On the same wavelength: The inner workings of successful teams

September 06, 2011

Just about every organization has teams that work together exceptionally well. You might say the members are on the same wavelength, but exactly what does that mean? An experiment conducted at the W. P. Carey School of Business may bring us closer to understanding what goes on when those teams are "in the zone."

Information systems professor Pierre Balthazard and management professor David Waldman wired 40 teams of students to a sophisticated EEG, then set them to work on a business ethics problem. Each group worked together on the case, spending some 45 minutes to come up with a solution. Then team members were given five minutes to work solo. Because the individual EEGs were synchronized to each other and to a digital video of the entire process, the researchers will be able match contemporaneous brain activity to the interactions that happened during debate and during individual reflection.

"We wanted to see what pattern of brain participation is needed for successful team interaction," Balthazard explained. The EEGs and the video were calibrated at the beginning of the experiment, so that researchers could identify the parts of the brain that fired and to what extent the brain engaged, depending on the workload it was asked to handle at any point in time. That baseline gives researchers new capability to pull apart the dynamics of interaction.

Getting down to business

EEG technology is commonly used in clinical settings to fight brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and to treat brain injuries. The research that Balthazard and Waldman are engaged in is a new, non-clinical, use for the technology.

The two have several projects underway. One stream of research uses EEG on healthy individuals to identify leadership characteristics and to discover ways of enhancing those skills. For another, Balthazard traveled to Kansas and Missouri to work one-on-one with military personnel, exploring moral development among soldiers who had been in combat -- many of them newly returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Researchers at UCLA and Washington State University, some of them partners with W. P. Carey, have studied the psychometrics of intact teams of military officers performing simulated, structured tasks typically completed by the team. Some of those experiments involved immersing the teams into stressful military situations that require synergistic teamwork to resolve.

But the EEG-focused experiments on campus break new ground. It's the first time the researchers will examine the processes of teams that have never worked together or have very little experience as a group. It's also the first time the participants have been civilians looking at important business issues that stem from an open-ended task.

The students, recruited from several W. P. Carey IS and management classes, had just formed teams to start working on assigned term projects. Everyone who participates in the experiment will get extra credit, but teams that perform best will be rewarded better. Balthazard said response was 100 percent -- and the students were excited to participate.

Josh Turley, a dual management/CIS major, said he didn't mind giving up two hours from his Friday afternoon. There was that extra credit, he admitted, but he was also interested in being part of the experiment.

"It was cool to be part of something that could have so many ramifications, that could be used to make teams more efficient," he said.

Balthazard said that teams would receive in-depth feedback on their performance, and this was intriguing to Turley as well. He works for his father's software development firm (Ron Turley and Associates, Phoenix), and he thinks the feedback will help him develop his managerial skills.

A $25,000 bonnet

On the day that experiments were to start, the workroom in the Department of Information Systems was converted to a prep area. Students were seated around a table, filling out a survey that collected information about their beliefs and values. While subjects were busy with paper and pencils, student research assistants were fitting them with a state-of-the-art electrode cap. (Information systems graduate students Irfan Kanat and Reza Mousavi and undergraduate student Ian Collins were the research assistants.)

Picture a strip of clear plastic long enough to reach from the bridge of your nose to the back of your head -- about as long and wide as a ruler. Now add three strips that crossing it at right angles. This plastic strip is embedded with wires that connect to 10 electrodes. The grad students attached the electrode strip to a soft headband that holds the assemblage comfortably on the subject's head. Electrodes were then attached to the scalp with a gel that facilitates conductivity. Other wires were then affixed to complete the electric circuit and to collect biometric data such as heart rate.

An ultra light device a little bigger than a deck of cards -- branded "B-Alert®" -- was hooked onto the back of the cap. The B-Alert® wirelessly transmits the brainwave data collected by the electrodes to computers. The comfort level and wireless design of the technology allows the participants to move naturally in real-life interactions.

All told, the caps are worth about $25,000 each. The hardware -- and a technician who trained the graduate students -- was provided by Advanced Brain Monitoring, a Carlsbad, Calif. R&D company that partners with the W. P. Carey researchers on other neuroscience studies. Those studies are being funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) grants.

Once outfitted, the subjects were led into the department's conference room, where each student solved a baseline problem on a laptop. The problem is designed to be a little difficult to solve. The brain waves measured established each person's natural patterns.

Then the group moved away from the laptops to discuss the high level business decision. The case requires participants to assume the role of senior executives making policy on how the company will proceed in a situation that has important ethical ramifications. After deliberating and making a decision, the team broke up and students returned to their individual laptops to spend five minutes thinking through their own personal final solution.

Balthazard explained that the business dilemma has a correct answer and can therefore be graded. For students the amount and kind of extra credit they receive depends on how well they performed as teams and individuals. Since the teams are staying together to work on final projects in their classes, Balthazard hopes there will be a side benefit: that they will have learned enough about team interaction to produce better work.

Is there a recipe for high performance teams?

Balthazard hopes that the data will reveal whether there are particular patterns of brain activity that are characteristic of successful teams. Because the EEGs are linked to a video record of the group's interaction, researchers will be able to see what the brain was doing during various stages of the discussion. He hopes to be able to determine how workload -- a lot or a little information -- affects performance. The data will also show levels of engagement of the participants -- whether and when they tuned out, dithered or acted -- which could show how successful teams think over time.

For example, the research may shed light on what makes some teams cohesive. "Is there a difference between a cohesive team and a team that did not work well together?" he asked. "We can watch levels of engagement and how that impacts performance. For example, many times we find there is one extrovert who takes control. We will be able to see whether other team members shut off from a brain constitution perspective."

Ronald H. Stevens of the Brain Institute at UCLA is a research partner on the project. He has recently devised a way to combine the brain wave results from each member of a team and come up with a pattern that represents the group. It may be that a neurometric signature for a high-performing team may emerge, Balthazard said.

Eventually, results might be used to define interventions or develop brain training -- exercises to help top management teams learn how to function at even higher levels, Balthazard said. The researchers intend to use the experiment as part of a future application to DARPA for a grant that would do just that.

-- Photo by Andrew Farquhar