chance of building high performance teams.
For example, there are many findings on variables that influence teams, including those of NASA’s research on team composition and the degree of cohesion.
In other academic and also Google studies psychological safety (a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking) positively impacts team performance in a variety of dimensions, such as the level of performance, the level and quality of creativity and quality of learning, and more. Moreover, a study published in Science found that the predictors of team intelligence (collective intelligence that explains team performance in a wide variety of tasks) are not the IQ of the team members - neither average nor the highest, nor the degree of satisfaction or cohesion, but rather social sensitivity, equality in group discourse, and the proportion of women in the group.
So how does this relate to listening and asking questions? It is theoretically and practically related.
Theoretically this is related (see the study showing the relationship between listening and psychological safety). But more importantly - in practical terms - it's very closely related. The ability of managers to have “eye-level” conversation, ask good and challenging questions, be open and accessible and listen without the pretense of "knowing it all" satisfies the basic motivational needs of the people and creates the confidence needed for trust. And when there is trust, you can start moving forward fast.
One way to build trust and openness in a team is through asking good questions and active listening which leads to psychological safety. First and foremost, it's the manager's responsibility, but also that of the team members.
For example, using the Let’s talk pack I set up a workshop for a successful and growing high-tech company. We coordinated expectations about the depth of the conversation with two questions: How much openness and safety are there to management? How far is the manager willing to take a risk? Because you ask good questions and listen deeply you don't really know what will come up.
In this case, the course of the meeting was led with the Let's talk methodology. In this meeting, the senior manager participated like any other team member. Each manager randomly received two cards from the pack - each card contained a personal or team-oriented question. The managers read the questions and a round began where a manager who opened the conversation was asked to answer one question. While addressing the question on the card, the rest of the team listened. No interruptions, no comments, no criticism, no judgment. Once done, one member of the team can refer to one question. Here too no comments, only questions. He was asked to refer the question on the second card to a different manager. Thus an open, authentic, and direct conversation was formed. A place to share personal stories alongside an open discussion about the challenges of the team in a safe environment. An event where complex issues could be addressed in the team.
It was a place of listening that promoted trust. Because trust is built in small steps and short episodes, not heroic acts.