When Google set out to discover what makes a team effective. They were prepared to do some serious research. The People Operations team (HR dept) conducted 200+ interviews and looked for 250 different features of 180 teams at the internet search giant.Top teams consist of…

Top teams consist of…

The team had assumed that the best team would consist of the brightest and the best, but, as the company itself said:

“We were dead wrong. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.”

The team identified five key attributes for a successful team:

  1. Psychological safety
    Feeling safe to take risks and be secure with colleagues
  2. Dependability
    All team members “get things one on time” and at a high standard
  3. Structure & clarity
    Clear goals, plans and team roles
  4. Meaning of work
    Every member of the team considers their work important
  5. Impact of work
    What the team does matters

Employees need psychological safety

Google concluded that psychological safety was the most important of the five attributes, but possibly the most difficult to achieve:

“We’re all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity. Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork.”

Google’s researchers also recognised that the impact of positive psychological safety has multiple benefits for the business:

“Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”

The concept of psychological safetey is nothing new, as Aamna Modin pointed out in a blog for Quartz

“The (Google) 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.”

For anyone in business in the 1990’s, Covey’s book was practically a bible. The Habit that Modin refers to is what Covey calls “empathic communication”, and is summed up by Covey as “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In other words, listen first, then talk.

However, we all know this is easier said than done. Long before the era of social media and email, Covey summarised our natural reaction to any discussion.

“We have a tendency to rush in, fix things up with good advice. But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first.”

Part of psychological safety is a space where ideas can be aired, issues discussed, methods suggested and crafted into solutions. Such as space also enables employees to take the time to fully understand issues, and ask probing questions. An employee network can provide just such a virtual space, where employees across the organisation can co-operate on projects, flag up issues, or thrown in new ideas, all without fear of being ignored, brushed aside or made to look foolish in front of colleagues.

In a fascinating TEDx talk, Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, proposed that for psychological safety, managers should:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem, and create a combination of uncertainty and interdependence.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility.
  3. Encourage and practice moral curiosity. (Ask a lot of questions!)

The first condition for psychological safety emphasises that there is no right or wrong answer, that nobody knows quite what might happen, and that the best way forward is by working together.

The second encourages people to say “I don’t know” or “I need your help”, to include and invite contributions, rather than block them.

The third encourages people to ask questions, and listen to the answers.

These three factors for psychological safety brings us full circle, back to what made the successful Google teams successful.

“Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.”

If your company intranet or employee network doesn’t enable people to do this, talk to us. We’ll listen, understand your situation, and work with you to customise a solution to your specific business needs.