The Secret Of Effective Teams (according to Google and Aristotle)

The Secret Of Effective Teams (according to Google and Aristotle)

Is there a secret recipe for an effective team? This is the question that interests (and often tortures) most managers. It is also at the centre of one of the biggest organisational studies ever made in the history business. The year is 2012, the company is Google and the goal is: to find the secret of effective teams (to impatient readers we can say from now – there is a secret, and Google has revealed it).

The code name for the project was “Aristotle” – researchers were inspired by the Greek philosopher’s idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They believed this to be fully applicable to good teams which can accomplish much more than the individual employees within them.

At first glance, the goal of such research seems clear –the main goal of every team leader is effectiveness, isn’t it? However, right at the beginning the organisational psychologist and analysts in Google’s team faced the first serious challenge – it turned out that the people in the company didn’t all have the same definition for “effective team”.

Senior leaders describe as “effective” teams that achieve (and preferably exceed) their annual business goals.  Thus, for them effectiveness is directly related to results. Employees, however, take a different stance – for them, “effectiveness” is first and foremost a reflection of culture and is measured by factors like attitude towards colleagues, open communication, engagement, etc. Understandably, middle managers seek to bridge the gap between the two positions – for them “effectiveness” means a balance between devotion, pro-activeness and the pursuit of goals. 

So the first thing that the researchers from Google found was that gauging effectiveness as a phenomenon is more complicated than a mere examination of the annual results report.

Managers for whom results are everything are probably dismayed at this last sentence. So as an experiment let’s imagine the following scenario: Imagine that the sales team of a company achieves their goal of low delivery costs by ordering a huge amount of spare parts. However, by doing this, they clutter up the store and stall the work of the logistics team.

Here’s the big question for the managers: Is this team effective? Most of us would say “No”.  It is obvious that it is not enough to achieve your own business goals in order to be deemed “effective”.

That made the researchers in Google choose the teams that would participate in the studies on the basis of a combination of quality standards – an evaluation from senior management, the team’s members, and the team leader. They compare these evaluations with the quantity performance standards for this team in relation to the annual goals. As a result of this selection method, 180 teams around the world turned out to measure up to the standard of effectiveness. The researchers believed that when they analyse their work, they would find the recipe for an effective team.

And then came the second challenge – during the first 6 months of the study the researchers used almost all known scientific behavioural matrices in an attempt to find similarities between the selected teams. They examined the composition of the team, whether the people work in an office or remotely, and whether the managers have similar styles. 

“At Google, we are good at finding patterns”, Abeer Dubey, leader of the Aristotle project, told The New York Times. He added, “There weren’t strong patterns here”.

Some of the teams consisted of friends who drink beer together after work. Others that also met the criteria for effectiveness consisted of people who don’t talk to each other about anything except work. Some groups wanted stronger managers while others preferred more democratic styles of management. What was even stranger was that teams with almost identical structures and management styles had totally different levels of effectiveness.

So the first big conclusion from the Aristotle project was a huge surprise for most of us: Who the people are in the team does not make a big difference to the level of effectiveness. 

This predicament led the researchers to a new strategy. Instead of analysing “stronger” indicators like team structure, methods of work, etc., they decided to turn their attention to team norms.

The norms are those invisible rules and traditions that define how we function together. Irrespective of whether the norms are conscious or not, they are extremely powerful. The Google researchers started going through the collected data, searching for similar invisible rules and they struck gold. In some teams members interrupted each other, while in others this was forbidden; some celebrated birthdays outside the office, others focused only on business topics and didn’t tolerate empty talk.

After studying the norms for over a year, Dubey and his team of analysts come to an absolute conclusion: If Google wants to improve its teams, it should focus not so much on who the people in the team are, but on how they work together.

But this presented researchers with a third challenge – what are those “good” norms that will help teams to be more effective? The data is extremely various and often contradictory. Which is better – to encourage people to talk on non-work-related topics (this works for some teams) or to focus mainly on work discussions (a successful practice for others)? Should they celebrate birthdays together or not? Is it more effective to express disagreement openly or it is more important to protect your colleagues’ feelings? 

While searching for an answer to this question, Dubey and his team compared the study’s results with various scientific models. When they came across the studies of prof. Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School (1999) and Anita Wooley from M.I.T. (2008) on “psychological safety”, they realised they’d hit the jackpot.

“In the interviews, there were constantly guidelines for behaviours connected to psychological safety”, says Dubey, “We started to find that people in all effective teams share the same belief – I can take risks with my colleagues, I can show weakness before them, it is OK to give a stupid idea, nobody will take advantage of my weakness”.

The Google research team were dumbfounded: It turned out that the main factor behind the effectiveness of their teams was the level of psychological safety within them. In other words, if there is a secret to effective teams, it is the extent to which everyone feels comfortable “being themselves” (i.e., taking interpersonal risks) with their colleagues and managers. Psychological safety turns out to be more important than the other four factors Dubey and his team found important for effectiveness put together.

Trust, creativity, the exchange of knowledge and wisdom and group learning are impossible without psychological safety, indicate Google researchers.

That’s why they started developing a combination of instruments in order to help Google managers create psychological safety in their teams. These include tracking the levels of trust in the team, various forms of discussion and work groups, and developing the leader’s abilities to listen, empathise and facilitate meetings in which every member of the team is involved.

“But the most important thing that we achieved is not that”, says Dubey, “The most important is that we managed to prove to a world, operating by numbers that if it wants effectiveness, it should become a little more human-orientated”.