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What Google Learned About Teams (and what leaders can do about it) By Patty McManus

Team members at Google are challenged in much the same way as nearly everyone else in corporate life. To get things done, they need to come together fast and tackle complex tasks that have no easy solutions. But Google loves to take on huge challenges (driverless car, anyone?) and a team of Google researchers recently set out to find the workplace equivalent of The Holy Grail: a perfect team.
Google called the effort Project Aristotle and the researchers’ primary focus was to use data to uncover meaningful patterns for what makes a great team. Project Aristotle is a fascinating undertaking that was detailed recently in The New York Times.
Ironically, the Project Aristotle team got nowhere fast. They hit one brick wall after another as their hypotheses kept proving wrong, despite robust team observations, surveys, and analysis. Just because a team was made up of high IQs, big achievers, or nice guys didn’t mean they could come together to produce good work. Even the classic suspects – structure, roles, and goals – proved necessary but insufficient to predict the highest levels of success.
But they knew something was there and they kept digging until they uncovered one factor that stood out above all others, despite numerous other variations – a culture characterized by psychological safety as a key determinant of the most effective teams. Psychological safety, according to Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, is “the shared belief that a team is safe for personal risk-taking…that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”
The researchers at Google describe two factors that seem to make the biggest difference in creating psychologically safe environments for collaboration:

  1. Relatively equivalent air time among all team members in their discussions
  2. A high overall level of social sensitivity

Translation: Everybody on a highly performing team could expect that they would be heard if they had something to say and that their concerns, positive or otherwise, would be attended to by the team. These findings were borne out consistently despite variables such as a team’s goals, process, or even the style of its leader.

Safety Starts with Leaders
In a recent blog post, I explored the approach that animation giant Pixar takes to creating a safe environment for break-through story telling. In his 2014 book Creativity Inc, Pixar’s CEO Ed Catmull demonstrates his belief that a big part of his job is fostering that condition.
In one telling example, Catmull describes a deal he made with his co-founder Steve Jobs: Catmull would commit to stay at Pixar if Jobs would agree to forego attending the meetings where unfettered truth-telling was essential to the success of their films. Despite his brilliance, Jobs was known as the last leader on earth you’d look to for creating a safe environment. Catmull knew he had to protect against the risk of Jobs’ larger-than-life style overwhelming people’s need to speak the hard truths.
While Catmull didn’t use the term, he was describing psychological safety as an essential ingredient of success for Pixar’s film makers. If you’re a leader like Catmull looking to adopt the same practice for your teams, special care and attention are required.
Here are three essentials for leadership that make a difference:
Develop clear goals and ground rules.
People in teams need enough common focus to feel competent to do the work at hand–hard to find in a world that is always shifting under their feet. Whether it’s stated outcomes for a last-minute meeting, short-term milestones on a project path, or high level objectives in a charter, effective teams share a common view of what they are trying to accomplish. Period.
Psychological safety cannot exist in an on-going state of ambiguity. While they may not know what the future will look like in a month or a year, they can be clear about the nature and scope of what they are working on right now. If it needs to change, so be it—and that requires a discussion, some decision-making, and a collective reset.
Setting the team up with ground rules, as clearly stated norms, goes a long way to creating mindfulness about individual actions. Despite our best intentions, not everyone is naturally inclined to set aside their positions to hear what others are thinking. Pressure, timelines, and politics just compound the challenge. Getting a team’s agreement on simple ground rules, such as “Equal access to the air waves” or “Listen before you give an opinion” can shift team members’ inclinations. Keep ground rules spare and specific, revisit them often. And, most especially as the leader: Hold the line when someone crosses it.
Actively commit to creating psychological safety.
Google is hardly packed with touchy-feely types who expect to be talking about emotions at work. However, one leader described the value of having actual data that demonstrated the importance of paying attention to the subtle or even blatant barriers to people’s experience of safety on a team. The most common: Members getting shut down without a hearing on a controversial opinion, or being marginalized because of stylistic differences. These and other issues like them need to be noticed, named, and resolved as soon as they appear—and if the leader doesn’t start, who will?
But it doesn’t stop there for leaders.  In her research on teams, Stanford Professor Maggie Neale (2) has demonstrated the potential of diversity – when and if a team can take advantage of each member’s perspective. Neale emphasizes the importance of actually managing diversity so that the team creates an inclusive culture that enables healthy dynamics and solid results.
Even if no one else does, leaders need to keep the importance of psychological safety front and center, especially about their own actions.  If a team has ground rules about equal access to air time, yet the leader repeatedly does most of the talking or lets the two high status members take over, the team faces not only a loss of safety but the cynicism that results when a leader says one thing and does another. Which brings me to the third essential for team leaders…
Take a hard look in a good mirror.
Having the ability to see their impact on others is the place to start. A leader may truly believe in the power of collaboration, understand the importance of psychological safety on a team, AND continue to act in ways that create the opposite effect. I am continually astounded by how hard it can be for well-intentioned people to change their habits and patterns.
One of my favorite insights in the last year came from a book entitled Immunity to Change by Kegan and Lahey (2009). The authors describe many of the barriers to change that reside in both organizations and individuals. Given the complex psychological challenges when taking on even the most obvious changes, they recommend that individuals focus on one area, and start by asking a few individuals the following question:  “What is one big thing I could do to improve…?”
If you talk to a few people who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth, you’ll probably start to hear a theme or two. Then take on one change and one change only—and make it concrete and specific. “Be a better listener” is way too vague. Try something as specific as “asking two questions before giving my opinion” or “looking around to see who hasn’t had a chance to weigh in.”
As the Project Aristotle findings began making their way into the popular press, the world around Google—up, down, and around Silicon Valley—seemed to let out a collective “duh!” Or maybe it was a sigh of relief.  So many of us have known the agony of being on a team that not only felt unsafe but couldn’t deliver on its promise.  The hard part is knowing what to do about it.  Fortunately, even though leaders can’t create psychological safety on their own, small but intentional shifts in their mindset and actions can set the tone for better things.
Patty McManus
Senior Consultant Patty McManus develops leaders who are equipped to embrace both the responsibilities and the potential of their roles. She works at the levels of values, skill development, and motivation to support leaders’ and organizations’ success. Patty is a frequent blogger and podcaster on and author of the popular ebook, “The Little Book of Big Change”. She is also a sought-after presenter, speaking most recently at the American Library Association’s National Conference.