The tiny signals that can destroy effective teams

The miniscule messages we give out in the workplace can have huge repercussions

Physics can make the workplace more productive for everyone.

Quarks are tiny subatomic particles. They are so small that they are almost impossible to detect, but they are the fundamental constituents of everything.
In quantum physics, we are simply clouds of atoms and we interact with each other on both a physical and personal level. So I use the expression “quarkiness” to describe the microscopic behaviours that govern our interactions.
At work, it’s those tiny, usually unconscious, messages that are exchanged in team meetings, conversations and discussions with colleagues – where we look when someone is speaking, and the tone we use to speak to each other.


The problem we face is that most of these tiny messages are negative. I call these “strange quarks” – their impact on recipients is rarely good. An eye roll, frown or intake of breath will give the impression of disapproval. They are mostly unintentional, but strange quarks do betray our true feelings. And if dictated by intolerance, they are damaging to teams. How do you feel when somebody interrupts you or speaks over you in a team meeting? During a typical meeting, quarkiness adds up. And cumulatively, strange quarks are toxic to teamwork, engagement and results.
On the other hand, we transmit positive messages too – “charms”. These are far less frequent, but their impact can be huge. While we know strange quarks can have a corrosive and damaging effect upon the motivation and performance of teams, we ignore the opportunity provided by charms: think about the power of small nods of approval, appreciative smiles, and other affirmations. They cost (almost) nothing, require minimal energy, yet have such a positive and energising impact on others.


In the modern workplace, quarkiness can have a big effect. Think about broad issues such as diversity and inclusion. How many strange quarks do those around you have to deal with? And how might they be altering how they act? By using quarkiness to understand minute behaviours, you can improve your experience – and that of those around you.
First, add quarkiness to the team meeting agenda so that members can understand it and confront it head on when it happens. It is also important to appreciate the value that team members can bring as observers of quarky behaviour. It’s a lot easier and less uncomfortable to call this stuff out from a third-party perspective.
Second, gain a commitment from team members to focus on reducing the level of strange quarks that they transmit to each other, getting them to focus on a positive shift to charms.
By tackling quarkiness and ensuring that we take steps to move from negative to positive behaviour, we can help ensure that our teams are motivated and inclusive – and, in turn, improve productivity and work satisfaction.
Kieran Hearty is an executive coach and leadership speaker. He is the author of the business book How to Eat the Elephant in the Room.

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