Updated: Jan 3, 2021
What Google has found to be the greatest tool in forming powerful, effective teams.
For the Summer of 2019, I had the opportunity to intern for Google, in their Ann Arbor office under their Global Customer Care division. We worked with different Google products like Google Ads, directly with clients to solve problems and find places of improvement. It’s an understatement to say that the Summer was jam-packed with a lot of learning!
One of the coolest things I learned about was Project Aristotle. Based off of another study done by Google called Project Oxygen, which we’ll talk about in another article, Project Aristotle was an attempt to answer the very important question, “What makes a team effective at Google?”
Now, I have to admit, I personally thought that all it really takes is putting a bunch of skillful people into one room. I mean, I’m a huge believer in things like positive thinking, affirmations, and gratitude. However, I’m very skeptical when people tell me that the “key to success” is anything other than plain old hard work.
However, after spending a Summer inside of the company, I’ve learned it’s usually best to listen when Google has something to say. Let’s put this into context:
At the time of this writing, Google is ranked within the 5 biggest companies in the world by market cap.
This company is often regarded as one of the best examples of successful teamwork.
This company has some of the largest, if not the largest, access to data in the world.
Needless to say, when Google does a study, it’s not some run of the mill small-scale experiment. It’s a chance to really understand the fundamentals behind team success and, lucky for all of us, their findings aren’t limited to teams in Google. Rather, they were able to find 5 major components that make up a successful team and they were even able to rank them in importance.
According to the study, the most important part of building a successful team isn’t just about putting a bunch of skillful people in one room, it’s about whether those individuals can create something called psychological safety.
Psychological safety is about more than just the physical safety of knowing that no one will physically harm you. It’s about the creation of spaces where people are truly encouraged to take risks and experiment. It’s about individuals truly believing that the people around them are not working to undermine them but rather that the whole group is working towards a common goal. It’s about creating a space where individuals will build on each others questions and ideas, not break them down.
A large part of Google’s success, or of any major successful company, has often been attributed to the fact that its employees are willing to take risks, think outside the box, and trust one another. This study simply adds weight to that idea. If your employees feel like they aren’t encouraged to take risks and try new things or, worse, they fear being punished for it, your company simply cannot grow. Everyone will do exactly what is already expected and then walk out the door at the end of the day.
Having seen this myself, the key to what makes companies like Google so successful is that their employees aren’t always staring at the clock, waiting to leave. Instead, they’re encouraged and rewarded to step beyond their roles and pick up “side projects”. Forget even clearly defined “side projects”, the employees are truly encouraged to find ways to “challenge the status quo” within their current roles as well.
During my internship, a manager once challenged me to find something to fix in my role, and I was just an intern! Even as an intern, my opinion was valued and a space was created where working extra didn’t feel like a burden but rather it was an engaging challenge. Suddenly, my role wasn’t just to get my objectives done and leave at 5pm, it was about taking on as much as I wanted. It was about being in a space where I wasn’t scared that I would be told to “stay in my lane” or punished for making a mistake. That mentality made me, and many other employees, want to go the extra mile and find new solutions. Oh, and of course the fact that there was free food at the office!
The remaining 4 components of a successful team, as found by the study, are:
Structure and Clarity for Roles and Expectations
Meaning Behind the Work
Impact of the Work
Now, personally, I feel that the four mentioned above can actually be encompassed within the first, psychological safety. In fact, it can be argued that the presence of those four, along with one other, are what create psychological safety.
The extra piece to add is a concept called ostentatious listening, which is more than simply being quiet and listening. It’s about doing that but also being proactive about creating a space for others to speak. It’s about allowing the individuals around you to truly feel that their words are being digested and built on, not simply heard.
Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity does an amazing job of describing Project Aristotle, psychological safety, and ostentatious listening in this video he made with Business Insider: How Google builds the perfect team.
I was guilty of believing that all it took was putting capable individuals together and I have to admit that I have an unintentional habit of dominating a conversation. However, ever since I’ve seen Google’s team success process from the inside and read about Project Aristotle, I’ve learned to reshape what I believe. In all honesty, it actually works.
I grew up dreading group projects, I could tolerate them and I respected the idea, but group projects usually meant stress and work piled on for me to do by myself. In that process, I would blame others for not “being willing to work hard” or for being “inconsiderate”. However, I realized that a lot could be controlled if I simply learned how to make spaces for others.
When I started to actually listen to others, create a space for them, and use my skills not just to find my own solutions but in conjunction with those of everyone else, that was when beautiful things began to happen. Projects became fun, the ideas became wilder, and the execution, more beautiful. It’s a work in progress, but I’m excited to see what comes next.
Let me know what you think in the comments below!