The Bricks & Mortar of Teamwork

“The truth won’t set us free until we develop the skills and the habit and the talent and the moral courage to use it.”

—Margaret Heffernan, “Dare to Disagree” TED Talk at

A pair of hands works to set concrete blocks.
Image courtesy of Stoonn at

After decades of research pointing to the fact that people skills matter to business success, here it is again. In her book, “Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes,” entrepreneur and business owner multiple-times over Margaret Heffernan pitches the case one more time. Superior teams achieve their stellar results with plenty of talent and brains. Certainly. But, all the talent and brains in the world mean little without the mortar in between: social capital.

Ms. Heffernan is not just wielding theory here, even if that theory is soundly based on her experiences as one who has run business enterprises several times over. Ms. Heffernan has obviously done her homework—weaving the work of Thomas Malone, Director of the M.I.T. Center for Collective Intelligence, and the work of Alex Pentland, also of M.I.T., together with the wisdom of some proven business leaders—in order to make the solid case that what many researchers call social capital is the tie that binds.

As one example, Heffernan cites Pentland’s research that tracked the patterns of communication of teams. The conclusion? The patterns of communication turned out to be as important to results as everything else combined. What is the “everything else”? Intelligence, skills, personality, substance of discussion—those more obvious, traditionally touted items that the everyday observer might think would account most for team success—or lack thereof.

Guess what? For those of us who populate workplaces and have our own theories about team success—and think that superior IQs and superstars are what makes teamwork happen—well, we are in the same boat as the rest of the everyday observers. We are, in a word, wrong!

To make a long story short, for the sake of this blog entry anyway, while talent, skills, intelligence and substance provide the strength of bricks, bricks simply stacked atop one another don’t hold. Without a connecting substance, bricks don’t function cohesively, effectively or strongly. One small push and it all topples over. What makes a stack of bricks into a structure with the lasting power of years or even decades? Yep, you got it. Mortar is the answer.

In the same way that mortar binds bricks into creative and strong structures, social capital—connections, trust, communication, openness, honesty, conflict and vulnerability—will do that for teams.

Now that we’ve made the case, let’s ask the next logical question: How do you infuse social capital into a team? Keep reading future blogs and discover some answers.

How much social capital does your team enjoy? What difference does it make?

How much social expertise do you bring to your team?

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