In a recent New York Times article, What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team: New research reveals surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter, Charles Duhigg shares that five years ago, Google — one of the most public proselytizers of how studying workers can transform productivity — became focused on building the perfect team.
In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions) to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical).
The study found two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared:
First, 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. The study stated that ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well. But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’
Second, all members shared 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. They sensed when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, had less sensitivity toward their colleagues.
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,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’
One engineer, for instance, had told researchers that his team leader was ‘‘direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.’’ That team, researchers estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups. By contrast, another engineer had told the researchers that his ‘‘team leader has poor emotional control.’’ He added: ‘‘He panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat, because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car.’’ That team, researchers presumed, did not perform well.
So let’s recap… if you want your teams to be effective then:
- Ensure everyone gets a turn to talk. Everyone could speak during each task or have leadership shift among teammates from assignment to assignment.
- Ensure everyone has social sensitivity. That everyone is aware of how others are feeling based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.
Ultimately, you want to build mutual trust and respect in which people are comfortable being themselves and they know that they will not be embarrassed, rejected or punished for speaking up or taking risks.
You don’t want to be in a situation where one person or a small group spoke all the time or there is a lack of sensitivity. If you see people panicking over small issues or trying to grab control, then you know you have you got an issue to address.