The quest to build a perfect team

Menno van Dijk
February 16th, 2017
Article by: Menno van Dijk
The quest to build a perfect team

Summarized from an article by Charles Duhigg.


Five years ago, Google became focused on building the perfect team.  In Silicon Valley, software engineers are encouraged to work together, in part because studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes quicker, and find better solutions. After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Google concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving teamwork. They noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared:


  • First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ Some teams saw everyone speaking during each task, while others saw a shift of leadership among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’


  • Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" test. People on the more successful teams scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues.
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Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety: the shared belief held by members of a team is that the team is a safe space. Each teammate holds a sense of confidence that the team will not be embarrassed, rejected or punished for speaking up.  It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

This becomes the energy that is created by the team. Some teams can be emotionally draining, because their norms — the fights over leadership, the tendency to critique — put the members on guard. Other types of teams would benefit from high energy levels whose norms —enthusiasm for one another’s ideas, joking around and having fun — allowed everyone to feel relaxed and energized.

Other behaviors were deemed important as well —making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that, above all, psychological safety was critical to making a team work.

Key to building interpersonal trust and mutual respect is to share personal matters with each other.  When one person conveys his or her personal issues, others will also start sharing some issues of their own. As a result, they will find it easier to speak honestly about the things that had been bothering them, their small frictions and everyday annoyances.  To be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations.  We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad.

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