Back in the 1980s, an Italian neurophysiologist, Giacomo Rizzolatti with his team at the University of Parma, Italy, was planting electrodes in the prefrontal motor cortex of macaque monkeys to identify what neurons control which hand movements. As happens in so many scientific research endeavors, an accident surfaces something entirely new like Ivan Pavlov’s study of how saliva initiates digestion when he stumbled on the theory of classical conditioning.
There isn’t any documented data on the story of how the Parma-Italy discovery really happened but any version of it will do. Be that as it may, in Rizzolatti’s lab, a staff assistant picked up a snack and put it in his mouth, while the monkeys were sitting quietly hooked up to their electrodes. Suddenly with no movement on the part of the monkeys, electrodes triggered buzzing from the amplifiers. What was going on? The buzzing was supposed to pick up the monkeys’ hand movements but the monkeys were immobile.
After several repetitions of the incident, Rizzolatti concluded that motor neurons fired when the observer (monkey here) saw another make a movement that signaled the observer’s (again monkey here) understanding of the meaning of the other’s action.
This coincidence of motor neurons being activated by another’s meaningful movements were termed mirror neurons. Our brains reflect the meaning or intention of another person’s movement. In brief, we can understand the reason for someone’s movement; said differently, we can grasp the intention of another person’s actions. So, it happened — the discovery of mirror neurons in the prefrontal motor cortex. Mirror neurons are a small circuit of cells in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex that are activated by just a smile or seeing someone reach for a cup. These neurons connect the seeing with the doing.
The significance of this accidental discovery of mirror neurons lead eventually to a deeper insight into empathy, a human response to the emotions of others. It was another Italian immigrant to America, Marco Iacoboni (2008), who popularized empathy as a product of mirror neurons with his book Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others.
How does empathy happen in humans?
When mirror neurons respond to another person’s actions, the prefrontal motor cortex starts a cascade of bodily feelings that pour through the insula and down into the sympathetic nervous system that floods the entire body with sentiment. Consider a mother who runs to an injured child; mother feels the child’s pain and she is flooded with an emotional response that rushes her to the child’s care.
What does this have to do with teams? Once the team members are comfortable in the psychological safety of the mutual acceptance, the team becomes submerged in its work. Because it is a collaborative endeavor, the members are open to cooperating for the success of the team. This sets up an atmosphere of unity as well as comradery. Members are listening intently to one another, looking for cues of understanding and insights.
Their eye contact as well as gestures open them to each other’s thoughts and intentions. Empathy runs high with their shared energy of creative contributions as they connect with one another. This connection is vital to the richness of the exchange and the eventual creation of their project. The empathetic mirror neurons are the vital element of our social cognition and emotional bodily connection. We use our bodies to convey our intentions and feelings; we capture each other’s feelings in the same kind of mutual communication. It’s body language at its best. Mirror neurons help us understand one another.
When teams capture this means of connection, the exchange of ideas and insights become a flow of productive endeavor. A team connected this way is a winning team.
How Winning Teams Do It
Depending on the season, sports fans flock to cheer their winning team. It takes hard work to build a team that stays on top. Coaches must know the strengths and weaknesses of each player; players train to perform without flaw; the team functions with clockwork coordination; winning rewards the long hours of concentrated training with a dedicated coaching team. Only one team earns the pennant; the rest wait till next season.
Why don’t all teams win pennants? Don’t they all play to win? Why are so many teams just mediocre? What makes a winning team? Is it the people in the team or how the people in the team function? Too many questions! Let’s look at how people function.
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs gives us a clue about what contributes to the making of a winning team. Recall the levels: physiological needs first, then safety, followed by belonging, moving to esteem, and finally achieving self-actualization.
Maslow was talking about the psychological development of individuals; he was a humanistic psychologist. What is the connection of his theory to corporate teams? Let’s try to do just that.
When teams come together, there should be a common ground the team members share. The word common ground is appropriate; members should be grounded in their humanity that includes their physiology as well as their psychology; each is endowed with shared human qualities. Equality does not mean sameness; we are equal but do not have sameness of qualities.
The basic stance of our relationships is one of humility; humility comes from the Latin word “humus”, meaning earth. We plant our feet on the ground and walk together. Humility is the state of being grounded.
