Back in 2012, Google conducted some interesting research into team effectiveness. The initiative was named ‘Project Aristotle’ in honour of his famous quote: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts“. This article summarises Google’s findings, and explains some of the simple, clear and practical things you can do with your own teams.
Google’s researchers looked at academic research on team effectiveness, and studied 180 of their own teams. They concluded that understanding and influencing group norms is key to improving team performance – that is, rituals and rules about ‘how things are done in this team’. This was more important, they found, than who was on the team and the team mix (e.g. gender balance, personality type and skill-set).
Although clear goals and interdependencies are important, Google’s data shows that psychological safety is the single most important norm/behaviour that makes teams work.
They found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, bring in more revenue, and are rated as effective twice as often by executives.
Amy Edmondson, an organisational behavioural scientist from Harvard Business School, defines psychological safety as:
“A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
A successful team climate allows for interpersonal trust and mutual respect, where people are comfortable being themselves. It’s the sense of confidence that teams will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.
Watch her TEDx talk here (approx 11.5 minutes):
Behaviours that create good teams
Google found that, in “good teams”, all members spoke for roughly the same amount of time, and they had higher than average “social sensitivity”, so they could each read how the others were feeling. (This relates to my article about body language.)
Behaviours that create psychological safety include:
- Conversational turn-taking
- Rather than giving in to ‘group think’ or allowing a few people to dominate the conversation, you get better quality thinking and ideas when you give everyone a chance to speak (e.g. go around the table and ask each person for their response to a question or challenge statement). No-one is allowed to speak when they are talking (see Listening below)
- Show sensitivity and respect/care for other people’s feelings and needs
- Learn each person’s values so you can support these being lived, and not trampled on
- This is more than waiting your turn to speak. Try focusing completely on what the other person is saying/meaning and be curious to learn more. See the possibilities in their points. Build with your own thoughts. Stephen Covey’s model of Five Levels of Listening is useful for this – email me if you’d like me to send them to you.
Assess your team
To assess the current level of psychological safety in your team, rate it against the following statements, where 1 = never/rarely, 2 = sometimes, 3 = frequently, 4 = most or all of the time:
|If you make a mistake on this team, it is never held against you.|
|Members of this team are always able to bring up problems and tough issues.|
|People on this team never reject others for being different to themselves.|
|It is safe to take a risk on this team.|
|It is easy to ask other members of this team for help.|
|No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.|
|Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.|
Source: Adapted from Edmondson
How to improve psychological safety
How do you model this ideal environment while also holding people accountable and getting the work done?
Here are Edmondson’s three tips, with some suggested statements from me you may like to use:
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem
“We need to work together to figure out how to tackle this, and we’ll learn along the way. It’s not been done before/the usual way of approaching this issue won’t work. The answer may evolve as we work on this, and that’s OK.”
- Acknowledge your own fallibility
“I don’t have all the answers and may miss things. I’ll need all of us to openly share our thoughts, ideas and concerns – between us, we have the skill to work through it successfully.”
- Model curiosity and ask lots of questions
“I’d love to learn more about this and hear from each of you. In my experience, when we hear a diversity of viewpoints we can be really creative and deliver the optimal results.”
5 pillars of team effectiveness
Psychological safety is the first of five pillars of team effectiveness that Google identified. Can you and your team answer YES to all these statements?
Psychological safety: “If I make a mistake on our team, it is not held against me.”
Dependability: “When my teammates say they’ll do something, they follow through with it.”
Structure and clarity: “Our team has an effective decision-making process.”
Meaning: “The work I do for our team is meaningful to me.”
Impact: “I understand how our team’s work contributes to the organisation’s goals.”
Other articles that you might find useful include:
How mastermind groups can help with personal growth.