Effective teams: Google reveals its secret

According to the Harvard Business Review, over the past two decades “the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.” Wondering how to create consistently effective teams that make that time productive in your own organization? Google has revealed the secret to effective teams, but it’s not what you think.

Teamwork offers substantial benefits: better decisions, higher levels of innovation, and increased engagement — that is, when they work well. But what’s the secret to a high-functioning team? And why do so many falter?

A New York Times article, “What Google Learned in its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” outlined the results of an extensive internal project initiated by Google six years ago to study and identify the key factors that make the best teams successful. In 2012, Google’s People Analytics Division engaged top statisticians, sociologists, and engineers who integrated findings from academic research with the big data methods the company is famous for and, at first, found no recurring patterns at all to predict which teams would function at a high level. Shared interests or backgrounds? Nope. Preferences for the same types of rewards? Not that either. Similar personality types? Doesn’t matter.

After looking at data from over 180 teams at Google, the researchers were perplexed, until they began investigating the group “norms” for successful teams. Norms, which are the informal, often unspoken set of rules that govern individual behaviors in a group, are what the project eventually determined were somehow a key differentiator in the success or failure of a team. But even then, after following more than a hundred teams for another year, the patterns they observed suggested sometimes contradictory answers.

In the end, while Google confirmed a number of important factors important to team success, including having clear goals and creating a culture of dependability, the data indicated that, above all, it is the presence or absence of psychological safety that determines whether a team will thrive. So the good news is that we now know what’s critically important: establishing an environment within each team that allows each of its members to feel safe. The challenge, then, is how?

According to the researchers, two key factors for psychological safety are that a team converse in a balanced way (with roughly equal input from everyone) and that members show empathy for one another. Now, while participation and empathy aren’t novel ideas, implementation can be challenging.

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Here are just three of the classic Dale Carnegie principles that can help establish psychological safety in any team:

Let others do a great deal of the talking — We’ve all been in teams where you can’t get in a word edgewise. Someone — or a small subgroup — takes over the discussion and monopolizes the conversation. Teaching team members to be good listeners is essential to good team function, as it encourages contributions from all members of the team.

Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain — Safety means feeling free to share thoughts without fear of recrimination. Teams whose members are skilled at avoiding our natural tendency to point out the mistakes of others or attack a viewpoint that differs from their own are already one step ahead at creating the secure environment that helps bring out everyone’s best.

Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view — The whole point of teams is to harness the superior brainpower of a group of people over that of any one individual, no matter how smart they are. Yet without true empathy for the other person’s point of view, all that can be lost as team members shut down or withhold their input when they feel they aren’t understood and psychological safety is lost. Empathy for the other person’s point of view is crucial.

Fostering great interpersonal communication in the workplace isn’t a simple matter, but Google’s project has certainly reinforced its importance for any company that relies on the success of its teamwork.

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