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.
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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