Most people have been on both teams that work and teams that don’t work. But we now have a better idea of what makes a team work—and it may not be what you think.
What makes teams so important in the first place? “Studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems,” writes Charles Duhigg in the New York Times. “Studies also show that people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction. In a 2015 study, executives said that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more. If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.”
You might think team success is primarily a matter of which people are on the team. In other words, if you could just come up with the right combination of people, any team would be successful. But Google, which has hundreds of teams, examined all its team data in an attempt to answer this question, and found it was something else entirely.
What makes a team work
“Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions,” writes Julia Rozovsky, analyst for Google People Operations (which most companies call HR), in a blog post examining the results of the study.
In the study, which it calls Project Aristotle, Google learned there are five major factors behind successful teams:
- Psychological safety: Can team members take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
- Dependability: Can team members count on each other to do high quality work on time?
- Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans clear?
- Meaning of work: Are team members working on something that is personally important?
- Impact of work: Do team members fundamentally believe that their work matters?
By far, the most important of these is psychological safety. “We’re all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity,” Rozovsky writes. “Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork. On the flip side, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles.”
Moreover, feeling safe has many broad benefits, she continues. “Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”
Raising the emotional intelligence of the team
In retrospect, this finding—which has beenreinforced by other studies—isn’t terribly surprising.Nor is it new; the behaviors are similarly to those recommended in a 2008 Harvard Business Review article, which called it group “emotional intelligence,” or EI. What’s new is the data backing it up.
After all, in a successful team, it’s important for people to feel free to suggest ideas. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of the necessity of “feeling safe” as critical for collaboration. For example, the notion of a “safe space” comes up often in brainstorming, where people need to feel free to suggest any idea—no matter how nonsensical it might seem—without having to worry about ridicule.
At the same time, it’s also important for people to feel free to shoot down plans that they think won’t work. Otherwise, team members can succumb to “groupthink,” or feeling intimidated about going up against what they perceive to be the will of the group—particularly if managers are involved. Both of these situations require people to feel safe in the group.
Google went on to create a tool that is intended to help boost the dynamics found in the survey, which it calls the gTeams exercise. “Over the past year, more than 3,000 Googlers across 300 teams have used this tool,” Rozovsky writes. “Of those Google teams, the ones that adopted a new group norm — like kicking off every team meeting by sharing a risk taken in the previous week — improved 6 percent on psychological safety ratings and 10 percent on structure and clarity ratings.”
Getting the team talking
How can you tell if group members feel safe? A significant factor is whether all the members are contributing roughly equally in meetings. If not, then for whatever reason, people don’t feel safe. “On the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion,” Duhigg writes. “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.”
While a number of articles about this study summarized the results as “Be nice,” there’s actually more nuance to it than that.
“By adopting the data-driven approach of Silicon Valley, Project Aristotle has encouraged emotional conversations and discussions of norms among people who might otherwise be uncomfortable talking about how they feel,” Duhigg writes. “The paradox, of course, 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.”
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