The Science of Team Building

“Yet if we look at our evolutionary history, we can see that language is a relatively recent development and was most likely layered upon older signals that communicated dominance, interest, and emotions among humans. Today these ancient patterns of communication still shape how we make decisions and coordinate work among ourselves.”

I just read a great article in the Harvard Business Review about the science of building great teams. Yes, that’s right – the science! You can read it here: It is from the April 2012 edition.

This is a report on how wireless sensory devices worn by teams of people were able to capture more than 100 data points per minute of the complex communication cues that pass among people working together. By documenting tone of voice, physical positioning with each other, how much each person talked, listened, gestured, or interrupted, and by comparing the results to objective performance measures such as financial results or customer service metrics, the authors were able to define factors of interaction that produce high-performing teams and. in addition, were able to predict success based on these factors.

“It seems almost absurd that how we communicate could be so much more important to success than what we communicate. “

They boiled the results down to three factors that are fundamental to success in teams: energy (the number and nature of exchanges among teams), engagement (the distribution of energy among teams), and exploration (communication that team members have outside of the team). What is most noteworthy is that it is possible to use the data from these three scales to intervene in teams or with individuals to shape and improve the cohesiveness and success of teams and individuals. Coaching for success can be done here with greater focus on evidence-based performance rather than subjective performance criteria.

“For example, we now know that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members.”

One of the interesting findings was that in-person communication was found to be the most valuable form of communication with phone and video-conference taking 2nd and 3rd place. Email and texting were found to be the least valuable form of communication. Dare we deduce that the physicality of the presence, even if only by voice over the phone is the key differentiator.

This is the very territory we explore in equine facilitated executive coaching. Working without verbal language in exchanges with horses enables us to really experience and focus on the non-verbal way we communicate. The raising of eyebrows, the hint of a smile or a frown, the slight thrust of a shoulder are all signals that speak volumes to horses but usually slip past our vaunted human pre-frontal cortex. The 100 plus data points captured in the study discussed above are too complex for our linguistically oriented brains to keep track of but none of these cues slip past the notice of your average horse.

When working with horses in this way it is not necessary for people to be able to speak fluent “equus” but having the space to and the opportunity to experience the feedback that horses provide can be such powerful learning for people, individuals or teams. Below I describe an example of true communication speaking “equus”,

Talking with Comet
As I approach the stall I can tell that he has already got me in his sights. I have heard about him; his reputation precedes him and has made me all the more curious to ‘interview’ him. His owner is concerned because his behaviour is problematic: he nips, he pushes into peoples’ space, he steps on their feet, and he just can’t be trusted to be around people and be respectful and polite. He doesn’t know how lucky he is; his owner is a woman who cares more about him than his bad behaviour. She hasn’t given up on him. She knows that this is the kind of horse that is most vulnerable in this world. These are the ones that can’t be trusted to be compliant, that don’t seem to respond to training, the ones that remind you of juvenile delinquents – the more you try to politely explain to them why their behaviour has to change, the worse it gets. You set limits and they ignore them. They are the ones headed for juvenile detention, and possibly jail.

For a horse like this life will often be a series of sales, being passed from owner to owner, each person having their own brand of horse handling and training, the horse becoming more and more frustrated and less and less trusting with people. He is just like a child going from foster home to foster home while the behaviour gets worse as his loneliness and self-confidence deteriorate. Trainers who can’t figure him out start to tell the owners that the horse is dangerous and ought to be put down. Finally, that is what happens. The horse is picked up by a truck and taken to a feedlot where he will be bought/sold/traded and then sent on to a slaughter house where he will know the agony of a cruel and inhumane death, fully aware and terrified right up until the end.

Comet has his eye on me and I can sense in him his strong desire for connection. I do a scan of my physical, psychic, and emotional state and check my readiness to meet this 1300 pound behemoth. I find I am ready to meet him. I lengthen my body, standing tall and readying my power centre. His head is hanging over the side of his stall, nodding, and as I come closer he stretches out to try and sniff, nip, push or lick me. In response, I ignore him and open the stall door. As he moves in to take the space created by the opening I point my dressage whip at his chest, making contact as he starts to crowd me. I tap on his chest. To reinforce and make clear my intention I cluck a couple of times and send energy out from my core to his chest. He stops, nods his head quickly and takes a step backward. I repeat the request and insist he back up and leave me plenty of room to enter the stall. He complies by stepping back a few steps and dropping his head briefly.

