How to win together: What Google learned about successful teams

Over the past five years, Google conducted a deep dive into what makes the most effective teams. What they discovered will likely come as a surprise to many — psychological confidence is the key indicator of successful teams.

A recent Harvard Business Review study notes that in the last 20 years, “the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.” As one of those companies that employs a collaborative approach to work, Google’s focus on optimizing teamwork makes perfect sense.

Google tries to “Google” the answer

Google began its study by examining and analyzing its massive collection of employee data. During a study that Google called “Project Aristotle”, researchers sliced and diced the data in countless ways in search of commonalities between successful teams. However, after examining 180 teams, Google was unable identify the magic trait that determines team effectiveness.

Psychological safety makes teams successful

Stymied through its own research, Google turned to academic studies, where researchers discovered the notion that psychological safety is crucial to team success. After running its own confirmatory study, Google was shocked to find that the degree to which members experienced psychological safety predicted the success of their teams across the company.

Psychological safety was comprised of two key features: 1) team members exhibited empathy toward each other, and 2) members felt comfortable sharing their thoughts, so much so that everyone had roughly equal time to speak in meetings.

The first feature — empathy — unlocks the potential for the second feature, because once a person understands and shares the feelings of others, he or she will want to engage them and encourage them to share their thoughts.

However, cultivating empathy poses a substantial challenge. After all, understanding and sharing the feelings of others seems far too personal to belong in the workplace for many employees.



How to create more empathy

To grow empathy, organizations have a proven method available to them. At the heart of growing empathy is growing emotional intelligence — knowing and being able to handle one’s own emotions and those of others.

A surefire way to boost emotional intelligence is practicing mindfulness. By working on being present and not judging, practitioners develop their ability to listen and observe others, as well as understand others on their terms rather than imposing preconceptions onto them.

If teams were to practice mindfulness together the results could be even more impressive. Beginning a meeting with just five minutes of mindfulness practice could transform how members regard each other and how well they work together.

Try practicing mindfulness (see instructions below) with one of your work teams for a month. Practice on your own every day that you’re not meeting and encourage your teammates to do the same.

Mindfulness breathing practice

  • Sit comfortably in a chair with your back straight and shoulders relaxed. Close your eyes if you think you’ll be distracted by what you see.
  • Pay attention to your breathing. Notice what breathing in and out feels like in your body, and how those sensations can change. You can focus on your torso or the sensation of air moving in and out of your nostrils. No need to change your breathing in any way; just be aware of your breathing.
  • Your mind will wander. That’s okay. Every time you notice your mind wandering, just bring your attention back to your breathing. If it helps, count each breath till you hit 10 and then start over.
  • After five minutes, end your practice. Tell yourself to bring the focus and presence with you into the rest of your day.

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