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The Relationship between Team Emotion and Delivery

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In November, Atlassian’s Natalie Mendes and Prashant Kukde, the CEO of artificial and emotional intelligence firm Deep Affects, published the results of a study into the relationship between team emotions and productivity. The study used NLP techniques to analyse hundreds of open source projects in Jira, "performing sentiment and productivity analysis upon them to identify what emotions teams were expressing through their projects and how productive they were in delivering these projects." The results of the study show that positively emotioned teams are the most productive. Jake Herway, a management consultant at the analytics leader Gallup, also recently blogged about his learnings from taking a team on a journey towards a state of psychological safety, and the importance of creating emotionally engaged teams.

Accounting for the strength of the emotion, Mendes and Kukde present evidence of a positive correlation between emotional health and team productivity. They demonstrate that teams with higher levels of negative emotion, such as anger, delivered at slower rates than more positive teams. The study reports:

According to our research, high performing teams tend to experience less anger in their work at 16%, whereas low performing teams are experiencing anger at a high of 30% of the time.

The study's metric for productivity is based not just on cycle time, but also accounts for the priority of the task, providing some consideration for effectiveness. Measurement of emotion was based on each of the following:

  • The associated emotion - one of Robert Plutchik’s eight core emotions ranging from disgust to trust.
  • Valence - a more general presence of positive emotions.
  • Arousal - intensity of emotion.
  • Dominance - the feeling of control over oneself and one’s work.

Mendes and Kukde's results demonstrated that higher levels of valence, arousal and dominance, all present a correlation with increased productivity. They report a "positive relationship between a team’s productivity and positive emotions expressed (high valence)." The study observed that high levels of trust and anticipation were key to producing productive and motivated teams:

...the most common emotions people express within their team projects are trust and anticipation, which we believe are positive signals of team productivity. When teams trust each other and are looking forward to the work they are about to do, everyone is highly motivated to do a great job.

Considering how one can produce engaged teams, Herway writes that Gallup's 2017 State of the American Workplace Report revealed that "three in 10 U.S. workers strongly agree that at work, their opinions seem to count." He asks:

Why do employees sometimes remain silent when they should speak up?... Put plainly, why do we hold back our potential contributions when we know a project or process is broken or headed for disaster?

Herway writes that for many employees the "benefit of saying nothing tends to far outweigh the benefit of speaking up." He points out that by doubling the number of people who feel their opinion matters in the workplace, "organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents and a 12% increase in productivity." The study also demonstrates a positive correlation between feelings of engagement and higher quality.

Gallup's American Workplace Report is based on their Q12 metric which measures "employees' emotional engagement."  The US targeted study indicates that a high portion of individuals are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces, resulting in an impact on productivity:

70% of American workers are "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" and are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive. Currently, 52% of workers are not engaged, and worse, another 18% are actively disengaged in their work. Gallup estimates that these actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. between $450 billion to $550 billion each year in lost productivity.

Mendes and Kukde also observed that feeling in control is important to producing productive and engaged teams. They write:

Feeling in control of your work (aka, dominance) is very important to your and your team’s productivity. In our research, we found that when someone feels high control over their work, they are able to resolve their tasks more quickly.

Herway writes about his own experience of working with a team of "can-do" individuals who "became unproductive once real work began." He asked the team four questions intended to start bringing about psychological safety by creating an awareness of individual and team strengths, and alignment with their organisational mission. The questions posed were:

  • What can we count on each other for?
  • What is our team's purpose?
  • What is the reputation we aspire to have?
  • What do we need to do differently to achieve that reputation and fulfil our purpose?

Herway found that it is fundamental to establish "individual security before diving into the broader team psychological safety challenges." Through a facilitated exercise of eliciting 360-degree feedback across the team, individual insecurities were challenged. Herway writes that:

Eventually, everyone heard -- out loud -- from their teammates that their specific contribution was unique, appreciated and highly valued. One by one, each member of the team expressed what they believed they contributed to the team, and each was validated and felt more secure.

Herway explains how, by taking the team through a journey of reflecting and understanding their individual, team and organisational value, a document of Guiding Principles was created. He writes that:

Today, they use these principles to reinforce a shared direction, approach, unity and identity, ultimately building an ever-deepening sense of safety among team members.

Herway later revisited the team to evaluate the ongoing impact of having arrived at a common alignment. He writes:

Six months after creating and implementing its Guiding Principles, the team took a reading of its engagement using Gallup's Q12 employee engagement survey. The team's score shot up 0.70 points on the Q12's five-point scale. For context, 0.20 is a meaningful improvement.

Herway expresses a belief that a culture of psychological safety can be fostered by every team within an organisation reflecting on their shared value, purpose and identity:

Exploring those four questions can do the same for any team or organization that wants to create a culture of psychological safety. Leaders and managers can use the four questions to encourage participation, ideation and honesty. Ideally, every team in an organization would work through the four questions to get to its shared value, purpose and identity.

Mendes and Kukde’s article points out that organisations should reduce uncertainty and create an environment which encourages positive emotions within teams. They write that "happy teams get work done."

The Deep Affects team have published their work on the Atlassian Marketplace in the form of the Team Dynamics Analytics app for Jira which organisations can start experimenting with. This app was also one of six winners from last September's annual Atlassian Codegeist hackathon.

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