How Google found the Surprising Ingredient in High Performing Teams

How Google found the Surprising Ingredient in High Performing Teams

Thanks to our tribal ancestry, we see ourselves in terms of other people and groups.  Evolution has taught us that it is beneficial to live in tribes, where we can share out the work of daily survival.

Today, workplace teams are the modern equivalent of tribes.  But despite our inherent need to work with others, humans are pretty bad at it.  While we may wish to maintain a sustainable connection to our workplace group, our competitive drive and selfish need for survival sabotages our efforts.  

The stark reality is that most workplaces teams deteriorate into a group of people working independently, refusing to share important information or even ideas.  At work, humans are constantly caught in the crossfire between the two opposing sides of their evolutionary heritage.  

But we can’t continue like this.  With rapid change and complex problems, the demand for people to work together to solve difficult issues is becoming more important than ever before.  According to research by Adam Grant, published in Harvard Business Review, ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more.’’  In the last two decades alone, employees now spend about three-quarters of their day communicating with their work peers.

That’s why business schools prepare students for a changing business landscape by ensuring that their curriculums emphasise team-focused learning.  Study groups are now standard learning experiences for MBA students due to the increasing business demand that future business leaders can smartly navigate group dynamics. 

As Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habits says, “within companies and conglomerates, as well as in government agencies and schools, teams are now the fundamental unit of organisation. If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.”

So it’s little wonder that high performing organisations excel at teamwork.   And it pays.  According to the CEB Corporate Leadership Council, engaged teams grow profits three times faster than disengaged ones.  Teams that play well together are better at solving problems, innovating and finding mistakes.

Dispelling Great Team Myths

In our data-obsessed world, organisations can finally get to the bottom of what makes a great team.  One company that is as obsessed with measuring customer information, as it is with employee information, is Google.

Five years ago, Google was baffled as to what makes a Google team effective?  Enough research had been undertaken to understand what makes a great manager, but Google felt that not enough research had pinpointed the secret sauce behind high performing teams.  Google’s top brass assumed that throwing in bright people – a PhD, highly technically accomplished engineers and a couple of extroverts for balance into a group and getting them to work together was the answer.  In other words, who was on the team.  But they were wrong.

Four years and millions of dollars later, Google fastidiously conducted over 200 interviews with Googlers (Google employees), across 180 active teams to study the validity of an astonishing  250 attributes that affect teams.  Attributes such as were the best teams made up of people with similar interests, or motivated by the same rewards or who socialised outside work hours?   They even sifted through half a century of academic studies on teams.  Google researchers reviewed team after team.  The results were astounding.  None of these commonly valued attributes was important.  What Google discovered was that who is on the team doesn’t actually matter.  What was critical was how the team functioned together.

The Power of Group Norms

In psychology and sociology, how a team functions is classified under the term “group norms.”  These are the unwritten rules and behavioural standards that dictate how we behave when we get together.  When Google studied all of the different behaviours exhibited in their teams – from those that debated vigorously right through to those that championed groupthink – they found that there were only two behaviours that were important for high performance.

  1. Equality in conversational turn-taking – This is a fancy term for everyone in a group gets a chance to talk and speak up.  It doesn’t have to be every day, or even every week, but over a couple of months, everyone gets roughly the same air time.  If only one person or a small group spoke out frequently, the collective intelligence of the team decreased.
  2. High social sensitivity – Members were good at picking up on how others were feeling based on their non-verbal cues such as tone of voice or facial expression.  Poor performing teams were less sensitive to each other.  

What these two behaviours combined to produce together was the most important of all – psychological safety.  The secret ingredient of high performing teams.

Feeling Safe

In teams and the workplace in general, employees need to see and feel evidence that their workplaces are safe and that their fellow co-workers are looking out for them.  More importantly, workers need to trust that their boss and their colleagues really care (read more at Why Fulfilling Tribal Needs Improves Business Results).

People need psychological safety to thrive in their jobs.  They want to work in an organisation where they can be themselves, speak up about any concerns and that if they make a mistake they won’t be criticised.  When organisations get this right, they create an atmosphere where people know that they are liked and appreciated. 

Employees then have the confidence that they can work the extra mile and their effort will be noticed.  In essence, employees know they won’t be kicked out of the tribe and left to fend on their own.  And this feeling of psychological safety enables employees to become more emotionally invested in the organisation they work in.  It means they’re more likely to work harder and be engaged in their work.

