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I just read a fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine, something I’d recommend to all leaders and managers. “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” was written by Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and bestselling author.
This article is an excerpt from Duhigg’s forthcoming book, Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. Honestly, this is the sort of book that I would pass by in airports and avoid like the plague. However, I read Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and was most impressed by his journalistic talent.”What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” drew me in. So, yes, I have pre-ordered Duhigg’s new book. My guess is it will be surprisingly rewarding if not rewardingly surprising.
I recommend reading “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” even though it is long-form non-fiction and takes more than a couple of minutes. To entice you, I thought I’d offer some excerpts in a couple of Insights for Leaders blog posts.
Teams Matter and Make a Difference in Performance and Satisfaction
Duhigg sets the stage by emphasizing the importance of teams in today’s marketplace:
[M]any of today’s most valuable firms have come to realize that analyzing and improving individual workers — a practice known as ‘‘employee performance optimization’’ — isn’t enough. As commerce becomes increasingly global and complex, the bulk of modern work is more and more team-based. One study, published in The Harvard Business Review last month, found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’’ over the last two decades and that, at many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.
Studies also show that people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction. In a 2015 study, executives said that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more. Within companies and conglomerates, as well as in government agencies and schools, teams are now the fundamental unit of organization. If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.
Google’s Search for the Perfect Team
Given the value of teams, Google set out to discover what makes a perfect team:
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.
In 2012, the company embarked on an initiative — code-named Project Aristotle — to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared.
The Importance of Group Norms
What did Google find? Identifying essential elements of a good team was elusive. In time, the Google researchers began to focus on group norms.
As they struggled to figure out what made a team successful, Rozovsky and her colleagues kept coming across research by psychologists and sociologists that focused on what are known as ‘‘group norms.’’ Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather: One team may come to a consensus that avoiding disagreement is more valuable than debate; another team might develop a culture that encourages vigorous arguments and spurns groupthink. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound.
After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving Google’s teams.
Group Norms of Successful Teams
So, what norms were present in good teams?
First, on the good teams, 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.
Second, the good teams all had 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.
Interesting, isn’t it, that data-based research came up with such human-centered qualities of good teams.
How to Encourage the Best Group Norms
If you want to understand the practical implications of Google’s study, you need to read Duhigg’s article. But here are some key excerpts:
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.’’
However, establishing psychological safety is, by its very nature, somewhat messy and difficult to implement. You can tell people to take turns during a conversation and to listen to one another more. You can instruct employees to be sensitive to how their colleagues feel and to notice when someone seems upset. But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.
What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.
“We want to know that work is more than just labor.” Now that you can take to the bank!
Duhigg wraps up his article with some paradoxical conclusions, including:
The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.
Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.
In a later Insights for Leaders post, I want to reflect theologically on what Duhigg argues. For now, I point you once more to his article.
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