"Hand over your cellphones."

That order greeted Texas Tech players as they stepped off a bus to begin a two-day retreat at the start of the season. Although the Red Raiders had reached their first "Elite Eight" appearance in the 2018 NCAA tournament, the team had lost five of its top six scorers. The new players made up an "eclectic collection of unheralded recruits," according to Yahoo Sports. Making it to the Final Four was "improbable" and "unfathomable." In other words, few experts gave them much of a chance.

The purpose of the retreat was to foster chemistry and teamwork among the players. How coach Chris Beard accomplished it offers a simple, valuable lesson for any business owner who wants to build a winning team.

The first thing Beard did when they reached the remote ranch two hours south of campus was to ask players to surrender their cellphones. The players were assigned questions to ask one another, and they had to share what they had learned with the rest of the group. Instead of checking their devices, they listened to one another's stories. They learned about each of the other players--where they came from and what drives each of them. It brought them closer.

According to Yahoo sportswriter Jeff Eisenberg, the retreat "transformed a loosely connected group of basketball players into a tightly bonded team capable of making history." Eisenberg says the way the team communicates now is "a huge reason" they have one of the best defenses in the nation.

The Difference Between Connecting and Conversation

The outcome of the retreat wouldn't surprise neuroscientists who study how apps, social media, and mobile technologies keep us hooked to our phones and disconnected from one another. If not managed, cellphones get in the way of effective communication among team members. 

After all, our brains evolved when all communication was face-to-face. 

In her landmark book Reclaiming Conversation, MIT psychology research professor Sherry Turkle makes a distinction between connection--hitting "Like" on social media--and conversation. "Face-to-face conversation is the most human--and humanizing--thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It's where we develop the capacity for empathy," she writes.

Turkle cites a now famous study in which schoolchildren spent five days at a summer camp that banned electronic devices. After camp, the kids "showed an increased capacity for empathy as measured by their ability to identify the feelings of others."

What if Beard's players had been instructed to just set aside their phones during their team-building exercise instead of removing them completely? The presence of the phones themselves might have still interfered with team building and communication.

In his book Irresistible, researcher Adam Alter reveals that the mere presence of a smartphone during a meeting hampers communication.

In one study, psychologists invited pairs of strangers into a small room and asked them to engage in conversation. Like coach Beard, the researchers provided some questions to help them get started. Some of the pairs talked while their phones were nearby while the other pairs were not allowed to have phones in the room at all.

According to Alter, "Those who grew acquainted in the presence of the smartphone struggled to connect."

The Business Case for Face-to-Face Conversation

Turkle and other researchers build a business case for bringing back conversation. Small-business owners and leaders of any organization should strive to create opportunities to manufacture digital-free conversations if they want to improve team chemistry and performance.

According to Turkle, a large number of studies show that face-to-face conversations in the workplace "lead to higher productivity and reduced stress." For example, studies have found that call center operators are more productive when they take breaks together and software teams produce fewer bugs when they talk more.

Behavioral scientist Benjamin Waber has measured the quality of work produced by teams who communicated largely through email compared with others who worked face-to-face. The teams' output looked very different. Face-to-face teams were more productive, had better work performance, and created stronger rapport with one another.

The research doesn't imply that we avoid online communication entirely. Tools like Slack have radically improved collaboration and productivity. But the tools should be balanced with opportunities, retreats, events, and meetings with no digital devices present.

Reclaim the lost art of conversation and your team's success might surprise you. 

Published on: Apr 4, 2019
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