Why feeling safe in the workplace is so important is that it is actually fundamental to our well-being.   As Abraham Maslow taught in his Hierarchy of Needs, we can’t concern ourselves with higher goals until we have the necessities of life, including security.

To foster a work environment where people feel safe, it all boils down to trust. Trust is essential.  Without it, social groups can’t function properly.  Trust is how you connect to everyone in your workplace.  

Trust in Leadership and Team Performance

Building trust is fundamental to leadership.  What Google has now introduced is a checklist for every team leader that champions acknowledging and listening others in meetings.  In other words, creating a safe environment where people can be themselves, speak their truth and be vulnerable.  

It’s not rocket science.  But what it highlights is that the little things really do matter.  Little things such as having eye contact with those speaking to show that you’re listening and seeking the opinion of a team member who has remained quiet.

Of course, the irony is that this outcome is nothing new (see Six Tips for Leaders to Build High-Performing Teams).  It’s just that Google engineers used the power of data to validate what most of us really know deep down, but are too afraid or even confused to vocalise it.  If we don’t trust those in a team, we shut down, stop cooperating and leave our best selves at home (see How a Fear of Speaking Up Derails Strategic Thinking).  

Now, Googlers understand their feelings when they walk out of a team meeting feeling unsatisfied and have the common language and framework to discuss those emotions.  In the end, while those data nerds might not have been able to express their feelings before, they’ve helped not only themselves, but the rest of the world realise the power of emotional safety and trusting your teammates.

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Marie-Claire Ross is the Founder and Chief Corporate Catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author, speaker and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to accelerate trust during change and growth. She does this through strategic diagnostics, roundtables, workshops, coaching and consulting. Marie-Claire is also the author of the number three ranked book on Amazon, Transform your Safety Communication. She has been interviewed on “Technology Behind Business” for Sky Business News and regularly contributes articles to FM Magazine and LogiSYM on company culture. She is also a Graduate of the Company Director’s Course and is on the SME Committee for the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

4 Comments

  1. Jordan Green 10 months ago

    Thanks for sharing Marie-Claire. While the insights are, as the article says, not new, it is nice to have them validated. I really like the work Google does on analysing why things work, or don’t work. This one has resonated with me as I recently was in a discussion where team trust was very much at risk. It really reiterated to me how few people think deeply enough about what creates trust and what breaks trust.

    I have built quite a few high performance teams in my time and they are always anchored on trust, mutual respect and aligned expectations. Equity is more important than equality. Leaders that lead by example and maintain clarity of purpose engender trust, even to the extent of enabling team members to self-identify when being on the team is no longer right for them. This is one of the most powerful elements of a high performing team because it empowers people, protects self-esteem and maintains positive relationships based on trust that all those people to work together again in future teams.

    I am always disappointed to see behaviours that champion blind equality, have one rule for managers and another for others (‘do what I say, not what I do’) and fail to be considerate of the individuals. Homogeneity has never been the secret to productive teams in business but, heterogeneity requires team leaders to be comfortable treating team members differently while still demonstrating equity.

    This last week I have been mentoring a high performance team in the Philippines and every member of the team (almost all under 35 with a leader just turned 25) is hungry to learn more. They value each other for their different experiences and perspectives, they don’t use platitudes (“I value you”) but, rather demonstrate through accommodating each other on a daily basis. This is the sort of behaviour I have always seen in high performing teams, team members who want to be in the leader’s team. Purpose, vision, guidance and full sharing of information enable and empower team members to make decisions and execute against strategy as well as to critique and adapt the strategy. Trust delivers the freedom for all of that to happen.

    • Marie-Claire Ross 10 months ago

      Lovely to hear from you Jordan and thanks for giving such a comprehensive and well thought out response on how you have seen trust work in high-performance teams. Interestingly, I have been working with an organisation where trust was low in certain teams. It was because new leaders were fearful of being vulnerable and exposing that they didn’t know everything, so they were micromanaging.

      While it can be hard for us looking externally to understand how people can lead in such a distrustful manner (and really sabotage their leadership results), the truth is it all depends on the situation and the individual psychological makeup of the individual. We can’t judge them because we don’t know their experience. If we do judge them, it just perpetuates the lack of trust.

      It’s wonderful that you are working with a high performance team, who still realise that they need to improve, which demonstrates why they operate with high trust to begin with. After all, leaders need to be able to review their strengths (and weaknesses) to build trust with their workforce.

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