In 2012, Google decided they wanted to answer this question, “How do you build the perfect team.” They wanted to find out why some teams performed effectively while others floundered. They decided to study hundreds of their own teams as well as reviewing fifty years worth of academic studies on how teams worked. They gathered the best statisticians, researchers, psychologists, sociologists, and engineers for what they dubbed – Project Aristotle, after his famous quote, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The team of researchers scrutinized every characteristic to see what qualities the highest performing teams all shared. How often did the teams socialize out of work? Was it better for a team to be made up of people with similar personalities? Did the teams need to all be incentivized by the same rewards? Did gender balance affect the team’s performance? All of these questions plus hundreds more were asked and researched to find the commonalities.
Surprisingly, they found that it doesn’t matter WHO makes up the group. What mattered most was HOW the group behaved and worked together. The norms and “culture” of the group decided performance, not the quality or composition of the people that made the group up.
5 Qualities of a high performing team (in order of importance)
After this internal study, that took more than two years, Google found that standout performance came down to these characteristics:
1. Psychological safety:
By far the most important characteristic of the high performing teams was psychological safety. Basically, can people take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed? Do all members feel comfortable brainstorming in front of each other?
Each member of the team needs to know that they can fail or speak up without being ridiculed, judged, or made examples of.
Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard first introduced the construct of “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. She also has a TedX Talk where she shares ways to foster team psychological safety.
Google noticed two prominent characteristics within the teams that were high in psychological safety.
- Conversational turn-taking – People wind up speaking about the same amount in meetings.
- Above average social sensitivity – You can tell how other people feel and read nonverbal cues. (You can see someone’s eyes and get a sense for how they feel)
When teams were high in psychological safety, they stayed at Google longer, made more revenue for the company, and performed better than other, more senior teams.
I have noticed this in my own experience working with teams in many different companies. The best teams I have ever seen shared openly, gave feedback knowing they were safe to do so and took risks knowing the team had their backs. They were friends outside of work as well. They were a unit who trusted each other. One of the first things I do with a client is build in systems and activities to foster this psychological safety. It can literally make or break your team and your company (or sports team, club, etc.)
Can the team rely on each other to do high-quality work on time?
Team members have to know that their teammates will get their work done ON TIME and with HIGH Quality. This really comes down to knowing the person next to you will get their job done and do it to the best of their ability.
Does your team own their delays and mistakes or do they shirk responsibility?
Does your team openly share progress and set clear ownership of projects and tasks?
In order to have a high performing team, every member needs to be dependable.
3. Structure and clarity:
Are goals, roles, and execution plans on the team clear?
Teams need to know where they are going, how they plan on getting there, and how their part adds to the team. This is where OKR’s (Objectives and Key Results) come into play. Proper goal setting is pivotal for high performing teams. Clear goals, clear accountabilities, and clear execution plans allow the team to execute with a clear field of vision.
4. Meaning of work:
Is the team working on something that is personally important for each member?
A sense of purpose for each team member results in better performance. Google found that individual personal satisfaction in the job they were doing resulted in dramatically higher output. This comes down to giving work to individuals who 1. Have the ability and 2. Are interested in the work. Consistently recognizing members for the work they do also instills a sense of meaning in the work. That is why I have designated time for recognition and appreciation in my Weekly Action Meetings.
5. Impact of the work:
Does the team fundamentally believe that the work they’re doing matters?
Does your work actually benefit the company and/or the world as a whole.
People don’t want to feel like they are wasting time or treading water. They want to feel like what they are doing is creating a change, whether in the company or to the greater good. OKR’s allow for visibility into how a member’s work affects the larger company. Consistently showing how the team’s actions help the company will boost the team’s performance. The team will feel like what they do matters. That it is important.
DId you notice any characteristics your team lacked?
Any characteristics nonexistent in your team?
Years of research, hundreds of teams studied, and millions of data points were collected to come to these conclusions.
Don’t take them lightly.
The more you focus on fostering these characteristics, the higher performance you will get out of your team. We all have the ability to create high performing teams, we just have to cultivate these characteristics.
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