Bursty interaction is better for performance

Teams who unconsciously synchronize their behavior perform better

I'm back talking about communication patterns among team members. But this time, not from a network perspective, but from the perspective of speed, response time. This might sound like an argument for an "always-on" culture, where team members are tied to Slack, Teams, or email to swiftly reply to requests. I'm not advocating such communication norms. My tendency is to favor an asynchronous culture.

The key article for this newsletter is “teams vs crowds”, discussed by the authors on Behavioral Scientist.

Key points

  • Meaningful connections between team members lead to cohesive and cooperative teams.

  • Synchronizing behaviors create feelings of social connections

  • Two forms of behavioral synchronization are mimicking facial expression, and mimicking response times to messages, or sharing of work products (e.g., code submission, documents, presentation, designs).

The theoretical basis: collective

The foundational argument in the article is that teams with higher collective intelligence, perform better. Collective intelligence is a form of team intelligence and measures how good a team is at different tasks. In this way, it is similar to the individual intelligence quotient g. Just like a person might have the skills to do a lot of different tasks, a measure of intelligence, a team can have the ability to accomplish various tasks.

Collective intelligence is defined as a group’s capacity to perform a wide variety of tasks.

Anita Williams Woolley and colleagues (2010)

The difficulty with teams doing several tasks, is that team members need to communicate and interact with each other to get the task done. The processes that are in place to develop a marketing campaign are not the same as for developing an unconscious training program. Of course, different expertise is required. But beyond that, some basic team processes around communication and interacting with each other are the same.

Collective intelligence is influenced by team composition, specifically having diverse teams, and including team members who have higher than average social perceptiveness. Social perceptiveness is the skill of correctly inferring what others are thinking and feeling based on subtle, nonverbal cues. It is related to other aspects of emotional intelligence and a strong predictor of collective intelligence. Social perceptiveness impacts collective intelligence thanks to team members synchronizing their facial expressions. Thus, team members who can work out what others are thinking and feeling, start to copy other people's facial expressions, which in turn leads to better coordination without communication. This then leads to higher collective intelligence.

The claim: Synchronizing behaviors lead to higher team performance

The statement that was investigated is that synchronization leads to higher team performance. In face-to-face teams, synchronization implies (unconsciously) copying team members’ facial expressions. This means your reactions to what is being discussed are becoming more similar. Team members become happy, angry, sad, excited about the same events or possibilities at the same time. In turn, this leads to a more cohesive team and better cooperation.

The link between synchronization and coordination is established thanks to greater feelings of "being in it together" and greater feelings of trust. By reacting in similar ways (mimicking others), team members feel that they are on the same page and pursue the same goals. Synchronization goes beyond copying someone’s actions. Behavior is not just copied, but copied in relation to the same stimulus. In other words, copying is not delayed but instantaneous.

The proof

In the research, teams had to solve an algorithmic challenge posted on a crowdsourcing platform. The analyzed communication pattern was burstiness. This was measured as the wait time between events (e.g., sending a message, submitting code). Team members were experts in the field and located in different time zones.

Correlation in wait times between events was a sign of burstiness. Thus, if someone posts a message at 8 am, and gets a reply at 8:10, and another team member replies at 8:15, this is a sign of burstiness, as the wait time between events is short. However, it doesn't mean that the team continues communicating like this. The following message or action (e.g., sending a document ) might be 2 days later with another reply or action (e.g., feedback on document) coming another 2 days later. Point is that the timing of events is similar.

Two findings stand out for me:

  1. Information diversity has a statistically positive impact on team performance. This means that the number of topics a team discusses has an impact on their performance. Teams that discuss a greater number of topics, achieved higher performance. However, this positive impact is overshadowed by the second finding: burstiness.

  2. Burstiness has a statistically positive impact on team performance. Thus, teams that synchronize their actions achieve higher performance. Again, this does not mean that the team is constantly online and talking with each other or sending each other files. Synchronization means that the interval between events is similar. This similarity can mean short waiting times or long waiting times. There will be a jump from a long waiting time to a short waiting time and back to a long waiting time. For example, teams discuss their task and decide on the next step. When someone experiences a roadblock and posts a message about it, others come online and help. After that, it's back to everyone working alone engaged in deep work.

So what? Real-world implication

The research has a number of implications for remote companies and distributed teams. First, an always-on culture does not help with team performance. Neither does it help when teams only discuss at regular intervals, like during scheduled check-ins. Good team communication seems to be random from the outside but actually demonstrates that team members are attuned to each other and the pace of their project.

Second, synchronization can happen in distributed teams. It's not just about copying other people's facial expressions. In distributed teams, synchronization takes the form of (unconscious) coordination of communication and workflows.

The follow-up question is how to establish this synchronization. Team members need skills to properly gauge the complexity of a task. This gives them an indication of when problems might occur, requiring team members to come together. Beyond that, the current research does not provide many insights into supporting synchronization in fully distributed asynchronous teams. I'm speculating that synchronization in distributed teams could also be in the form of writing style, use of gifs, or emojis as "text-based non-verbal behavior".

Doubts and thoughts

I'm wondering to what degree copying someone's facial reaction creates a real and honest "feeling of being on the same page" or if this is just a perception, an illusion. The starting point of the argument is someone's ability to correctly guess another person's feeling and thinking. However, for mimicry to happen, there should also be the desire to feel and think what the other person is feeling and thinking. In other words, I need to be able to guess what you feel and think and I need to care about these feelings and thoughts. The question I have: How conscious is this process and can people exploit it to create a false sense of trust and belonging? Research suggests that the positive impact of interpersonal synchronization does potentially happen without people being aware of the synchronization.


Cacioppo, S., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). Decoding the invisible forces of social connections. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2012.00051

Chikersal, P., Tomprou, M., Kim, Y. J., Woolley, A. W., & Dabbish, L. (2017). Deep Structures of Collaboration: Physiological Correlates of Collective Intelligence and Group Satisfaction. Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, 873–888. https://doi.org/10.1145/2998181.2998250

Riedl, C., & Woolley, A. W. (2017). Teams vs. Crowds: A Field Test of the Relative Contribution of Incentives, Member Ability, and Emergent Collaboration to Crowd-Based Problem Solving Performance. Academy of Management Discoveries, 3(4), 382–403. https://doi.org/10.5465/amd.2015.0097

Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., & Malone, T. W. (2010). Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Science, 330(6004), 686–688. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1193147