Google’s Habits of Highly-Effective Teams

Google’s Habits of Highly-Effective Teams

As one of the world’s most visible and valuable companies, with a corporate motto of “Don’t be evil”, the bar is high for Google in terms of expectations at all levels. The February 25, 2016 article “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”, published by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Charles Duhigg in the New York Times Magazine, perfectly captures Google’s passion for excellence. For anyone interested in reading an in-depth case study on team performance, I encourage you to read the full article.

People Analytics

At Google, their world revolves around data and patterns, and this includes data about people. People analytics—data analysis focused on the patterns of peoples’ behaviors, and aimed at enhancing individual productivity—has been at the forefront of human resources development for the past decade. This focus on individual performance has been beneficial, yet insufficient. Organizational studies show that most work is being done by teams. However, there is little in the way of people analytics that shows what consistently drives superior team performance. What is clear is that how people work together drives engagement, competitive advantage, and well-being. This gap, between understanding individual productivity versus team effectiveness, led Google’s People Operations and People Analytics teams on a multi-year journey to uncover the drivers and differentiators of their most effective teams. Code-named Project Aristotle, the team of researchers conducted a review of 50 years of team research, along with surveys and in-depth interviews with 180 teams within Google.

Assembling the Pieces of the Puzzle

Initially, despite having some of the world’s best pattern recognition experts, the Aristotle team did not see an explanation for differences in team effectiveness. The first breakthrough came when the researchers began to look at the data through the lens of behavioral science theories on group norms and the Google team member’s experiences across key relationships. This new view created a key turning-point in the research. The team dedicated a year to focusing on group norms. The results demonstrated their critical importance to team performance, but did not reveal any consistent patterns as to what norms were shared by the most successful teams. The second breakthrough came as the Aristotle team listened to their colleagues describe the experiences they were having on their teams, identified the patterns, and then looked for correlations and causality with team performance. The result was identifying “psychological safety” as the essential ingredient in the mix of team norms that enabled a high-potential team to realize that potential.

The Paradox and Challenge of Psychological Safety

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson describes Psychological Safety as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for inter-personal risk taking, and a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.” Most significantly, psychological safety describes a team culture where people feel they can trust others and be themselves. In his New York Times Magazine article, Duhigg points out the paradox of the Project Aristotle team arriving at a conclusion that good team leaders instinctively know and act upon. Exceptional teams are characterized by the health of key relationships, with listening and respect for feelings and needs at the top of the team norms list. While this may be instinctual for the best teams, many other teams lack the understanding and common language needed to develop the habit of instilling and maintaining psychological safety, in addition to other important team norms. With the “aha” of team norms and psychological safety in hand, the Project Aristotle team still has the challenge of how to make the experience-based conversations that lead to greater psychological safety and healthy team norms a habit for all teams across the Google organization.

Applying the Lessons from Project Aristotle to Your Team

Google’s Project Aristotle provides data that demonstrates the importance of going beyond empirical analytics and understanding emotion based data. In addition to fundamentals like clarity of purpose, Google’s best teams focus on the norms and behaviors that team members expect from their team leader and team mates. The question left unanswered by the Aristotle Team was how to create that focus on norms and behaviors across the many diverse Google teams. My research into human motivation, engagement, and team performance supported the importance of key relationships and uncovered key actions taken by exceptional team leaders:

  • Exceptional team leaders and their teams develop the habit of regularly seeking feedback that identifies experience-expectation gaps.
  • They consistently identify and close gaps between what people expect of their key relationships, and what they actually experience,
  • Those teams  discuss the “what and why” of each gap, and agree upon the actions to close them.
  • Most importantly, exceptional team leaders maintain the discipline of tracking progress in closing gaps to ensure that the pressure of day-to-day business does not prevent taking those actions that lead to team engagement, energy, and effectiveness.

Every team can benefit from the lessons learned from the research done by the Project Aristotle team. The key is taking to heart Aristotle’s original observation that we are our habits.

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  1. Hi, Jeb. Thanks for sharing your great article about Google’s work to understand teams. It should be no surprise that understanding is about relationships. I think that what it boils down to is vision-based vs. goal-based leadership, transparent communication, trust, and the fact that a leader must genuinely care about the team members. These tools move the team forward, and can help the team find the common ground to help resolve conflict. The golden rule applies, and so the good of the team members, the organization, and its customers have to come before the leader’s personal interests. In my experience, it is key to actually believe in and pursue the win-win that helps everyone move forward and feel a part of a shared success. I have evidence to believe that teams do indeed advance in stages to become high performing, and the leader must correctly assess the situation and respond appropriately.

    1. Jeb Hurley

      Hi Sam, Great to hear from you, and thanks for the feedback and comments! I agree that the importance of relationships should be no surprise, yet too often they are either taken for granted or the emotional dimensions ignored. I like your observation that teams advance in stages. In my research, I found that team leaders who motivate their people by linking individual purpose to the purpose/goals of the team, help team members to develop the competencies needed to achieve their purpose, and then give them the freedom to pursue that purpose as their competencies develop, are well down the path to building a highly-effective team. Stir in a focus on relationships, and you have a recipe for both success and well-being. jeb

  2. “Exceptional teams are characterized by the health of key relationships, with listening and respect for feelings and needs at the top of the team norms list. While this may be instinctual for the best teams, many other teams lack the understanding and common language needed to develop the habit of instilling and maintaining psychological safety as we as other important team norms. ”
    –Common sense, but not so common in organizations.

    Jeb–excellent blog topic!

    1. Jeb Hurley

      Thanks Michael. I agree. Far too often common sense is an uncommon practice, particularly when it comes to closing gaps across important relationships. I hope all is well! jeb

  3. Pingback: Team Intelligence: The Role of Relationships | The ONE Habit

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