Google and The Perfect Team

“Employee performance optimization” sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

It feels just wrong although I think we can all agree about its premise – leaders are trying to get the most out of our staff and employees are trying to be the happiest that they can be doing work that matters and work that they feel invested in.

And Google, a few years back, attempted to understand what made the perfect team

Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions) to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical; more shocking, this was news to many Google managers).

They called it “Project Aristotle” and although they included a number of pieces of conventional wisdom (like putting “introverts” together) the “who” part of the equation didn’t appear to matter as much:

No matter how researchers arranged the data, though, it was almost impossible to find patterns — or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference. ‘‘We looked at 180 teams from all over the company,’’ Dubey said. ‘‘We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.’’

Ultimately, they learned that there were a number of patterns that were displayed via the high-functioning teams, the first is that team members spoke roughly in the same proportion and had a high level of “social sensitivity”:

As the researchers studied the groups, however, they noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared. First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’

On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’

Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test.

People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues.

Essentially, they realized that great teams had created psychological safe places for work and for conversation to happy freely and regularly. Taking turns and empathy were key findings, things that everyone can agree with are fundamental for any healthy relationship:

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home.

But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.

The mixing of both our personal lives and our professional lives is inevitable – holding these things distinctly is really no longer a real possibility. I once thought that you could but that was an old way of thinking. Now, I don’t even try.

I suppose the takeaway for many of us as team members and leaders is that we should seek to optimize the creation of environments that are safe, at every part of the organization. This demands that we build an organization of trust, of course and that we ensure that communication is of the highest quality and level.

Read more about the study in-depth here as it’s a good one to keep close when building teams.