With that sense of being connected in humility, we respect one another with psychological safety. This is a mutuality that allows each member to have the safety of expression, which is protected by an unconditional regard of respect from one another. This respectful regard is the tenant of another humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers. He proposed that most of our hang-ups stem from trying to earn respect based on the conditions and expectations of others.
Psychological safety in a team is the freedom to share openly our thoughts without fear of reproach that is often expressed by rolling eyes. Too often management will humiliate a person for speaking up. This kind of shut down or silence on the part of employee robs the team of small learning opportunities.
There is no doubt that we all make mistakes. When we can learn from our mistakes, we have the opportunity for more insights. No one is infallible. Curiosity prompts questions, which leads to fruitful discussion.
Psychological safety in a team “lets up on the brakes” and frees people from being afraid to express themselves for the good of the team. With this freedom to speak and question, the grounded team will make less mistakes and in the long run be more productive. This allows all the team members to speak up freely and equally in that everyone can express ideas to their full. This is a winning team.
The Equal-time Equal-everything Team
Sometimes there are teams that can’t win for losing. Things just aren’t clicking for the team and everyone is frustrated with setbacks and roadblocks. Google made a company-wide study of how teams work, looking for the single most important ingredient in how winning team do it. Google, under the leadership of Julia Rozovsky, came up with a five-point formula that was based on psychological safety, which was also discovered by Amy Edmondson through her study of hospital teams that struggled with clinical mistakes. Briefly, psychological safety is that atmosphere of freedom to speak one’s mind without fear of humiliation, wherein everyone is valued as essential contributors to the discussion. It is a shared belief in the team of interpersonal risk taking (Edmondson, 1999).
Fear deprives the team of snippets of information that each member could add to the learning process of a project. We know that fear is triggered by the amygdala (Greek word for almond), a small sensory brain organ located in the polar front of the medial temporal lobe. We usually think of fear causing fight or flight, standing one’s ground or running away. The third effect of fear, and the most common effect, is freeze. Most animals will freeze first in the presence of danger, because animals have poor color vision; humans have trichromatic vision while animals have dichromatic vision, meaning animals are mostly color blind but can detect motion more than contrast of colors. Animals freeze first.
Due to much of our phylogenic heritage, humans also freeze more than fight or flee. There is a very interesting study by neuroscientist Stephen Porges on the phylogenetic emergence of two vagal systems (his polyvagal theory) involving defense strategies of immobilization (freezing) in mammals. We humans also freeze thanks to our vagus nerve. In groups or teams many of us will freeze in the form of remaining silent, even if it’s our turn to speak; if forced, we would be very brief and probably vague, often repeating what someone might have stated.
With psychological safety, no one freezes. Important in this safe atmosphere of speaking one’s thoughts is the aspect of equal time. This is not clock-time equality but completion of one’s thoughts that demand an adequate span of time. It is not “hogging” the floor; It’s the respect that gives everyone a feeling of being listened to completion.
This is the atmosphere of basic mutual respect. It is the experience of being valued as an important contributor to the success of the team. Sharing equal time provides the team with the opportunity of examining all the elements of a project thoroughly. When the pressure of a time constraint saddles a team to rush its conclusions to finish a project before it is appropriately mature, the end results could be a disaster.
There is no doubt that many projects are planned within a time-frame. Still a safe team will use this dimension as part of the rhythm of their sharing, so that each member will respect the valued insights of others. Compressed thoughts can be viewed as diamonds, which are compressed carbons. Equal-time teams safely share their jeweled thoughts.
Teams that Collaborate
A fascinating example of team collaboration was played out in the lab of Bonnie Bassler, a microbiologist studying the life of bacteria in humans to keep us alive and healthy. She is known for her discovery of how bacteria communicate through quorum sensing. At the end of her talk, she showed a photo of her team, 21 young scientists all under the age of 30, who collaborated in the study of the life of bacteria in the human microbiome.
Bonnie’s team discovered that bacteria cannot work until they become a team of sufficient number of replicated bacteria to sense that they have a quorum; then, they collaboratively launch the operation they have been created to do. What a fit realization by a team of collaborative scientists under the direction of their leader, learning how bacteria communicate to coordinate their plan of action. These scientists discovered collaboration in the bacteria they studied.
