In 2010, Google decided to work out ‘how to build the perfect team’ and began a five-year long research project into its own internal teams – codenamed ‘Project Aristotle’ – to identify the key factors that made some teams better than others.

The conclusion? You might expect it to be the quality of individual team members, or the mix of personality types, skills and backgrounds. But Google’s team of researchers found that the key factor was actually the behavioural standards which govern how the team functions.

In other words, Google’s researchers – who should know a thing or two about data analysis – concluded that, insofar as effective teamwork is concerned, the people on a team are far less important than the way those people interact with each other.

Behavioural standards – two key elements

Google’s researchers noted two key behaviours in particular which the best teams seemed to share:

  1. Equality of conversational turn-taking

The first was equality of conversational turn-taking – roughly speaking, the extent to which speaking time is shared throughout the group. When every member of a group gets the chance to speak, researchers found that the team tended to do well. However, when the dialogue was dominated by one person or by a small group of people, the team was consistently less successful.

  1. Social sensitivity

The second key factor was ‘social sensitivity’, which is a way of talking about the ability of group members to empathise with others and understand how they are feeling through tone of voice, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues. Researchers found that people on successful teams seemed to know when other team members were feeling upset or left out, while on less successful teams, members showed less sensitivity towards their colleagues.

Psychological safety

Google’s research has become a key reference for many in the HR and L&D worlds, and it chimes well with what psychology researchers call ‘psychological safety’. As Harvard Business School associate professor, Amy Edmondson has put it:

“Psychological safety describes individuals’ perceptions about the consequences of interpersonal risks in their work environment. It consists of taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself on the line, such as by asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea… In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake others will not penalize or think less of them for it.”

The behavioural standards identified by Google – conversational turn-taking and social sensitivity – are definitely behaviours that help to create psychological safety. And this is one way to understand why these behavioural standards matter so much: they help people to feel safe with each other and to form bonds, which drives engagement and, ultimately, results.

How does your team operate?

So the question for you is how far the teams in which you participate display these two ‘behavioural standards’ – and how far you can shift those teams in the direction of ‘psychological safety’ identified above?

It can be difficult, and even seem rather trite, to ask employees to be more ‘socially sensitive’ at work. But as a manager you can take a lead in modelling social sensitivity and setting a good example for your team. You can also call out insensitive behaviour and try to encourage team members to see things from different perspectives.

The other key behavioural standard, equality of conversational turn-taking, is a more straightforward point to enact. It involves embracing an essentially democratic outlook which recognises that everyone has something to contribute and should be given the chance to do so.

You can try this at your next meeting: try to spread out ‘talking time’ within the group, and make sure everyone is given the chance to contribute.

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.