Team communication patterns: key lessons from nature

How to avoid destructive electronic communications in teams

From studying nature's bioteams it seems there are 3 dominant patterns of communication which can be used in a biological group. All three also have their place in the electronic communications we use in our human teams. However one of them, if over-used, can be destructive or indicate the absence of crucial group support structures.

For simplicity I will label these three dominant patterns of communication:

  1. The Shout (one-to-many)

  2. The Whisper (one-to-one)

  3. The Gossip (one-to-some)

Let us look at each in turn:


Shouting

Shouting involves communicating with the whole group.

This is the main pattern of communication used by the social insects. It is a 1-way broadcast communication, not requiring a reply. In nature it is achieved in the case of ants through scent trails (pheromones) and for bees via dances such as the waggle dance.

Human groups need to be able to do 'replyable broadcasts', for example to schedule meetings, conduct polls or obtain feedback. However I would suggest that it is even more important for human groups to learn to use 1-way broadcasting much more. The current addiction to 2-way messaging is one of the ways a group gets slowed down unnecessarily.


Whispering

Whispering is a 1:1 private communication pattern.

This also happens frequently in nature as ants and bees can communicate 1:1 by stroking each other or by exchanging fluids.

Human groups need to be able to whisper too. Not all conversations can be transparent - some are simply not relevant to the group and others are inappropriate. A simple practical example of the need for whispering is on a web-conference where you need to get the adminstrators attention to say you wish to speak. Similarly the administrator may need to get your attention to tell you discretely you are talking to loudly, too quietly or too much.

Whispering is also a vital group 'grooming' activity between team members where trust and rapport is built through regular 1:1 conversations.


Gossiping

This third pattern of communications, gossiping, which I define as a private communication to some but not all members of the group is the one we need to be careful about.

Generally ants or bees do not use this form of communication.

Adhoc and random gossiping can be quite harmless and entirely useful in a group. However the danger arises when the gossiping recurrently involves the same subset of team members. An obvious risk is that a clique is being nurtured within the group which may, at some point, undermiine the transparency and trust in a high-performing team.

Alternatively gossiping may indicate that you are missing a sub-group or a leadership ring. In the interests of transparency these structures should be made explicit to all and not kept a secret.

So there are 3 main patterns of electronic communication within groups - shouting, gossiping and whispering. We need to keep a note of how much each pattern is used in our teams to ensure we use the right one at the right time and be particularly careful about gossiping as it may point to cliques forming or missing structures.

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