What Google’s Quest For the Perfect Team Means For You

Connected.  Collaborative.  Creative.How well do these qualities describe the team you lead?

In today’s workplace, no one gets far working on an island.  Effective teamwork is critical for success.Intuitively, you already know that.  When a team is ‘humming’, you feel it.  On the flip side, when a team is struggling, you feel it too.  You may be relying on that gut of yours to guide how you work with teams that you lead.But is what your gut telling you accurate?

Google, as a brand, is not known as a company that relies on intuition.  Quite the contrary, Google is world-famous for harnessing the power of data to drive decision making. This quest is reflected in their mission:  to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Five years ago, Google decided to invest their data-hunting power  to answer this important question:

What makes the best teams great?   The findings of their research (code-named ‘Project Aristotle’) were profiled by Charles Duhigg (author of the excellent Power of Habit) in last week’s New York Times Magazine.Project Aristotle’s researchers started by looking at 50 years of academic studies on teamwork.  What was the hidden factor that made the best teams great?  Was it:

  • Similar interests?

  • How much they socialized outside of the office?

  • Educational backgrounds?

  • Personality types?

  • Gender balance?

As they analyzed and re-analyzed the data, they were flummoxed: they couldn’t find any patterns.

Finally, they focused their attention on “group norms”: the unwritten rules of how people behave.  As they dove deeper into the group norms of teams, they discovered two specific norms that stood out among great teams:

  1. Team members had approximately the same amount of ‘air time’, that is, they spoke in roughly the same proportion.

  2. Team members were skilled at picking up on how other’s felt based on tone of voice, body language and other non-verbal cues. They were sensitive to each others’ moods.

These two norms are aspects of what is known as “psychological safety”.  The best teams create a culture where people feel comfortable speaking up and taking risks.As one Google engineer, Sean Laurent, relayed to Duhigg,

I think, until the off-site, I had separated things in my head into work life and life life. But the thing is, my work is my life. I spend the majority of my time working. Most of my friends I know through work. If I can’t be open and honest at work, then I’m not really living, am I?

What does this mean for you as a leader?  If psychological safety is the “X Factor” for great teams, what can you do as a leader to foster a culture that supports such safety?Leaders promote specific norms in their teams by what they model.

For example, one Google leader, Matt Sakaguchi, attended a presentation on the findings of Project Aristotle.  The project’s findings intrigued him.  He had just taken over leading a new team of engineers, and a survey had shown that many of his team members were feeling unfulfilled in their jobs. Specifically, they didn’t have a clear vision of how their work contributed to the larger whole.

Sakaguchi gathered his team at an offsite, and started by asking everyone to share something personal about themselves.  He spoke first.

I think one of the things most people don’t know about me is that I have Stage 4 cancer.

Sakaguchi’s honesty and vulnerability set a tone for the team.  It broke the ice for them, Things got very real, very quickly.  As their conversation unfolded, they shifted to talk about the things at work that bothered them.  Suddenly, their workplace annoyances and conflicts seemed smaller and more manageable in the grand scheme of things.

No one had told Sakaguchi to share the story of his illness with his team. How had he decided to reveal this very personal part of himself? After all, he’d done his homework: he’d reviewed and digested the Project Aristotle data and research on teams, norms and psychological safety.

Why did he come to lead off the meeting with sharing the very personal cancer diagnosis?

Ironically, it was his gut that told him.  Sakaguchi had followed his intuition.

For Sakaguchi, leading with his gut meant leading with openness, vulnerability and maturity.  Some other leaders might default to such norms.  If so, trusting your gut is a good thing.

However, not all leaders would default to these traits.  For some, their gut response would be to lead by being decisive (and narrow), commanding (and controlling), strong (and stubborn).  For these such leaders, following their gut would be a bad thing.  They’d be better served be seeing (and following) the data on the primacy of psychological safety to create great teams.

What do you do (or could you do) to model the norms that create psychological safety for your teams?   Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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