Once I am in I stand in the space, claiming it with my energy. I am cycling through my zones of awareness again: my internal state, the appearance of his state, and the environment – how much room does he have behind him and on either side, how much room do I have to move in case he charges into me, what other factors are in the environment that might activate his emotional state, how is the flooring, the exits, how is he responding to my presence up close, etc.

His head is up and he is eying me and already deciding it is time to test the space issue again. This is the most fundamental question for a horse: who pushes who? I quickly respond with consistent gestures, sending energy to his chest and telling him wordlessly to stay out of my space. This time I add my hand, holding it out in front of me as a block that tells him “don’t you come into this space”, while I tap his right shoulder with the dressage whip, – lightly at first – asking him to move to his left and exit the stall into his paddock. At first he doesn’t respond so I increase the energy with a few more taps of the dressage whip. I am looking for the goldilocks effect – exactly enough energy to convince him that I mean what I say and not a smidgeon more.

He looks me in the eye, drops his head and moves smartly out of the stall and into the paddock. As soon as he is outside he whirls his big body around to face me, curious, even fascinated, and clearly surprised by this unusual human behaviour. I haven’t touched him yet (except with the whip) nor let him touch me and boy have I got his attention!

As I step into the paddock Comet looks me up and down – figuratively speaking. He approaches and I let him come forward until he is about 3 feet away; then I raise my hand and wordlessly ask him to stop. He stops and then veers off to my right, making a left turn, showing me his back end as he circles around. As he goes by, I raise my whip just enough to tap his left hind with a bit of energy and let him know that I know he was being rude and I will not treated rudely. The tap gets his attention and he swings that big rear end around to face up to me. This is the moment where he recognizes I am speaking directly to him – in his language. His head pops up a little bit above level and he looks at me with shock apparent on his face. I am not behaving like other 2 legged creatures he has experienced. I am carrying on a conversation without losing focus, changing the subject, or losing the syntax every minute.

Now he seems entranced and wants more. He starts to approach me again. I swing my core to the left of his head, block his right shoulder with my right hand, point my core to his body and send my whip to his flank telling him to move forward, stay out of my space, and circle around me. As he moves on I keep my core on his body and politely tell him I am to be respected and not to be messed with. The look in his eye is even more shocked. His head drops as he moves respectfully off and around me in a circle. When he starts to lose energy and fade to a stop I send him on, widening the circle with signals from my body, making him move on until I can see from his demeanor that he is ready to respect me and listen. I am assuming the role of an alpha mare and letting him know that I will tell him when it is OK to stop. Then when I see he is listening and seems to have gotten the message, I drop my energy, my hands, and I stop sending him on. He comes to a stop, drops his head, and licks his lips and chews softly. We still haven’t touched (except for the end of the whip). I tell him what a good man he is a few times and send him heart energy. I aim my core away from his face and body, hold up my hand to block his head from swinging into me as I approach him, arcing toward his body so that I can stand at his shoulder facing in the same direction, shoulder to shoulder. I scratch and run my fingers over his withers a bit, keeping my awareness on his response. As long as his head remains level and doesn’t swing into my space, and he doesn’t arc his body into me, we are good. We stand together sharing space, a very horse-thing to do. We have made friends. For now.

Working with horses is very much like interpersonal communication, minus the words. Horses speak a language that few humans know how to speak. Their prey instincts and physical make-up have evolved their communication to be very effective in support of their survival. Small movements and subtle combinations can transmit messages throughout a herd or between a bonded pair. Horses don’t know that most of us don’t how to speak horse. When we are around them we are constantly communicating even though we mostly don’t know what we are telling them. Being with horses and having an insight into their language turns up our internal awareness of those 100 plus data points of complex cues that we are sending to other people all the time.  The 80% becomes more conscious and we have a better chance of becoming great communicators.