It is amazing how the organs of our body know how to work collaboratively for their own health and wellbeing to sustain the successful health and wellbeing of the whole body. We should learn much from how our bodies function so perfectly through collaborative team work. Let’s see how businesses are coming into that understanding.
There are situations in which people are enrolled in teams because of the nature of the enterprise. Ohio State University (Columbus, OH) established its DACUM International Training Center as an occupational training and job analysis arm of their Center on Education and Training for Employment (CETE) in 1976. DACUM is an acronym for Developing a Curriculum, designed by R.E. Adams in 1972. Those of us who trained in DACUM recall the collaborative team approach embedded in the DACUM process of designing an occupational course.
Tim Brown with David Kelley founded IDEO, Inc., the presently renown Design Thinking company that employs hundreds of staff members using brainstorming in a creative manner to innovate change by a collaborative team approach Their team dynamics is one that looks to help everyone succeed; team collaboration is the core of design thinking.
Even Google is famously known for its productive teams, which operate in every way imaginable to maintain their near-the-top position of best companies in the country. Google’s claim to fame is their collaborative team work.
What is a collaborative team and how is it special?
The exemplary companies listed above literally follow the meaning of the word collaborate, which comes from the Latin root to work together or to cooperate. Webster’s dictionary includes the phrase “to be a useful part of the creative process.” DACUM, IDEO, and Google all perform creative processes of teams to achieve their goals. Each has a dynamic system that depends on the cooperation of team members both within the core team as well as with external connections. DACUM uses the team process of defining tasks of a job under the monitoring of an occupational specialist; IDEO employs a system of teams through several steps leading to growth and open to further modification; Google capitalizes on people analysis to fine tune its teams and assure positive results.
Collaborative team work begins with the atmosphere of psychological safety and trust, wherein members know they can risk free and open expression of thoughts and ideas in the environment of comfortable trust. This is especially possible in relatively small teams of about 10. Today teams tend to be larger, particularly virtual teams, so that confidence is more challenging. With a sensitive manager/supervisor, collaboration can be facilitated with quick and insightful conflict resolution.
Successful teams are not just those made up of experts; members need to know how to work together and likewise to ask for help either from each other within the team or from an outside assistant. If a request for help looks outside the team, it is important that the person asking for help clearly explains the nature of the project and the limits of necessary assistance. On the part of the outside helper, care should be taken not to take over the project. In the scenario of seeking help, the primary attitude is the humility of helping others be successful.
A side thought about asking for help for a team project concerns the time element of being able to assist. Many companies like Google have what is called “lag time” when employees can take a day or several hours to do personally creative work. A requested helper could use this personal time to respond to someone asking for assistance with a part of one’s team endeavor.
There is no doubt that many team projects have a division of tasks that different members are responsible to complete for each part to fit into the whole. This requires a high degree of communication and updating where the success of others is important and when trust and confidence are at their highest demand. Team collaboration pulls everyone and everything together at this juncture and everyone is pulling for the success of the team.
For entrepreneurs, consultants, and coaches, these concepts of collaborative teams can be helpful in steering clients toward dealing with relationships in the corporate setting of team activity. As companies experience technical advances through more collaborative teams, coaching takes on a broader scope of business relations where clients share issues with team colleagues.
The Virtual Team
A virtual team (also known as a geographically dispersed team, distributed team, or remote team) usually refers to a group of individuals who work together from different geographic locations and rely on communication technology such as email, FAX, and video or voice conferencing services to collaborate. (Wikipedia)
Personnel on teams are considered human capital versus equipment in manufacturing sites. These employees are flexible and can work interdependently because virtual teams are international and can work 24/7 when projects continue to develop across time zones, making them more competitive and productive. Many members of virtual teams work from home, due to the shift from manufacturing products to providing services and knowledge-based information.
As in any team there must be an openness and trust among its members to provide psychological safety whereby each member feels safe to express ideas and thoughts without risk of humiliation. This includes the aspect of equal time, meaning members can complete their thoughts without interruption.
