Cracking the Code for Successful Teamwork: Tips for Leaders

| By Terence Brake

Teams carry the largest burden of work in our complex business organisations, but what makes a team great?  

In a New York Times article (“What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”) Charles Duhigg reported on the findings of Google’s Project Aristotle.  The project was launched in 2012 to identify what made the highest performing Google teams the very best.  For many years, Google’s executives believed that you built the best teams by bringing together the best people.  It was a reasonable assumption, but was it true?

After painstaking research, what Google researchers found was that the assumption was false. Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google’s People Analytics division said, “We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference.  The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.” 

The key ingredients for team success were norms promoting psychological safety.

Psychological safety according to Prof. Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School is a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is save for interpersonal risk-taking . . . it is a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up . . . It describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” 

In the Google research, two behavioral norms stood out as common to the high-performing teams:

1. Team members spoke in roughly the same proportion, i.e. there was equality in conversational turn-taking.  If one person or a small group dominated team talk, performance declined. And so . . .

  • Design meetings for equal participation.  If someone has difficulty with speaking up, find out what you and others in the team can do to help.
  • Establish communication norms early on in any team, e.g. keep contributions short and to the point.
  • Encourage team members to connect directly with everyone without having to go through you

2. Team members demonstrated high social sensitivity (sometimes called social intelligence).  This means that team members are skilled in intuiting how others feel based on tone of voice, expressions, and other non-verbal cues, i.e. team members are empathic? And so . . .

  • Why don’t you and the other members of your team take the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test: socialintelligence.labinthewild.org. 
  • Talk about personal responses to the test in a meeting, but NOT in a judgmental way.  Have fun learning about yourself and others – your differences and, perhaps, more importantly, your similarities.  
  • Develop a climate based on the principle – YOU ARE NOT JUST YOUR TEAM ROLE.  Enable members to bring their whole selves to the team, not just carefully constructed, but limited, personas and skill sets. 

Remember, the secret to team success is psychological safety.  If it works for Google, it can work for you.   

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