In 2012 Google’s Project Aristotle focused on figuring out why some teams excel and others don’t. I read about their work in the New York Times last week in this article. While I don’t quite agree that the two factors they isolated are the only aspects to remarkable teams, I appreciated the rigor of their research and the heart of what they learned. I thought you might be interested.
The Project and What They Learned
Google executives began with a premise that the best teams combined the best people. In their work, they:
- Reviewed fifty years of literature on teams.
- Diagnosed the composition of over 180 teams at Google (e.g., relationships, education, hobbies, socialization, motivation for rewards, etc.)— and found it impossible to discern patterns linked to effectiveness.
- Hit on a recurring theme in the literature labeled “group norms.” These are the behaviors and practices that form the unwritten rules of the team.
- Took the deep dive into evidence of Google team norms, the researchers found gold in two norms:
“equal speaking” and “average social sensitivity.”
And from there, Google began to explore and integrate these two characteristics into their teams.
Less about protocol or politeness, the researchers found that the teams in which members spoke in roughly the same proportion had the best collective performance. They could talk over each other and have a fairly messy dialogue, but if one person or a small part of the team spoke all of the time, performance dropped.
Average Social Sensitivity
Social sensitivity is the ability to intuit how other people feel based on their tone of voice, expressions, and other nonverbal cues. Not just in team meetings, this is the sense-ability to consider email messages and verbal communications—and how they will “land” on others.
The combination of these two norms create what psychologists call “psychological safety,” the shared belief that the group is safe to take interpersonal risks. Some of the stories shared had strong elements of what I call “getting to know” each other. The more we really know the people we work with, their background, strengths, vulnerabilities, interests, etc., the more likely we are to understand their patterns of thinking and behavior.
Consider these findings and ask yourself: What norms could my team weave into our way of working that would enhance performance? How would I need to lead or come forward in our interaction?