An important aspect of virtual employees is the high degree of technological aptitudes. The rapid pace of technical innovation pushes the virtual employee to stay on the cutting-edge. This gives the virtual team the sophistication of being highly responsive to market demands and on-time delivery.
Drawing from the above definition of virtual teams, we can extrapolate different kinds of virtual teams such as geographic teams spread over the globe, project teams with specific products; management teams for work flow; collaborative teams that work on similar projects for best practices. The different kinds of teams depend on overarching goals and vision of the organization.
Large organizations might struggle with the size of their virtual teams. There seems to be an unwritten guidepost that effective teams are about ten (10) members at most. The more serious reason for this is the trust factor between members, which is influenced by personal contact. In face-to-face meetings, members can “read” each other’s faces and behavior. In virtual meetings, there might not be visual contact, so that members can wonder if others are “multitasking” as in doing other things besides the project at hand. Visual conference meetings such as Skype or Go-to-Meetings could obviate such behavior.
An economic advantage of virtual teams is the savings of travel both financially and time-wise. Living out of a suitcase is exhausting for the traveler as well as a loss of time getting to and from airports with so much waiting time involved.
Trust includes reliability. Members of virtual teams must have the integrity of reliability. Each member trusts that fellow members are holding up their part of the project. This is easier to achieve when the membership on a virtual team is small enough for members to know each other relatively well. When the size of the team is large, there is the danger of “social loafing.”
A significant dimension of virtual teams is the cross-cultural aspect of virtual teams. Organizations are not only crossing time zones, they are crossing national borders that involve local customs, languages, and different ways of thinking. It helps to be multilingual. However, translation is different from transliteration; we don’t exchange word for word. There is an infinite number of colloquialisms in every language and “being on the same page” could be a challenge in multicultural virtual teams. Must teams need to have a common language? Or do team members need to be multilingual? Virtual teams will need a good amount of flexibility and resilience.
Because virtual teams have a diversified quality, it is imperative that managers of virtual teams put in place clear and precise goals with designated roles. Our definition above points out the team members work together from different locations; members do not function independently but in the context of a team whose members work interdependently. This is the responsibility of the team leader to keep the team on track with each member having defined roles and goals. This is not rigidity or micromanagement; it is coordination so that the team can work in a collaborative manner to reach its goals. Under appropriate management, virtual team members can be accountable to their team as well as to the organization.
Virtual teams are difficult to maintain due to the challenges of distance and mode of communications. Emails, FAX, texting, and videos do not have the personal touch and immediate feedback that personal face-to-face encounters provide. The Harvard Business Review (2014) reported a 2005 Deloitte study that 66% of virtual work groups failed their clients. Organizations must work hard to develop and maintain working virtual teams.
Challenges of Virtual Team
As difficult as it is to engage in a tight conversation about a serious topic, imagine what it would be like using a different language than one’s own native tongue coupled with using only a phone. None of us can read another person’s thought, even given the intriguing facility of empathy that we all have in emotional settings like a funeral or a party. Human communication is something we do every day whether face-to-face or on the phone with a familiar person. When it comes to business endeavors, it is a whole different undertaking.
What, then, could be the challenges of a virtual team in an international company? It is presumed in this question that the team has a collaborative project to complete. The most challenging dimension of an international virtual team is the cross-cultural aspect. Even if all the members spoke the same language, cultural differences like colloquialism could cause misunderstandings. Many such idiomatic expressions are even tricky within the same country that could have regional expressions unique to that area of the country.
We likewise experience the need for facial expression when we converse, because reading each other’s facial emotions adds meaning to the words spoken. The importance of body language supplements verbal expression for the context of what is being said. If virtual teams do not use skype or video conferencing, there is much lost in the interchange of ideas.
Along with language is the time zone challenge, which is often as different as day and night literally. Such time gaps could necessitate electronic communications as emails or text messaging that are cryptically brief. This sets up delays in exchanges of ideas that require repetition of meaning and further delay of progress. With such gaps in explanations of each other’s thoughts, frustration causes a breakdown of trust and confidence that partners are competent or up to the task.
A company that specializes in helping international organizations in overcoming many of the difficulties of virtual teams is RW3 CultureWizard (https://www.rw-3.com/about-us), founded in 2001 to assist companies dealing with their global competencies. Its team is likewise international with the expertise of handling the challenges of collaborative endeavors across national borders and time zones.
