What Google Discovered about Creating the Perfect Team

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Over the past decade, Google has spent millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of their employee’s lives, trying to discern the secrets of optimizing productivity and performance. They’ve looked at factors from how often people eat together (the most productive people have bigger networks because they eat with lots of different people) to what traits the best managers share (good communication and no micromanagement). Then a few years ago, Google starting focusing on a new problem – how to build the perfect team.

The prevailing approach at Google had always been that building the best teams is about bringing together the best people and then matching them based on personality. For example, putting introverts with other introverts. But digging a little deeper they realised there were a lot of assumptions underpinning this conventional wisdom that had never been properly studied.

In response, Google launched ‘Project Aristotle’ and set out to study hundreds of teams to figure out why some struggled and some soared. Researchers began by reviewing 50 years of academic studies looking at how teams worked. Are the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Or is it more important that people were motivated by the same kinds of rewards?

The researchers then overlaid the results of those studies against teams within Google. How often do people socialize outside of work? Are they interested in the same things? Do they have a similar education? Is it better to have more extroverts or introverts or a particular mix? Does gender balance have an impact on a team’s success?

The result? They didn’t find anything – and this is Google we’re talking about! There was no evidence to suggest there was any secret for creating top performing teams.

Except one.

Psychological Safety

What the researchers did find is that in good teams, team members speak in roughly the same proportion as one another. They called this ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ As long as everyone gets an opportunity to speak, for example in meetings, the team performs well. But if only one person or a small group speaks all the time, the collective intelligence declines.

The researchers also found all the good teams had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’. This means they are good at interpreting how others feel based on their tone of voice, their expressions, and other nonverbal cues.

These two traits, “conversational turn-taking” and ‘‘average social sensitivity”, are broadly referred to in psychology as “psychological safety”.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as:

‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

Of course, there were other behaviors that were important as well, like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

This sounds familiar…

In his best-selling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni lays out the five most important characteristics of a high performing team. The first and most critical characteristic is vulnerability-based trust.

According to Lencioni, in teams with high levels of trust it’s ok for anyone, including the manager, to say things like “I don’t know”, “I messed up” or “I think we can do better” without feeling judged or criticised.

How do you create Psychological Safety?

Looking at terms like “conversational turn-taking” and ‘‘average social sensitivity” it should be obvious that creating psychological safety all comes down to communication.

First and foremost it’s about listening – giving people the opportunity to have their say (all the time, not just once a year!) and keeping a close eye on when people feel upset (tip: Jobvibe helps you do both of these things).

It’s also about how you speak and act. According to Harvard Business Review, “high-performing teams deliver roughly five times as many positive statements (supportive, appreciative, encouraging) to every one negative statement (critical, disapproving, contradictory)”.

Of course, it makes sense that positive feedback helps build team engagement. But our brains are wired to focus on the negative feedback so, in fact, we have to work even harder at the positive feedback to make sure it cuts through.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t criticize or confront your employees. It just means that when you need to do so, it should be framed in a positive context. So, focus on the problem from an objective point of view and discuss the resultant outcomes, rather than spending time on over-analysis, fault or blame.

Finally, it’s about making feedback a normal part of everyday work. Not a once a year project. At Jobvibe we believe it’s important to avoid always defaulting to anonymous feedback in order to help achieve this. Asking for anonymous basically says “it’s not safe to speak your mind”. Asking for open feedback, on the other hand, means everyone knows where they stand and helps embed transparency – which will only further build psychological safety and help your team shine.

Justin Babet

Justin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Jobvibe. ​We help teams work better together. Jobvibe is a simple, smart mobile platform to gather real-time feedback from your team, openly discuss results and improve the way you work together.