Google had a problem.  Despite hiring some of the most talented employees from around the world, when they combined these employees into teams the results were inconsistent.

Some soared while others faltered.  Google’s leadership team was puzzled and spent three years trying to understand why team performance varied. 

Identifying the Pattern

Google launched Project Aristotle to understand the differences in team performance, and in typical Google fashion, they analyzed a lot of data.  According the New York Times article, “What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team”, many hypotheses were tested, yet they struggled to find the underlying drivers of a successful team. 

However, as they continued their research a pattern finally began to emerge.  What they discovered is that “psychological safety” is critical to the success of every high performing team. Or, in layman’s terms, when team members believe their co-workers accept and respect them, they feel safe to speak up and fully contribute to their team’s success. 


Employees need a safe environment for the personal risk taking involved with being a team member.  Sound simple?  Well, it wasn’t for Google. This recent article in the New York Times describes exactly how complex it can be to create an environment of psychological safety for a workplace team:

“However, establishing psychological safety is, by its very nature, somewhat messy and difficult to implement.  You can tell people to take turns during a conversation and listen to one another more.  You can instruct employees to be sensitive to how their colleagues feel and to notice when someone feels upset.  But… the behaviors that create psychological safety – conversation turn taking and empathy – are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond.  And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else.” (New York Times, February 26, 2016).

How can organizations help create a psychologically safe environment for their employees? 

Here are three suggestions to help your organization: 

  1. Offer a comprehensive, real-time recognition program. Nearly 65% of employees said they receive no recognition for their work (Gallup), yet this is critical for employee engagement.  An easy to use peer-to-peer recognition program enables employees to compliment one another and builds the mutual respect needed for a team to operate effectively. 
  2. Promote your employee assistance program (EAP). A good EAP will provide a number of resources to help employees improve work relationships, manage stress and communicate effectively with their co-workers. These resources should be available in a number of formats (e.g. articles, videos, blogs, etc.) along with the option of speaking with a professional counselor. 
  3. Build a sense of togetherness with a private social network and mobile applications. This allows teams to receive social updates, including birthday and work anniversay notices for each member, plus new feeds with company information. Private social networks enhance communication and help build stronger teams. 

While most organizations don’t have the size and popularity of Google, all organizations benefit when their teams work well together and play off of each other’s strengths.

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