Trust MIT to tackle nonverbal clues, charisma and the value of face-to-face communications, unstructured employee conversations and gossip. Trust MIT to also poke a large hole in how we tend to rely on meetings – and organizational communications – built on structured ‘information downloads’ and Q&A exchanges.

recent MIT News article first puts non-verbal communications and charisma in context.

Folks with charisma can through powerful nonverbal clues “make unreasonable arguments strangely persuasive”. But when properly harnessed, nonverbal clues can make group discussions more productive.

The focus of the referenced studies is communications and organizational productivity, thus of value to all of us who deploy communications at a number of levels – from driving shared corporate values, over pushing a story, to attaining specific project goals.

Indirectly, the findings also highlight the losses in both employee engagement and productivity that are incurred when people in organizations have neither time nor space to communicate face to face.

“Even in an age of Twitter and texting, companies may improve their productivity if they give employees more time to talk face to face,” the article says.

A researcher at MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, Alex Pentland, first became interested in the surprising power of primal signaling when serving as a board member at high-tech start-ups. He saw up close how people with charisma could lead their fellow board members to make strange decisions.

So he developed “sociometers” to be worn by people and used to gauge the wearers’ physical movements, capture their vocal inflections and indicate when wearers came face to face. The sociometers effectively indicated the degree of engagement in conversations.

By looking at patterns such as vocal clues showing enthusiasm, mimicked gestures showing growing attention and trust and hand gestures pointing to high energy, Pentland could predict whether people in business meetings had found some common ground.

That doesn’t sound like breaking news. With experience, we all get pretty good at reading moods of meetings.

But it points to the value of having time to engage in conversation face-to-face, and it shows how nonverbal clues can be read without assessing the content of conversations.

A recent experiment involved a call center where employees were forced to take staggered coffee breaks. This aimed at cutting down face-to-face conversation, which the company, a bank, regarded as a distraction.

The sociometer data showed that employees who nevertheless found ways to interact were more productive than their less sociable colleagues.

The bank acted on the researchers’ suggestion and introduced shared coffee breaks, only to see productivity rise significantly, resulting in millions in savings.

How did it work? The article puts it nicely: “Employees on their breaks were not giving each other PowerPoint presentations about operations research; they were just gossiping.”

“But what is gossip?” Pentland says. “Gossip is stories about what happened and what you did. So in other words, they were trading tacit information.”

Citing other examples, Pentland goes on to make the main point about how his findings meet organizational reality, in my view.

For an organization to be healthy, he says, “people need to know the rules of the road. They need to know how things are done. Which means they have to hear the stories; they have to interact with people, because you tend not to do that over email, or blogs, or things like that.”

He adds that in some cases, the rules of the road may be too controversial to commit to type. And he calls the face-to-face sharing of unofficial knowledge “information integration”, saying it is different from acquiring new information.

For me, the studies referenced in the MIT article – and there are one or two I haven’t mentioned – all show two things: we need to allow time and space for face-to-face communication and we need to put trust in the value of the interaction of the people in the organizations where we work.

Not only are groups smarter than individuals. Groups and their face-to-face gossip provide the cultural stability a company needs to stay healthy and prosper.

Interactive communications, whether face-to-face over coffee or in structured settings, creates meaning – the meaning we need to find our way through the mazes of work every day. It also creates community – in the best of times motivated communities of purpose. And that means interactive communications is indispensable for the creation of space, internally and externally, that the business needs to grow and prosper.

It is good to be reminded of the value of unstructured interaction and nonverbal clues as ingredients in this mix.

Bjorn Edlund

Retd EVP Communications, Royal Dutch Shell plc
Principal, Edlund Consulting Ltd.