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Google and the Perfect Team

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Team makeup is less important than team interaction, according to a study recently completed at Google. Google researchers identified the top five characteristics of an effective team in their company. Psychological safety, dependability, structure, meaning, and impact have a greater influence on team effectiveness than traits like staff tenure, skill level and location.

In a project identified as Project Aristotle, Google gathered data from many different realms in order to find this information. Researchers interviewed leaders to find their view on what drove team effectiveness, and compared that to self-evaluations and sales performance. The researchers also analyzed existing data (from Google’s longitudinal survey on work and life) to get some perspective on what elements may be connected to effectiveness. Variables such as skill sets, group dynamics, personality traits, tenure, location, and emotional intelligence were collected and evaluated. The researchers wanted to find factors that provided strong correlation to effectiveness, across multiple teams.

According to Google researcher Julia Rozovsky, in a video Google created to explain their results, they discovered that success is determined more by how people interact rather than who is actually on the team.  Rozovsky notes that psychological safety was the “most foundational and most important” factor of the five identified through the study. Psychological safety describes the individual’s perceived consequences of taking personal risk. The more comfortable an individual feels in taking risks within a group (trying something new, or admitting failure or uncertainty), the more likely the team will be effective in the work they take on.

Google has provided a summary of this research along with recommendations to help other teams improve on these five areas. The researchers note that, while these five traits were common in effective Google teams, there may be some variety within other companies.

Teams with a high level of psychological safety tend to display equitable amounts of speaking time across the whole group (i.e., each member speaks for about the same length of time over a given period). They also participate in what Charles Duhigg, in his TechInsider video, has labelled “ostentatious listening” - focusing on the other while listening and ensuring that the other is aware of the focus. Examples of this may include reiterating another’s discussion points, acknowledging someone’s perceived emotion, and asking them to explain their feelings. Google recommends encouraging input and opinions from the team, sharing work preferences and encouraging others to do the same, and simply being more aware of the concept of psychological safety. Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, introduced the concept of psychological safety, and Google recommends her TED talk on the topic.

Another trait the researchers identified is dependability. Team members display this by completing quality work on time. Teams can encourage greater dependability if they collaboratively identify roles and responsibilities, and are transparent in all the work being done.

Teams display the third trait, structure and clarity, by holding a clear understanding of their job expectations, both at the individual and the team level. Teams can improve by frequently sharing the team goals and reviewing the plan to achieve those goals.

Individuals holding a personal sense of purpose for the work being done is an example of meaning, the fourth trait identified. Teams can improve a personal sense of meaning by expressing appreciation for work done, and showing support, through feedback.

The last trait the Google researchers discuss is impact. Understanding how the team’s work contributes to a greater whole is one example of how this is played out. Frequent communication about how an individual’s work directly influences others – both positively and negatively – can increase the presence of this trait on a team.

While this research is backed with data, some argue that the Google research team didn’t investigate existing studies on team effectiveness prior to their own study, and therefore weren’t able to frame the information based on past research around teams and teamwork. Chris Alexander, of AGLX Consulting, notes that, while psychological safety is important, it is not a team trait so much as it an organizational element necessary for teams to thrive. Quoting Amy Edmonson (who is also cited in reports about Project Aristotle), he reminds his readers that “psychological safety is an essential element of organizations… [not] a team skill or behavior.”

Alexander states “We can teach a team and individual team members to communicate more effectively using certain techniques and behaviors. Similarly, we can train a team to communicate in more assertive ways. However, we cannot train teams to simply ‘be psychologically safe.’”

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    by Nandini Mankale,

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    Good article. Agree with the Psychological safely point. This is very important in making team members be open and collaborate more.

  • Safety

    by Michelle Parsons,

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    Great article, Susan! I completely agree that psychological safety is number one for a team.

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