Talent Development Centre

How Google Discovered This Secret to Team Success

David O'Brien By David O’Brien,
Vice President, East Region & Government Services at Eagle

Successful Team CelebratingMost of us, and especially IT contractors, have had a range of experience in dealing with teams, most likely in a work context but not entirely exclusive to work. I would bet we could all cite stories of teams gone sideways and opine as to why. The challenge, though, and hence the real question, is what does make teams successful or work? Why aren’t the best teams just a collection of the top people at the skills needed? Examples abound of this seemingly intuitive notion of “I will simply gather the best developers/salespeople/athletes/actors as needed to make my team win.” As we all know, though, in many of these cases, quite often the whole does not equal the sum of all its parts. Scores of evidence will show the assembly of the highest paid or skilled athletes (see Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Yankees,1980 Russian Olympic Hockey Team vs US) or the multi-chain store that has the same culture, policies and location demographics across its entire chain see huge variances in success in spite of all these commonalities.

Google, arguably the world’s most successful technology company, has a widespread reputation for only hiring the best of the best (just take a look at 41 of Google’s Toughest Interview Questions). In 2012, Google sought to understand what makes teams succeed and created Project Aristotle. The majority of modern work from early education through MBA school, and then on in to the workforce, is done in a group environment, to the extent that time spent in collaboration by employees and managers has ballooned over 50% in the last 20 years.  It is a given today that people are more productive and happier in a collaborative group dynamic. At first, the study, though overwhelmed with data, found that there were no obvious difference makers in terms of types of personality, skills or background that affected successful team outcomes. What they did find, though, as critical were the group “norms”, those unwritten set of criteria, standards and behaviors. There were two very definitive norms that distinguished successful, high functioning teams and they were:

  1. Good teams presented what researchers term a “psychological safety”. That, in effect, means team members on good teams felt free to speak /contribute equally without fear or retribution, and that everyone has an opportunity to speak. As long as everyone had a chance to speak, the team did well; whereas, in teams that were dominated by one person or a small group, “the collective intelligence” declined. This shared safety built by respect and trust was critical to success.
  2. Not surprisingly, good teams all had high “average social sensitivity” or were more empathetic. These teams were made up of people who were adept at reading people’s feelings through things like tone, non-verbal communication and expressions. In other words, the teams had high Emotional Intelligence. Successful team members know when people are upset, whereas people on ineffective teams scored worse, having less sensitivity to others on the team.

What was interesting for the Google researchers was that it was very evident that many of those who may have chosen Software Development as their career did so to avoid “discussing feelings” and were often naturally introverted.

This is a fascinating study that emanated from Silicon Valley, a world dominated by data. These technology professionals now have the data to rethink and reset the course, perhaps in getting away from conventional wisdom.  I encourage you to look into it and draw your own conclusions to perhaps redraw the way you as an independent contractor may operate within teams. As the saying goes: “teamwork makes the dream work.”

2 thoughts on “How Google Discovered This Secret to Team Success

  1. Thank you Brian for sharing this study. I certainly can recognize how this is influencing team work in IT and it is worth reflecting on how we can make it better. WE often collaborate with teams that are not in the same location and sometimes not even co-workers for the same company.

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