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What Google Learned About Building the Perfect Team

This month’s Gifted Leaders e-Newsletter features a New York Times article by Charles Duhigg that documents the surprising truths that Google discovered about why some work groups thrive and others falter. Drum roll please … here’s the essence of exceptional teaming according to Google’s robust data analysis.

Highlights from the Article

Modern work is becoming more and more team based, and for good reason. Groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly, and find better solutions to problems. People working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction.

In 2012, Google embarked on an initiative to study hundreds of its teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared. It was almost impossible to find patterns in the data – or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference. There was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. Essentially, the “who” part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.

What did seem to matter were “group norms,” the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how humans function when we gather. The influence of group norms is often profound and Google’s researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving team performance.

What distinguished the good teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right norms could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble the team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.

Two behaviors, in general, were shared by all the good teams:

  1. First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, i.e. there was “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount.

  2. Second, the good teams all had high “average social sensitivity” – a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. People on more successful teams seem to know when someone was feeling upset or left out and they are comfortable sharing personal stories and emotions.

Within psychology, traits like “conversational turn-taking” and “average social sensitivity” are aspects of psychological safety – a group culture that Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Psychological safety is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

For Google, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well – like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But the data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

What Google has learned from this project is that no one wants to put on a “work face” when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel “psychologically safe,” we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.

Read the article here.

The Gifted Perspective

As the article aptly points out, “the paradox, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.” While this is common sense, it’s not always common practice in the fast paced, pressure-filled world of work that we’re accustomed to.

As we accelerate the shift toward collective leadership (where leadership doesn’t reside in one or even a few individuals but, instead, is a shared capacity within a team or organization), it will become increasingly important to enhance the capability of self-managed groups and teams to build environments characterized by psychological safety!

We can assist you and your team to become skilled in “conversational turn-taking” and “average social sensitivity” through our Teams That Talk™ coaching approach!

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