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Why team training falls over and how behavioural economics can help

Category: Blog & News

I sat in a seminar last week on team development and it's prompted me to think about how behavioural economics can be used to improve team performance.

The presenter started by sharing the characteristics of high performance teams, citing the 2012 AFL premiers the Sydney Swans as an example. What elements of team dynamics were called out? Process, shared vision and values, playing for each other, clarity about the contribution each individual was expected to make and so on. People in the room had no trouble listing these elements, and yet we seem collectively to struggle on a day to day, hour by hour, decision by decision basis to make it happen.

Perhaps I'm jaded, but there seems to be an intractable disconnect between high performance teams and the rest of the world. For every Sydney Swans there is a Port Adelaide. Where the Swans are the exception, the rest of us are the rule. And in spite of team dynamics being one of the most studied and trained aspects of organisational performance, an area we spend a fortune on, we scratch our heads and mutter "if only".

So what's breaking down?


Insights are fleeting, behaviour is entrenched

There's no doubt that team profiling tools and team building sessions can improve performance. It's the sustainability of that performance that is at issue.

In a previous life when I facilitated induction days and team building events, and in other lives where I've participated, I've seen light globes go off. People gain insights into their colleagues and the walls get broken down between right-brainers and left, between introverts and non, between instigators and concluders. The team members see why they approach issues from a particular perspective and with that, develop an understanding of how their colleagues may see things differently. Finally! We have a shared understanding and common language that means 'conflict' is not necessarily personal, it's simply a function of us not being empathetic. Hurrah, at last we can be a high performance team!

But then something happens.

It's called habit. We revert to old patterns of behaviour and as the weeks go by, we forget that Jo is a right-brain, introverted, polkadotted, instigator and we just think Jo is an idiot.


How can behavioural economics help?

The core reason that team training fails to deliver sustainable performance is down to behavioural change. And for effective behavioural change, you need to understand human decision making and for that, there is behavioural economics.

Here is a taster of where behavioural economics can explain the breakdown of behavioural change.

We are more motivated to avoid loss than seek gain. The gain in this situation is that if everyone performs, we become a high performance unit. But that's not enough on a day to day basis to keep people behaving differently. Why? Because of what I have to lose. Change means I have to give up what I'm used to (loss aversion), it requires more thinking and self-control than I can afford when I'm just trying to get my work done (depletion effect), and whilst the downside of having to spend time empathising with my colleague's style of thinking is blatantly obvious - I mean, who has the time?! - the payoff - "if this stuff even works" seems both ambiguous and way off on the horizon (short-term bias). And anyway, why should I if no one else is (social norming)?


To embed high performance you must design for it

To embed high performance, this is what you must do. Design for the behavioural change.

First, use behavioural economics to understand the reasons inhibiting change, and on the flip side, will facilitate change. In the example above "why should I when no one else is" can instead become "I will because I see others doing it", "If this stuff even works" can instead become "I know what I need to do in small interaction to make a difference overall".

And second, ensure that you have strategies to support both the motivation to change as well as ability to change.

In other words, when the team come back to the workplace all pumped up, when motivation is at its peak, that is the time to get them to commit to new processes and policies, do the hard stuff like moving their office to be closer to their colleagues, schedule meetings they don't like having and so on. Then, when motivation levels drop, the hard changes have already been taken care of so all that you require is the easier tasks. Morning teas, 'thank you' post-it notes...whatever you and your team have designated as 'easy' things should be rolled out so that even if no one really feels like it, you do it anyway and before you know it, you are on the path to high performance.

So by all means, learn from the best and aspire to create a high performance team; after all, the Sydney Swans did it. But don't leave team performance at an intellectual level, assuming team members will change their behaviour on a rational basis because you'll be wasting your money. For a team to perform differently than they have been, your task is one of behavioural change and for that, you need behavioural economics.


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