The Kenan-Flager Business School of the University of North Carolina sites CultureWizard in their newsletter (https://onlinemba.unc.edu/academics/research-and-insights/virtual-team-challenges/).
These two sites are excellent sources for coming to grips with international virtual teams.
When it comes to national or local virtual teams, there might be similar challenges with online or phone connections. It is still much better to use skype or video conferencing modes of connection. Face-to-face in these types of meetings reduces temptations to multitask while in conference and can aid in establishing trust and confidence through personal contact. Very important in electronic connections is the articulation needed for good conversation. This means that members should speak clearly and slowly in a way that is different from one-on-one casual conversation.
As in productive teams, psychological safety is especially important. This means that each member of the team feels safe to express thoughts and ideas without humiliation or feeling embarrassed for speaking up or asking a question. Also important is that each member completes one’s thoughts without interruption.
The ideal team size should be about 10 members; more than this, members must wait too long to get a turn in contributing to the progress of the team toward completion of the project. Too many team members also make it difficult to know each other well enough to feel comfortable with fellow team members. The smaller the team the closer the connection.
A final thought on virtual teams is the timing of the meetings. Meetings should be regular enough that there is a continuity of interest and endeavor; the team should agree on the rhythm of the meeting in keeping with availability of regular attendance. The time of day is another important factor, given time zones that impact scheduling. And of course, the length of time the meeting should last is important. Ending the meeting on a scheduled time is just as important as the starting time; meeting should not peter out. Even if the agenda is not finished, the meeting should end at the appointed time.
Virtual teams are not easy and suffer a high failure rate. With careful planning and diligent preparation, virtual meetings should be productive and beneficial to members as well as to the organization.
The Coachable Team
Strange as it sounds, most of us are coaches in our conversations with one another. We constantly share our opinions with one another about how we see life. Some people accept our suggestions and insights while others resist what we are willing to share. In corporations, we find the same atmosphere of openness or closeness. There are those who are coachable and those who are not.
One of the productive tools corporations often employ is the collaborative grouping of teams. Not all teams are equal; some teams of subject-matter-experts often get stuck; other mixed groupings have eager leaders with free-loaders who let leaders do the work. How could a company best profit by building team approaches for growth and not suffer the drag of stale-mated experts or free-loaders and lost time? A visit to a couple of examples will give much needed insights into this challenge. Those two resources are Amy Edmondson (2014) and Julia Rozovsky (2016).
Amy Edmondson[i] first: She was wondering why so many mistakes were being made in hospitals with drug distribution for patients. She studied lots of teams and found a few reality situations. Her first reality was the need for psychological safety within the team. She defined this as team members feeling safe to risk being vulnerable in front of peers, free to say anything without rejection by others. What is important is not who is on the team but how the team works. This allows for interpersonal risk taking. Teams with psychological safety made less mistakes because members could express their ideas and contributions freely without fear of reproach.
Amy Edmondson added that teams frame their work as a learning situation in which everyone has a voice in the discussion. Each person owns his fallibility and models uncertainty by asking questions. They are all accountable to each other willing to learn through interdependence.
From Julia Rozovsky[ii] we see an extension of psychological safety as she studied the phenomenon of teams at Google. With her partner Abeer Dubey, she undertook an exhaustive research of Google teams and came up with a five-level portrayal of how productive teams work rather than who is on the team.
Julia borrowed Amy’s definition of psychological safety as the basis of productive teams; psychological safety is the foundation of dynamic teams. From there she went on to describe teams as being dependable in that they get things done, have structure with clear roles, plans, and goals in which members personally find purpose and meaning in their work. Mostly, the team realizes the impact of their work because it matters and creates change.
With this kind of team environment of wellbeing, a team coach can help the coachable team to understand its philosophy, vision, and mission as it unfolds its functional norms to be company models of performance through their mutual shared reflection and measure of achievement.
As a closing recommendation, please consider the book: Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg, (2017). Random House, New York.
