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Lessons from Google on how to run a successful team

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Collaborative activity has increased significantly in the past two decades. Teams are an essential unit within an organization as well as how we function socially. 


Given the proliferation of teamwork, in 2012 Google took on the task of researching how to optimize teams. They set out to determine what factors determined an effective team and how they could improve the way people work together.


They undertook a study they named Aristotle - in honor of Aristotle’s quote that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. They gathered statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists, and engineers and studied 180 teams across their engineering and sales divisions. There was a mix of high performing and low performing teams.


In order to evaluate the effectiveness of a team, the researchers measured the evaluation of the team by the team leader, the members of the team, and the executive ultimately responsible for the team as well as sales performance against quarterly quota.


Up until this study, Google had operated based on existing research, principles of conventional wisdom, anecdotal evidence, and their own experience as to what kinds of personalities should be on a team. For example, how to work with introverts and extroverts, or how a team’s performance is linked to their propensity to socialize outside of work. 


In this study, they decided to evaluate the composition of teams more precisely. They looked at multiple elements of team composition from personality traits to skills to demographics. 


How Google did it

Considering personality, they used the Big Five personality assessment to assess team members. Teams were also quizzed as to their skill sets and they considered demographic variables like tenure, level, and location. They also looked closely at team dynamics - how the team members felt about working with their teammates. Were they good friends outside of work or was there friction? How safe did they feel to express opinions divergent to the rest of the group? They also surveyed the teams’ emotional intelligence and capacity for empathy informed by the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire.


Appealing to all these considerations they scrutinized the composition of all the teams - the gender balance, how much time they spent together outside of work, whether they had the same hobbies, similar backgrounds, were they similarly shy or outgoing?  


What really matters

After mapping out the individual consternations of all the teams they found - none of it really seemed to matter. There was no clear correlation between any of them. While one of the best performing teams may have been a team who were also the best of friends outside of work, another high performing team were virtually strangers outside the office. 


No specific mix of skills or groups of personalities, genders, or backgrounds gave any clear pattern of performance one way or the other. It didn’t seem to matter exactly who was on the teams. 


In addition, the researchers mapped out dozens of specific behaviors comparing and contrasting whether it was better, for example, for all team members to speak as much as possible at meetings, or whether team leaders should quell debates that wander... Or should disagreement be addressed in an open forum or is it better to downplay conflict? 


Not only was there no clear correlation between these kinds of behaviors exhibited by teams and their effectiveness, but there was also conflicting data.


The researchers had to look to another parameter - group norms. 


Norms are the so-called ‘unwritten’ rules of social behavior for any given group. While it might be normal for one team to engage in social chit chat at the start of a meeting, it might be a norm for another team to get straight into the agenda. While it might be one team’s culture to give group feedback, it might be another team’s culture to only receive one on one feedback from the group leader. Or where one group might take turns to speak equally at a meeting, it might be completely normal for other groups to only address team members whose expertise is relevant to the issue at hand.


Group norms define behavior in teams - what teammates do or don’t do in order to conform to the ‘unwritten’ rules. And what was important to impacting team performance or effectiveness, was how they felt about it. How did each team member feel individually about working in that team environment, playing by those rules? Did the team culture give them the space to express their opinions and be themselves or did they feel stifled or uncomfortable as egos in the group jockeyed for the best position making power plays rather than open communication?


A key finding of the Aristotle study was that what really mattered was not who was on the team but how they worked together. Team dynamics matter more than team composition. 


Breaking this down more specifically, the following factors were analyzed as the most important elements of team effectiveness in order of importance.


1. Psychological safety

If you haven’t heard about psychological safety before, check out one of our earlier articles. A term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety can be briefly understood by the way members of a team answer these questions: 


How willing are team members to put themselves on the line? How much do they believe they will be subject to ridicule in their team?


How safe do they feel?


Do they have the confidence to express their opinion, ask a question, or admit a mistake? 


Do they feel safe to take a risk? 


If so, it’s likely their team is providing a sufficient climate of psychological safety to support them. In contrast, if they are worried they will be embarrassed, rejected, or punished for speaking up, then it’s likely their team culture is lacking in the necessary trust and mutual respect and is causing them to feel unsafe in that working environment. 


2. Dependability

Dependability refers to a team member’s level of expectation that their colleagues will reliably complete their work on time and to an expected standard of quality. Nobody likes to be on a team with others who are shirking their responsibilities. Being afraid of being let down not only dissolves any trust teammates have built, but also creates tension and anxiety which compromise an ability to perform. And having to carry other teammates' weight builds anger and resentment that can combust at any time.


3. Structure and clarity

Team members need to understand their job expectations individually as well as how their individual performance relates to overall team performance. Effective teams have clearly defined goals on the individual and group level which are specific and attainable. At Google, they set and communicate goals using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results).


4. Purpose

Team members need to find a sense of purpose either in tasks or in end results in order for the team to be effective. While finding meaning is a personal thing, it can be clearly communicated in a universal way when tied to the purpose of the company, as in the reason for the company’s existence. 


It’s not about making more money, but about how any given organization seeks to change the world, their industry, or impact a cause. The better a company is at distilling its real purpose and communicating this to its employees, the easier it is for employees to find meaning in their team’s work. Then other individual factors come into play, like an individual’s self-expression, or ability to provide financial security for their family.


5. Impact

Impact exists when a team member is able to connect their individual contribution to the overarching purpose and objective of the team and see that their efforts are making a difference. It’s closely related to meaning and purpose.


Conversely, these are the variables that were found not to be significantly correlated with team effectiveness at Google:

  • Colocation of teammates (sitting together in the same office)
  • Consensus-driven decision making
  • Extroversion of team members
  • Individual performance of team members
  • Workload size
  • Seniority
  • Team size
  • Tenure

What can your team do?

Based on Google’s findings, if you’re looking to improve the effectiveness of your team, here are some suggestions.


1. Survey

Survey your own team on how psychologically safe they feel. Amy Edmonson suggests team members can consider how strongly they agree/disagree with the following statements:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized 


In relation to the other four factors you could use these statements:

  • My teammates deliver on their promises
  • When my teammates say they’ll do something, they follow through
  • My teammates follow through on tasks, but their work product is less than satisfactory
  • I understand my role
  • I know how my workload contributes to the team’s performance
  • Our team has an effective decision-making process
  • Our team has a clear and fair decision-making process
  • I find the work I do to be meaningful
  • The work I do makes a difference
  • I understand how our team’s work contributes to the organization’s goals


2. Workshop

The results of the surveys might surprise you but will give you a roadmap of areas to strengthen and improve. Workshop these areas with your team by discussing a simulated scenario. In discussing a fictional scenario on a fictitious team, your team can more freely reflect on their own team by lowering the emotional stakes. You can look to Google for inspiration and example scenarios and discussion questions for your team.


3. Define

After workshopping psychological safety with your team, get out the whiteboard and define the kinds of behaviors and norms you want to foster in your team.


4. Commit

Your team’s efforts to create healthy norms and increase psychological safety are amplified if other teams and levels of the organization are following suit. So get HR on board and try to get leadership throughout the organization to commit to improvement.


It took a lot of data and five years for Google to determine that the soft stuff counts. There’s no magic formula for how to compose the perfect team. The reality is composition and individual proclivities matter less than team dynamics. What matters more is the universal human response of how safe we feel in any given environment. The safer a team member feels within their team structure, the better the team performs. 


If you want to take a leaf out of Google’s book then make it a priority to create a team environment where nobody is afraid of embarrassment or ridicule, and start actualizing the results of a team that has trust, clarity, structure, and purpose.

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