How Google discovered what really makes a great team
Study groups are an integral part of MBA programs, meant to simulate the real-life corporate world of working in teams. Although the intent is to encourage people to develop a collaborative mindset, often the reality is bullying, wannabe leaders, peer criticism, and anxiety about speaking out, derail students from actively participating. Instead of the intentional joining of forces, the result is friction and a total lack of productivity.
When a corporate team clicks, there are typically tremendous rewards for everyone. Sadly, many simply don’t – and for the same reasons that impede college study groups. This is true for high-stakes teams working in organizations from Silicon Valley to financial powerhouses.
Google has a culture based on its experience that teams of employees accomplish far more working together, than individuals working alone. In 2012, armed with this conviction, Google’s People Analytics division set a course to investigate the makeup of successful teams. The initiative was code-named Project Aristotle, after the famous Aristotle quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The extent of its research is astounding. After reviewing data from over 180 teams, no patterns emerged. Researchers dug deeper. The story of what eventually unfolded won’t surprise good managers: a psychological safety net is of absolute paramount importance to group productivity.
Google took this revelation to the next level and converted sensitive topics including empathy and emotional conversations – “things” that neither organizations nor employees like to discuss – into data reports. This opened the door for acknowledging that listening to team members is vital. A NYT Magazine article about Project Aristotle makes the point that while trying to discover what comprises the perfect team, Google identified that the root is actually imperfection:
“Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.”*
Obviously, there are other factors that reinforce team success. How the team is structured, members’ distinct roles, respect for timelines and setting the bar high are all significant contributors. Yet, empathy and its soul-mate emotional intelligence are fundamental to both leading teams and collaborative participation.
It’s important to distinguish between these two soft skills. Empathy is the ability to understand people’s emotions and feelings. Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage both our own emotions and those of other people. When people fail to identify their own feelings, they can’t control them; self-awareness is the centerpiece of both empathy and emotional intelligence. Self-awareness contributes to authentic Executive Presence, and in turn, leads to the genuine empathy that propels successful teams.
* Interested in learning more Project Aristotle? Read the NYT Magazine article by Charles Duhigg: What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team New research reveals surprising truths about why some workgroups thrive and others falter.
*Corporate Class Inc. provides professional development training that explores Neuroleadership and how the prefrontal cortex (the so-called executive brain) is responsible for primary Executive functions.
This is a guest post from Corporate Class, a My Big Idea™ strategic partner and originally was published in January of 2018