Twenty-five years ago, I joined General Electric (GE) and was assigned a role in a specific team with specific deliverables. I was also assigned to another project team where I had to work with others to execute a project. Both teams ran simultaneously but with different leaders and members.
I loved working in one of the teams, even though the work was hard and sometimes challenging. However, working in the other team felt suffocating and I honestly wanted to throw in the towel at times.
Oddly, the members of this ‘horrendous’ team were all extremely talented and competent, much more than my other team. Yet, work felt tedious. After three months, the project failed miserably and the team gladly disbanded. I always wondered why we had two very different team experiences despite being in the same company,.
In 2012, Google embarked on an ambitious project designed to answer this very question, one I had left unresolved since 1995: What makes some teams thrive while others crumble?
Code-named Project Aristotle, the project called on the top statisticians, organisational psychologists, sociologists and engineers to analyse hundreds of teams within Google, with the hope of finding the key to building top-performing teams. The name was a tribute to a quote by Aristotle: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (Google researchers believed employees can achieve more when they collaborate).
The brilliant boffins made their way through half a century of research on teams, and they also took a number of psychosocial factors into account to see if they could spot any emerging patterns amongst the 180 teams they studied (115 project teams in engineering and 65 pods in sales), which included a combination of both high and low performing teams.
Did the best teams socialise together? Were they driven by incentives? Did team members have similar personality traits? Did they share similar educational backgrounds? What kind of hobbies and interests did they enjoy? These were the many questions raised by the researchers.
As it turned out, no matter how the researchers looked at the different factors, there was no evidence to suggest that any particular combination made for a successful team. The Project Aristotle team went on to discover that top-performing groups aren’t about the ‘who’, but rather the ‘how’ – what this means is that who is on the team was not as important as how the team worked together.
The team of researchers found the following five findings, ranked in order of importance, that was critical to having successful teams:
1. Psychological safety
“If I make a mistake on our team, it is not held against me.”
Psychological safety is an individual’s belief that a team is a safe place, and no one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. They don’t have to worry that they would be seen as ignorant, incapable, negative, or as a disruptor.
In a psychologically safe team, members would feel comfortable taking risks around each other and be confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish them for mistakes made, asking stupid questions, or offering ‘crazy’ ideas.
“When my teammates say they’ll do something, they follow through with it.”
In dependable teams, each member of the team can completely depend and rely on each other. Work gets done well and on time, and team members are accountable to each other and do not shirk responsibilities.
3. Structure and clarity
“Our team has an effective decision-making process.”
Each team member has clarity and understanding of their role and the expectations to fulfil deliverables. They understand the consequences of their performance and have effective team structures and processes in place, especially to make decisions. At Google, the best teams use objectives and key results (OKRs) to help set and communicate these goals and establish clarity for everyone.
“The work I do for our team is meaningful to me.”
Each person’s meaning of work may differ but everyone in the team finds a sense of purpose, in either the work itself or the output produced.
“I understand how our team’s work contributes to the organisation’s goals.”
The impact and result of work done (although it may be subjective) matters significantly. The best teams have members who feel that their work is making a difference and is contributing to the overall organisational goals and vision.
What does this all mean?
In group counselling, there is a natural process to the group’s progress. Depending on how the stages of development play out, groups will turn out to be either supportive and productive, or dysfunctional and unproductive. The four main stages of this development are:
Initially, the group members will be positive and polite as they size each other up and begin to get a sense of where they might fit within the group. At this initial stage, the leader’s role is crucial in guiding each member and instilling a sense of cohesion within the group.
At this stage, as people become more comfortable, there will be some conflict that arises as different styles, personalities and preferences come up against each other. It’s at this stage where teams can fail and fall apart. It all depends on how well the leader has helped members in the first stage, and also how clearly they’ve established expectations and goals.
As the group progresses, things start to settle down as people begin to respect each other and the authority of the leader. Members at this stage become more comfortable with supporting the overall goal of the group. That said, there might be some back-and-forth between this and the storming phase as new challenges arise, but it should be less potent than before.
At this point, group members start to make good progress towards achieving the common goal. Usually, this is where the leader takes less of a role, allowing the group to take the reins and move forward, intervening only when necessary (e.g. for clarification or additional guidance). Even if people leave or new people join the group at this stage, there will be little, if any, disruption.
As the Project Aristotle team discovered, a team’s success had little to do with personality, education, gender, or any superficial factor.
Rather, top-performing teams were the ones who were able to establish healthy group norms, essentially the five key norms outlined above.
Additionally, the researchers discovered that top teams demonstrated two behaviours that led to stronger bonds and deeper cohesion. First of all, the best performing teams gave space for everyone to share their ideas. The researchers referred to this as “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking”. In teams where only one or two did most of the talking, creativity, innovation and overall team intelligence dipped.
Secondly, strong teams contain people who show high levels of social awareness; that is, they are sensitive to how other people are feeling through how they communicate, and they work to include those who might appear to feel left out.
Conversely, teams that perform less well tend to be made up of people who have below-average social awareness. They might be filled with ‘smart’ people, but group norms will likely discourage equal contribution; there will be little or no personal sharing within the team, and social awareness is also likely to be low.
Key takeaways for leaders
So, what can leaders learn from the findings of Google’s Project Aristotle? There are a few practical takeaways that can be immediately implemented in your organisation:
Ensure psychological safety in your teams
Firstly, a revision of the ‘seniority complex’ that exists within organisations would be considerably helpful. Grey hair, titles and years of experience don’t necessarily equate to wisdom in leadership.
As any effective leader knows, everyone in a team has ideas to share, from which a leader can learn. Therefore, leaders should openly encourage and solicit input from their people, talk less, lean in and listen more.
Secondly, create bonds in your team by sharing information about personal and work style preferences, and encourage others to do the same. Finally, create structures that allow your team to discuss subtleties and other issues in safe and constructive ways.
Build emotional intelligence
Although it’s been the case traditionally that emotional intelligence is seen as an irrelevant luxury within business, studies into leadership have shown that leaders who score high on emotional intelligence tend to lead the most effective teams. How do we ensure each of our team leaders have a high degree of emotional intelligence capability?
Bake in impact communications frequently
Reinforce how each team member’s work directly contributes to the team’s and broader organisation’s goals. Also, have frequent reflection sessions with the team to reflect on the work done and how it impacts users or clients or the company.
Establish a common vocabulary
Clearly define your team’s behaviours and norms that you want established. Additionally, ensure you give your team members positive feedback when they exceed expectations on these behaviours and offer to help them with areas they may struggle with.
Focusing solely on results, key performance indicators (KPI), and the bottom line increases the chances of demotivation, presenteeism and disengagement. To build an engaged, top-performing team, leaders should focus on all five elements – psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity (yes, the KPIs and OKRs matter too!), meaning and impact.
It’s not easy to do, and many times, these things are paid frequent lip-service in leadership. The key is to actively ensure that the company culture embraces the behaviours and practices that Project Aristotle highlighted as being necessary for great teams to flourish. But it can be done – and is already being done in the best teams in your organisation.
Let’s try to get this incorporated into every team in your company. All the best!