It’s common wisdom that most modern workplaces rely on teamwork, but some teams are simply better than others. In 2012, Google became focused on building the perfect team.
The company’s top executives had long believed that building the best teams meant combining the best people in the best possible way. They recruited the best and expected the performance of every team to represent the sum of the individuals, but this did not work out. Some work groups thrived and others faltered despite being made up of the top of the talent pool.
The tech giant initiated Project Aristotle, which took several years, and included interviews with hundreds of employees and analysis of data about the people on more than 100 active teams at the company. The Googlers looked hard to find a magic formula—the perfect mix of individuals necessary to form a stellar team—but it was not that simple.
Google’s data-driven approach ended up highlighting that the best teams respect one another’s emotions and are mindful that all members should contribute to the conversation equally.
It has less to do with who is in a team, and more with how a team’s members interact with one another.
The findings echo Stephen Covey’s influential 1989 book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Members of productive teams take the effort to understand each other, find a way to relate to each other, and then try to make themselves understood.
The behaviours that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.
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 optimised.
Google now describes psychological safety as the most important factor to building a successful team. Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, defines psychological safety as a “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”.
So how do you build psychological safety in your team?
Leadership and management must initiate the formation of a psychologically safe environment by welcoming opinions (including dissent) on goals and strategies from peers and subordinates. People in management or leadership roles who fear questioning or are more focused on their ideas than on the right ideas need to either learn, adapt, and grow, or move on. They are obstacles, roadblocks, and hindrances to organisational effectiveness, performance, and innovation.
Steps leaders can take to start to create psychological safety:
- Establish and clearly communicate expectations
- Receive Emotional Intelligence training yourself
- Provide Emotional Intelligence training for your employees
- Ensure follow-through with dedicated coaching and regular check-ins
Then, learn about and employ the following behaviours and skills:
- Frame mistakes and errors as learning and opportunities for improvement.
- Encourage lessons learned to be shared instead of hidden, focused toward helping others to learn, grow, and avoid similar mistakes.
- Embrace the value of failure for learning by admitting to mistakes they’ve made themselves look these up.
- Understand the difference between failures and subversion, sabotage, incompetence, and lack of ability.