Google Research Leads to Tips for Successful Teams

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The Dominion Post (New Zealand)

March 5, 2018

Google has been crunching the numbers in its own organization to find out which of its teams work best, and more importantly, why the best ones do better.

Google’s teams range in size from three to up to 70 people and are usually project oriented. For two years the company has studied more than 200 teams, identifying what motivates the most effective groups while looking for the ideal mix of traits and skills.

The results favored groups made up of people who play nice together, rather than being any formulaic mix of personalities or being the brightest of the bright.

The study is important for Google’s effectiveness as well as its profits.

Abeer Dubey, director of People Analytics at Google, says the revenue produced by sales teams who market advertising, apps and partnerships can vary by nearly 50%. The mission was to find out the reasons why, he says.

The results showed that it wasn’t brainpower, personality or expertise that mattered as much as creating an environment where people could speak their minds without getting ridiculed, put down or ignored.

Research also showed it didn’t matter if the people were friends outside of their meeting group or complete strangers coming together to work on a project—if people felt able to speak their minds, to challenge each other in a positive way and test new ideas, they did better than teams without those qualities.

In fact, there were five key things that determined whether a team would do well, according to the Rework study. They were:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

According to an AP story, many of the findings at Google were reinforced by a recent study published in the Academy of Management Journal by Jasmine Hu, an assistant professor of management at Notre Dame University and Robert Liden, a management professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Their analysis of 67 different teams working at six companies found employees do well when they feel their work will help the colleagues, customers and community.

“The social aspect of teams is very important because many times people are just not motivated to work for money alone,” Hu says. “They want to have the opportunity to achieve a positive impact on the lives of others.”

At Google, all of its 60,000 employees work on at least one team, and some are on two or more.

Google’s teams range in size from three to 70 people and are usually project oriented. For two years the company studied more than 200 teams as part of Project Aristotle, identifying what motivates the most effective groups while looking for the ideal mix of traits and skills.

For Project Aristotle—a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”—the research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success.

There were other behaviors that seemed 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.

Google defined psychological safety as referring to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.

In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

The safer that team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles. And Google says it affects pretty much every important aspect of that person’s work life.

As well, the company says individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

The company created a tool called the gTeams exercise: “a 10-minute pulse-check on the five dynamics, a report that summarizes how the team is doing, a live in-person conversation to discuss the results, and tailored developmental resources to help teams improve.”

Thousands of Google employees working across 300 teams used the tool. Of those teams, the ones that adopted a new group norm—such as starting every meeting by sharing a risk taken in the previous week—improved 6% on psychological safety ratings and 10% on structure and clarity ratings.

Google says teams said having a framework around team effectiveness and a forcing function to talk about these dynamics was missing previously and by far the most useful part of the experience.

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