How to Make Teamwork Really Work The Vital Role Emotional Intelligence Plays on a Team
How to Make Teamwork Really Work The Vital Role Emotional Intelligence Plays on a Team

What makes for successful teamwork?

You need people with the practical skills to accomplish the job, of course. But there’s more to it than that. According to a decade plus of research by Alex Pentland and Nada Hashmi at MIT, your EQ, or emotional intelligence, is as important as your IQ when it comes to teamwork.

Simply put, it’s not only important that you can do the work, it’s important that you can work well with others.

Whether you’re collaborating on a single short-term project or regularly with the same team members, here are four ways you can tap into your EQ to help you make your team work like a dream, no matter what your role.


How we communicate with each other is a huge factor in effective team performance — bigger than a combination of intelligence, personality and talent, as it turns out.

In a Harvard Business Review article, The New Science of Building Great Teams, MIT researchers identified the ideal team member as a “charismatic connector,” someone who communicates and connects with their team effectively. Here are some ways you can behave like a charismatic connector:

  • Actively communicate with everyone equally, making sure others have a chance to contribute.
  • Listen as much or more than you talk in an obviously engaged way.
  • Connect teammates with each other and help spread ideas around.
  • Explore outside the group for ideas but not to the exclusion of engaging with the group.

According to the research, the more you and your team members do these things, the more successful the team will be.


As you’ve probably experienced, there are ways of communicating that build trust, and there are ways that do the opposite. Not surprisingly, taking the trust-building route generally proves helpful on a team.

As author Judith Glaser describes in her book Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, trust building can happen on a chemical level — and there are ways you can communicate toward this end.

The key, Glaser points out, is to listen from the start, ask clarifying questions and make room for others’ ideas. If you do, you’ll influence your own and other people’s neurochemistry and stimulate positive hormones, such as oxytocin. In a sense, you’ll free your brain and body to have a more positive and collaborative experience.

On the other hand, if you talk nonstop, shutting out other people’s ideas, or you spread negative emotions, you’ll generate hormones like cortisol. This causes the part of your brain that does planning and prioritizing to shut down, reducing problem-solving abilities and keeping you from trusting and being trusted by others.

Wondering what else you can do to build trust? Here are a few additional tips from the author:

  • Use a we approach in your language and actions, rather than an I approach.
  • Build rapport by listening actively without judgment.
  • Ask smart questions, using curiosity to discover new information.
  • Agree on a definition of success within the team and make sure to validate success as the team has defined it by acknowledging and celebrating it.
  • Make sure the messages you give to others on the team are clear, double-checking to make sure others understand you and you understand them, too.


It can be easy to get drawn into the drama and distractions that often arise from having various personalities on a team, but focusing on the people instead of the work can have a negative effect on productivity.

If someone on the team goes off topic or the group isn’t solution-focused in a meeting, for example, try taking the initiative to help the group refocus on the work. This can be as simple as saying, “Ok, getting back to our next step on this project, sounds like we were thinking X would be our best bet. Does that seem right?”

Restating the topic and getting consensus reminds everyone of the purpose of the meeting and helps uncover areas of disagreement that might be contributing to any lack of commitment or progress.

Once the topic is clarified, ask questions to help guide the conversation forward, making sure you’ve all moved on together. Doing this could help the distracted teammate get more engaged in the problem-solving discussion, especially if that person’s input is being solicited and included.

You may find these steps especially helpful in cases where consensus or buy-in are important, like with major projects or those involving several departments. Plus, any team member can help the team refocus the conversation — meaning you don’t have to wait for the formal leader to intervene.


At times, people’s emotions, including your own, can affect your team’s ability to move forward. Since people won’t always tell you how they’re feeling, though, it’s useful to pay attention to body language and facial expressions for clues.

If you notice signals like tight lips or crossed arms, for example, make a mental note and consider how you might show a little extra kindness — it could be as small as smiling or giving a pleasant greeting. Remember, stress-related problems are often personal issues; it’s likely not about you, so don’t take it personally.

If you give someone the benefit of the doubt, offering encouragement and support instead of judgment or defensiveness, you help create a more collaborative workplace.

As for your own emotions? Try noticing and internally identifying your feelings in various situations. Say you find yourself sitting in a meeting feeling upset. Perhaps it’s because your idea isn’t being considered, and you feel disappointed. If you can recognize how you’re feeling, you can assess whether it might be helpful to share that feeling with team members. In this case, you could say, “I’m reluctant to let go of my earlier idea. Could we talk about ways we might build on it or tweak it to make it happen?”

The big takeaway is this: Don’t ignore feelings. Once you’ve helped yourself or your teammates acknowledge something that’s bothering you or them, it’s easier to find ways to move on and get the job done.

Try incorporating these tips, even one or two, into your work and you’ll be on your way to helping yourself and your team succeed.

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Bonnie Hovel

Guest writer Bonnie Hovel, a licensed social worker, is owner and principal consultant at GroupWyse, an organizational development firm dedicated to helping people find significance in their lives and their work. She provides practical coaching and training to leadership and teams, inspiring and guiding her clients toward achieving their goals.

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