- Aristotle once said that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The results of Google’s Project Aristotle, a wide-scale internal study of Google teams, suggest Aristotle was on to something.
- Project Aristotle found that team success does not depend on the members of that team so much as the norms which determine that team’s behavior.
- Teams succeed and overachieve when there is psychological safety for the group members — when everyone in a workspace feels like they can express concerns without being shut down, where sensitivity to the feelings of others is encouraged, and where people can be themselves.
Looking to figure out what makes the best team, in 2012 Google embarked on a 2-year long study of 180 of its teams, which revealed some significant findings about how teams function.
Google’s Project Aristotle showed that a team’s success does not depend on who is in the group; instead, success depends on how a team functions.
The study’s findings vindicate Aristotle’s idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts — at least when applying this maxim to teams of information workers. It turns out that the individual members of the team matter less than most people would assume.
That is, a team can include the best or the worst applicants, but depending on the norms under which that team operates, their success measures will vary widely.
A team of highly-experienced and educated engineers will not reliably produce good results if the norms in their workplace incentivize cattiness, power trips, and brown-nosing. All of that experience and education means little in the wrong environment.
By contrast, if a team is a group of novices who enter a workplace with norms that include active on-the-job training, an ability to speak freely, and a less bureaucratic structure, it will succeed.
Psychological Safety is Essential to Team Success
The teams that were most successful at Google did not all function identically. Some had egalitarian approaches, while others maintained a traditional bureaucracy — though none were autocracies where one person’s whim decides an organization’s fate at all times.
Google’s researchers, however, identified a critical component that was a mainstay in all of its top-performing teams, regardless of norm variance.
Namely, the teams at Google with the highest performance had a culture whose norms facilitated what psychologists call “psychological safety.”
Psychological safety, in short, is when everyone on the team feels like they have an equal opportunity to say important things up and down the chain of command without being ignored. Psychological safety is when one expects to be taken seriously in their concerns.
Social sensitivity — or, more accurately, sensitivity to the feelings of others — is another component of psychological safety that showed up in Google’s most successful teams.
Such sensitivity might entail managers reaching out to employees to ask how they are feeling in a general sense, or it might entail managers having an eye for when their employees are overworked and need a lightened workload for some time.
When workers feel like they are being ignored — especially concerning their feelings — they will be much less keen on going above and beyond for a workplace than if it were an environment of support, encouragement, self-direction, listening, and social sensitivity.
Workers are best at their work when given as much leeway to tackle problems independently. We all have an internal locus of control, whose disruption brings about stress and depression; this fact is not excluded from workspaces, as micromanagement diminishes psychological safety.
Autocratic-style workspaces are not conducive to psychological safety because they necessarily involve only one or a few individuals whose word has any consequence. This, however, is the only standardized affirmative statement we can make about management styles and workplace success.
Given that Google’s review does not recommend a particular management style, managers should see to it that the norms of their workplace facilitate psychological safety by cultivating their employees’ internal sense of agency.
For example, no matter the form of managerial governance, when employees are given the green light to tackle the problems closest to them — instead of calling over someone higher up in the organization to handle it — they tend to solve issues uniquely and independently successfully.
The time lost calling higher-ups is significant enough to contribute to the fact that such teams markedly outperform those who lack a strong sense of psychological safety.
The easiest way for managers to resolve such a problem is to trust their employees to independently solve important dilemmas and to have genuinely helpful things to say about them, as this ultimately leads to problems being solved quicker.
Psychological safety taps into the talent that is too often overlooked for trivial reasons at the expense of workplace productivity. To increase a team’s productivity, leaders should care about how their workers feel and what they have to say; take them and their concerns seriously.