Audience members witness magic during a chamber music performance: A small group of musicians that, if they rely on each other, play a harmonious piece of music together without a conductor. Some groups like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra shuffle seat positions after every piece, dismissing traditional ideas of hierarchy and leadership. Some companies have tried reorienting themselves as holacracies—although to varying success—founded in the idea that self-organization can prompt a higher sense of participation and purpose. Chamber music, though, offers lessons in collaboration for all kinds of workers, no matter where you are in a team’s structure.
Chamber groups rely on each member to diligently listen to one another while playing, self-reflect, and adjust in real time to remain in sync. From there, the music flows. And even if you don’t play an instrument yourself, there’s plenty to learn from the principles of chamber groups as a better collaborator on your team. You can try a few practices to nurture the same skills.
Try team-building activities
To effectively practice, each chamber musician must learn how to listen to, trust, and connect with one another. Games can be the right vehicle to build these skills.
For one, in-person teams can play Form the Order. Ask fellow team members to line up in chronological order according to shifting criteria like height, birthday, or shoe size— without speaking. Like the chamber musicians, team members will have to watch one another, pay attention, and change to find ways to win.
You could also take your team to an escape room, in-person or virtual. Chris Martin, CEO of Puzzle Break, says that a majority of corporate teams choose escape rooms as a team-bonding exercise. “Teams that succeed always have a couple of traits in common: They listen to each other, and they share information,” he says. “Age, gender, life experience – none of that matters in terms of the outcomes.”
These activities can reap dividends for collaboration. Research published in the Harvard Business Review finds that high performing team members invest time for genuine connection—and bonding activities can be one start. “High-performing team members are significantly more likely to spend time at the office discussing non-work matters with colleagues,” researcher Ron Friedman writes.
Lean into learning
Like a chamber musician listening to their colleagues, learning about your teammates and the work they do is crucial to understand the piece your work plays in the larger team puzzle. You can invite coworkers to chat over coffee, or try taking walk-and-talks to learn more about their work. Distributed teams can also plan virtual breaks with others. In doing so, you’ll not only learn about your teammates, but create a space for relationships to deepen.
“Too often we find teams operating without full awareness and consideration of their larger context,” write researchers on the need for cross-collaboration in the workplace. It’s crucial for us not to think and function in isolation to be most successful. Knowing each other is the first step to more connected grounds for collaboration.
Ask for feedback and reflect
Like a violinist becoming softer after they notice they’re drowning out a cello, reflection is important to understand not only how your skills fit into your team’s, but how you can use them to be a better collaborator.
Many teams formalize this through 360-degree feedback, for instance. But if your organization doesn’t have a process—or you’d like feedback on a more frequent cadence—set aside a minimum of 10 minutes with your manager during every one-on-one meeting to ask for feedback. During this conversation, make sure you know the purpose of the feedback, whether it’s appreciation, coaching or evaluative, and ask what you can do to help other team members. You can ask team members for feedback as well.
Setting aside 15 to 30 minutes at the end of each week to reflect on goals can also help boost self-awareness. Research shows that this leads to more effective teamwork and collaboration. Some questions you might ask outside of a traditional reflection question might be, “Did my work cause anyone else additional work to complete? Did I help remove barriers for someone on my team?”
While some of these activities might seem burdensome to complete on top of your core role, the skills they’re developing are pivotal and backed by science.
“Curiosity encourages members of a group to put themselves in one another’s shoes and take an interest in one another’s ideas,” writes Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino in her research on decision-making and teams at work. “That causes them to work together more effectively and smoothly: Conflicts are less heated, and groups achieve better results.”
Self-awareness researcher Tasha Eurich also finds the importance of awareness in positive team outcomes. “People who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives,” she writes. That ultimately leads to us communicating more effectively, building stronger relationships, and becoming better collaborators.
Like members of a team, each instrument and player in a chamber music group is unique – they have different ranges, tones, and personalities. Regardless, though, each plays a crucial role in the overall sound, dynamics, and harmony of the group. And just like that, a good team is built on collaboration and communication: an assembly where people learn from one another, bond, and seek feedback, to create a tuneful workplace melody.