Google’s Surprising Insights on Team Effectiveness

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After two plus years of rigorous research leveraging over 200 interviews focused on 250 attributes of 180 active teams, Google’s People Operations (think HR department with analytics capabilities) determined there is one question that every leader should be asking themselves if they are seeking to create an effective team…

How’s our psychological safety coming along?

Huh? Yes, I had the same reaction when I first read this excellent NY Times article on the research. You mean to tell me that building an effective team is not about selecting the right mix of talented people who possess unique skillsets that complement one another? Or that forming effective teams is not mostly about creating “team chemistry,” and aligning personality traits to where team members gel together naturally. Nope. Apparently, it’s not so much about who is on the team, but more about how people interact with each other. While Google’s researchers found five key findings that set its best teams apart from others, psychological safety was clearly the most important…and the more you read about it, the more sense it makes.

So what is psychological safety and how can we know if it exists within our team? The short answer is that psychological safety is the underpinnings that lead to a trusting environment. Do you feel safe with your fellow team members? Are they willing to both challenge and support you in a positive manner? Do they have your best interests at heart? Will they listen empathetically to your ideas and in a non-judgmental way? Can you be vulnerable with one another? To include sharing each other’s mistakes and shortcomings? These are just a few questions that one can use to assess the level of psychological safety within their team.

This is related to what we know from recent brain-based research, in that we as human-beings have a need for status and relatedness. When we come together as a team, we are constantly assessing where we stand within the team’s “pecking order” and if we are a part of the “in” or “out” group. This causes us to be guarded in our interactions and limits-our willingness to take risks with one another. We simply don’t want others to negatively assess our “competence, awareness, or positivity.”1 Perhaps more importantly, “in the absence of safe social interactions, the body generates a threat response.”2 When our bodies become inundated with cortisol and testosterone, and are focused on how to either fight against or flee from fellow team members, we can assume that trust will be degraded.

So what can a leader do to create the conditions for greater psychological safety to exist on their team? Here are a few ideas to consider:

1. Communicate expectations – If you are leading a group and have formal authority as well, be clear and upfront with how you would like team members to interact with one another. For example, expressing “team, I want you to know that I truly value everyone’s opinion, and, as such, I expect that you will bring your ideas forward, no matter how crazy they may sound or how contradictory they may be. Furthermore, this is a safe space to do so and I will not tolerate personal attacks in our interactions. We want to challenge each other and foster healthy debate, but not at the expense of our relationships. Can we agree to this?” If you are attempting to influence a team without formal authority, you might make a similar offer and then work towards norms that will allow for peer accountability and enforcement.

2. Be the example – A leader is always on a stage and team members are constantly looking to the leader and determining “what right looks like” in how they will interact with one another. If you as a leader are not present, not fully listening, discounting others ideas, interrupting, or ignoring certain voices…others will undoubtedly do the same. So after you clearly set expectations, work hard to model those expectations and give team members license to call you out if you are not! Perhaps the most important area where a leader needs to lead by example is in expressing vulnerability. If you don’t offer your shortcomings and where you have made mistakes to the group first, don’t expect anyone to let down their defenses either.

3. Lead through facilitation – A team’s culture will not only be shaped by the leader’s behavior, but also by what behavior he or she allows from others. A wise leader will practice upholding shared values and facilitating productive conversation. When an unfair interruption has occurred, someone might say “wait a second Jim, let’s hear out what Jane was just saying and we’ll come back to you once she’s finished.” If a team member has been noticeably quiet, the leader may practice inclusiveness by saying “Pranov, we haven’t heard from you yet; please help us to understand your stance on the issue.” If the team is dealing with a failure and assigning blame to each other, the leader may offer, “we all had a role to play in this, including myself. I want us to stop focusing on who is to blame and start focusing on what we have learned and how we can solve the problem.” The foundation of good facilitation is curiosity. Always be asking yourself, what’s most important right now and what questions or statements will help move the team forward together?

Google’s latest research on teams helps to confirm what many of us already knew, without trust there can be no team. And while the term psychological safety may be new to us, we all intuitively get it — people need to feel safe with each other to trust one another. The real value in this work is in helping leaders to identify where they need to focus their efforts in creating the conditions for psychological safety to exist. Thus, I offer that you reflect upon your own team….How’s your psychological safety coming along?

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  1. Rosovsky, J. (2015, November 17). The five keys to a successful Google team. Retrieved from https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/
  2. Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Retrieved from http://www.your-brain-at-work.com/files/NLJ_SCARFUS.pdf

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