Google studies 180 teams to learn about team effectiveness:

"We were dead wrong"

Google studied 180 teams to gain insight into team dynamics. What they found may well forever change how teams are formed. The research initiative, named Project Aristotle, brought together Google’s best and brightest to help unveil the secrets to team effectiveness. Here’s what they found. 

“In today’s world, business is becoming ever more global and complex. That’s why the bulk of modern work is more and more team-based,” The New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg shares in his article titled What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. Which is why the importance of team effectiveness is spiraling. Analyzing and improving individual workers – a practice known as employee performance optimization – no longer cuts it.

How teams work

“Project Aristotle’s researchers began by reviewing a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams worked,” Duhigg summarizes the study’s onset. “Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Or did it matter more whether everyone was motivated by the same kinds of rewards?”

“Based on those studies, the researchers scrutinized the composition of groups inside Google: How often did teammates socialize outside the office? Did they have the same hobbies? Were their educational backgrounds similar? Was it better for all teammates to be outgoing or for all of them to be shy?” he writes.

What happens when we gather

However: no matter how researchers arranged the data, they had a hard time finding patterns. Charles Duhigg: “As they struggled to figure out what made a team successful, [the researchers] kept coming across research by psychologists and sociologists that focused on what are known as ‘group norms’.”

Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence on team dynamics is often profound.

Psychological safety

“When [the team] encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place,” Duhigg describes. “One engineer, for instance, had told researchers that his team leader was ‘direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.’ That team, researchers estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups.”

“By contrast, another engineer had told the researchers that his ‘team leader has poor emotional control.’ He added: ‘He panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat, because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car.’ That team, researchers presumed, did not perform well.”

Five key dynamics that determine team dynamics

“We were dead wrong,” Julia Rozovsky, analyst at Google’s People Operations, admits, saying that she’d been expecting to uncover a reliable algorithm. Nonetheless, the answer that the team came back with was remarkably simple. It showed a more human side to setting up effective teams.

She concisely summarizes the research’s key findings as follows, “Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.” Essentially, thus, the best teams are made up of people who respect one another’s emotions, can depend on each other, and actually care about what they are doing.

Here are the five key dynamics they distilled from their research into team success:

  1. Psychological safety

    Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?

  2. Dependability

    Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?

  3. Structure & clarity

    Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?

  4. Meaning of work

    Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?

  5. Impact of work

    Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?