The secret sauce of team performance

Experts explain how to identify, measure, and create synchrony to build great teams.

Amelia Haynes

Associate Researcher, Korn Ferry Institute

Have you ever wondered what drives the impromptu magic of a crowd singing in unison? What about those inexplicable connections that you immediately form with certain people? Or that force that allows us to connect and bond with one another?

This is interpersonal synchrony.

In the past, this process has been chalked up to “chemistry,” but now neuroscientists have found ways to identify, measure, and create synchrony. When done right, this synchrony can be used to better interpersonal relationships, teams, and even organizations. In its new e-book, The Secret Sauce of Team Performance, the Korn Ferry Institute, in collaboration with the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, explains how synchrony works and how to harness it to create and maintain effective teams.

Recently, we chatted with authors Amelia Haynes of the Korn Ferry Institute and Michael Platt of the Warton Neuroscience Initiative to learn more about the concept of synchrony and how to use it to optimize teamwork.

Korn Ferry: We’ve all been on teams where everything and everyone just clicked. Many of us would describe this simply as “chemistry,” but it goes deeper than that, doesn’t it?

Amelia Haynes: It definitely does. For a long time, people sort of stumbled onto chemistry, like it was something that happened by chance. But neuroscience research shows us that chemistry isn’t the luck of the draw. It can be measured. And it can be created.

Michael Platt: Right. Synchrony is the biological glue that makes cooperation and teamwork possible. Unfortunately, not only can synchrony be created, but it can be broken too. This is painfully obvious when your favorite sports team trades for a talented but volatile player who disrupts the synchrony in the locker-room and they miss the playoffs.

KF: How does this synchrony happen, exactly?

AH: Humans are social creatures. The networks in our brain are primed for understanding the actions and intentions of others. Synchrony is a process that supports that understanding by creating alignment in the activity of our neural firings, our behaviors, and our emotions. This kind of alignment helps us collaborate and cooperate, which is really important for our social species.

MP: In fact, synchrony is not uniquely human but instead is widely shared with other social animals like monkeys, bats, birds, and even mice. And we now know that synchrony doesn’t just reflect shared mindsets, feelings, and actions but can actually cause positive social interactions.

KF: All in all, how do teams benefit when they are in sync with each other?

AH: The list is long. Synchrony supports improved understanding of other people’s actions, intentions, and mindsets. It can result in increased empathy and subjective liking of a partner. It can boost cooperation, trust, and understanding between individuals. A lot of the benefits of synchrony are the kinds of things you’d try to create or foster to promote positive team dynamics for good outcomes.

MP: Synchrony also improves communication among team members. When doctors synchronize their movements and facial expressions with patients, this decreases perceived pain. Similarly, increased synchrony on rowing teams increases tolerance to pain and exertion. Thus, synchrony might be the key to the ability of teams to overcome physical and emotional challenges.

KF: Is there a way to measure interpersonal synchrony on teams? What are the tools and the markers?

AH: There is, but it depends in part on what kind of synchrony you’re measuring. If you’re measuring emotional synchrony, you might observe facial expressions or measure heart rate. If you’re measuring behavioral synchrony, you can observe body language and posturing. If you want to measure brain synchrony, you need some fancier equipment. But the amazing thing is that all of it is possible. And while it might seem trivial to measure whether people are making the same kind of facial expressions, the implications of this kind of alignment are not.

MP: The key is choosing the right tool for the situation. Brain scans can provide the deepest, most comprehensive synchrony measures, but it’s not feasible, physically or financially, to put MRI machines on people while they do their work. For that reason, we typically trade a little precision for wearability and portability. Smartwatches and wearable brain-sensing bands are much more useful and scalable for most teaming situations.

KF: What about creating synchrony? How can leaders harness this chemistry in their teams?

AH: What’s really amazing about synchrony is that many of the strategies for increasing it are remarkably simple. Studies show that teams with less turnover in their membership have more chemistry. We can’t always rely on time, though. So luckily, there are other things, too. Listening to music together, having an open and vulnerable conversation, or holding eye contact are all small things that can have a big impact.

MP: All cultures have developed rituals and practices that seem to be designed to create synchrony. Moving together, singing together, and drumming together all helps get our bodies and brains in sync. Similar approaches are used in improv—often in the form of games like the “mirroring game”—to get the actors dialed in to each other. Leaders can use these techniques to build synchrony in their teams. What’s great is that doing these things doesn’t cost anything and can be lots of fun too.

KF: So, it’s possible that there can be “too much” chemistry. What do leaders need to keep in mind to find the right level of synchrony?

AH: This is a really interesting question. If synchrony is a key ingredient for outcomes like increased learning speed, better communication, better collaboration, and increased subjective liking, then how could it be bad, right? Well, some research suggests that synchrony can get in the way of brainstorming or divergent thinking—making two highly creative people less creative. So, synchrony is all about context—and what you’re trying to achieve in it. 

MP: Exactly. The best approach is to manage synchrony dynamically to optimize goals. Desynchronizing is key to finding a new solution while synchronizing facilitates execution of that solution.

KF: Of course, the last two years have been a whirlwind for organizations. Why, then, is creating interpersonal synchrony so important today, especially in teams?

AH: Teams these days tend to be more disrupted, dispersed, and dynamic than they were in the past. So, leaders can’t rely on chance or time to create alignment in their teams. Synchrony opens a door for this to be intentional and strategic. There’s no more guessing and checking—and that matters because there’s no time for it anymore either.

MP: Synchrony also opens a door to greater empathy and wellbeing in the workplace, which is central to the new corporate focus on ESG. It may even unlock “collective effervescence”—the buzz we get from doing things in groups that’s usually only associated with seeing live music or going to raves. Imagine if we could help our teams get the same feeling at work.


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