Google Re-Breaks the Code on Team Dynamics

A recent article by Charles Duhigg in the NY Times, revealed and confirmed some of the most interesting findings I have ever seen around team dynamics and high performance. If you read nothing else about team dynamics this year, I highly recommend finishing my short synopsis in this post, and, popping over to the full article What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.  It will be worth every minute, I promise.

Over the past five years Google engaged in a special project (Project Aristotle) that was tasked with breaking the code on how to build a perfect team. They have a huge workforce, a great number of teams, and methodologies to measure and analyze results that are second to none. They originally set out to see if they could predict what types of personalities and experience could be matched together to build a high performing team. The results of all that work…

…“No matter how researchers arranged the data, though, it was almost impossible to find patterns — or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference,” says Duhigg. ‘‘We looked at 180 teams from all over the company,’’ Dubey (Google researcher) 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.’’

What happened after that discovery (maybe "non-discovery" is a better term) is remarkable to me. The team perfecting project was so important that Google kept looking and putting money into the effort. The original question still remained; how do we build the perfect team? The results of that continued work…

“After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving Google’s teams,” reports Duhigg. “As the researchers studied the groups, however, they noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared.”

"First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ 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. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley (Google researcher) said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’

“Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues.”

Duhigg continues, “Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘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.’’

So, the two keys to a more perfect team:

  1. Team members are sensitive to each others’ thinking and feelings
  2. The team norm is safe for everyone to speak up, participate, and be themselves

The reason I titled this as “Google Re-Breaks the Code on Team Dynamics” is because their findings were already known. What Google has done is add one more enormous data point to the argument that it is worth spending time building a team norm that is inclusive, sensitive to emotional content and safe for people to be themselves. What a relief! We have tools to improve exactly these things with teams and have been using them for years!

Again, I highly recommend reading Duhiggs' February 2016 full article: What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.

Cheers and a happy, high performing day to you - Mark