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What one attribute sets apart high-performing teams? Google’s People Operations department asked itself that question and fixated on how to build a perfect team.
In 2012 Google established its Project Aristotle.
(Why Aristotle? ‘Many things are . . . some kind of a whole beyond its parts’, wrote ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle; translated these days as, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.)
Purpose of Project Aristotle? To identify key attributes of successful and effective teams.
By matching their own observations of behaviour and group dynamics of its own teams against findings of decades of academic studies, Google targeted precisely which qualities make the best teams.
Finding patterns is something Google is good at. Now Google was focused on behaviour patterns of successful teams. Questions they explored included:
- Spending personal time together outside work, will that make a significant different to team results? But some effective teams never saw each other outside of the building. The answer was, no significant difference there.
- How about personality styles; do introverts flourish surrounded by other introverts or is there a right combination of introvert and extrovert? No, that wasn’t it.
- Could gender balance have anything to do with it? No correlation was identified.
- Whether a manager dominates or micro-manages – does that make a difference? Or if teams are less hierarchical, is that a good thing? Neither style made a significant difference.
- Comparing educational background and years of study of managers, no significant difference was apparent.
- Having common interests outside of work? That was not it.
- Meeting styles – some groups begin each meeting with conversational small talk about plans for the weekend; other teams go straight to the agenda with chit-chat discouraged. And during group discussions, some teams tolerated debate, disagreement and being interrupted in a freeform manner. In other teams, each individual would take turns to speak and maintained a calm, turn-taking approach.
Eventually, researchers looked at norms in workplace culture; assumptions about what is acceptable or not acceptable; hidden social rules about expected behaviour.
Eventually, Project Aristotle researchers hit upon two behaviours that all positive and productive teams have in common.
Firstly, during team discussions or while performing a task, each person spoke approximately the same amount of time. Effective group discussions involved all participants, incorporating everyone’s opinion; no one person or group controlled what was said.
The finding? When every single team member had at least one opportunity to speak, the whole team did well.
Secondly, group members in the teams who let others speak freely exhibited what’s called ‘social sensitivity’, that is, the capacity to intuit what individuals are feeling by their facial micro-expressions, non-verbal cues and tone of voice. It’s the ability to read other’s emotions and to notice when someone appears upset.
The conclusion? It was these two attributes – conversational equality and social sensitivity, communication and empathy – that indicated a workplace culture demonstrating what they identified as psychological safety.
Measuring Social Sensitivity
The ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes test’ measures social sensitivity; Emotional Intelligence training workshops almost always include this test.
How the test works – images of people’s eyes in close-up are displayed with four possible emotions. The task is to select precisely which emotion that individual in the photo was experiencing e.g. angry, happy, sad, frustrated, bored, as conveyed through a close-up photo of eyes only.
Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmondson, first referred to psychological safety in 1999. It was defined as ‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.
How can team members and leaders ensure psychological safety in the workplace?
5 Techniques to Foster and Support Psychological Safety in Your Workplace
- The behaviour you accept is the behaviour you condone. Don’t tolerate individuals being rude, discourteous or abrupt with their colleagues.
- Managers sometimes feel they should discourage general chit-chat about what’s happening in people’s lives. But being updated about what’s important in the personal world of their colleagues helps a team cohese.3. View suggestions for improvement as constructive feedback and positive business intelligence. Don’t become defensive or see it as personal criticism.
- Find ways for people to connect, collaborate and communicate. (High-performing teams display these three critical behaviours and are an indicator of success and effectiveness.)
- Value social skills and Emotional Intelligence (EQ) as much as IQ (intelligence quotient). Notice when people are upset; don’t ignore it. Consider upskilling your team with emotional intelligence training.
- Aristotle, Metaphysics8.6 [=1045a]