- The bases of teams are found in our mirror neurons: This neuroscience reality was discovered around 1995 when brain research stumbled onto the source of human imitation and the uncovering of mirror neurons. Have you ever yawned seeing another person doing it? Or have you picked up a glass of water when you saw another take a drink? Those are mirror neurons imitating someone else’s movements. Our brains reflect the meaning of another’s movements.
- Mirror neurons help us respond to another’s emotions: In teams this is important, for it helps sync the team in enthusiasm and promoting each other’s successes. Everyone is vital to the enthusiastic team.
- Team work might begin with mirror neurons but it’s deeper than that: Great teams need the environment of psychological safety, in which each team member feels the freedom to take the risk of expressing one’s thoughts and ideas without fear of a put-down like “rolling eyes”. All contributions are respected as small learning events.
- Once the team is connected through psychological safety, it becomes submerged in its work: Its project becomes a collaborative endeavor, everyone cooperating for the success of each other in an atmosphere of comradery with focused listening for understanding and insights.
- Psychological safety fosters a vital sense of belonging: This enhances mutual esteem as set forth in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Free to contribute ideas to discussions and open to critical thinking, the team functions in harmony, dealing with each challenge of the project with keen interest. The team frames its work as a learning opportunity.
- The dynamic of a safe team makes work personally important for each member. It is the deep emotional engagement of finding meaning in the collaboration of all its members and in the very project they have dedicated themselves to achievement.
- Productive teams in the identity of mutual support are accountable to one another in their engagement. They have each other’s backs and no thought or idea is too small for consideration. Together they are each dependable to meet target dates on time and to get various phases of the project done with excellence. 
- Team connection is vital for innovative collaboration: The shared energy of creative contributions becomes the vital element of insightful exchanges that facilitate communication and productive collaboration.
- Collaborative teams are like a living organism: All the members of a collaborative team work in vital unison for the good of everyone. No one is more important or less important than another; they all share the wellbeing of the whole group.
- Successful teams are not just made up of experts: Team members must know how to work together and not be afraid to ask for help. Not everyone knows everything. The primary attitude of productive team work is the humility of helping others be successful and of knowing when others want to help. Humility is a secret resource of collaborative teams.
- With psychological safety, there is also the aspect of equal time. This is not clock-time equality but completion of one’s thoughts that demand an adequate span of time. Nor is it “hogging” the floor; It’s the respect that gives everyone a feeling of being listened to completion.
- Technology is so expansive that nothing is produced single-handedly: Companies today rely more and more on teams such as Google, Apple, Amazon, Zappo, and manufacturing. Even the military depends on teams to achieve the success of “special forces”. Companies experience technical advantages through more collaborative teams.
- A collaborative team has a built-in structure to sustain their progress. They openly and thoughtfully propose roles for each one based on strengths. With clarity members create appropriate plans to meet their goals. This is an environment of trust and purpose.
- Trust and confidence are the backbone of successful teams: Trust opens team members to each other through insightful communications and confidence assures teams of the reliability of each being accountable for the completion of tasks. This mutual dependence is the teamwork of quality production. 
- Team collaboration pulls everyone and everything together: This combination of personnel and resources are what productivity is all about and only truly collaborative teams have the advantage in today’s competitive corporate growth.
- The true productive team genuinely grasps the value of what it has accomplished and how it was done. We might recall seeing pictures of the NASA team cheering when the astronauts landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.
- There are times when a team might need coaching to move ahead. A team coach can help the coachable team to understand its philosophy, vision, and mission as it unfolds its functional norms to be company models of performance through their mutual shared reflection and measure of achievement.
 Iacoboni, Marco, (2008). Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York.
 Edmondson, Amy (1 June 1999). “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams” (PDF). Administrative Science Quarterly. 44 (2): 350–383. doi:10.2307/2666999.
Ferrazzi, Keith, (2014). Getting Virtual Teams Right, Harvard Business Review, 12/2014
 Jacoboni, Marco, (2008). Mirroring People: The New Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others; Picador, New York.
 Edmondson, Amy, (2014). Building a psychologically safe workplace,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8, TEDxHGSE, May 4, 2014
 Glaser, Judith, (2014). Conversational Intelligence, Bibliomotion, Inc., Brookline, MA
[i] Edmondson, Amy, (2014). Building a psychologically safe workplace,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8, TEDxHGSE, May 4, 2014