Imagine you’ve just joined a new team that’s working on your company’s top-priority project. The company has put its best and brightest on this team. Everyone meets up for coffee and seems to connect well with each other. Sounds like you’ve landed the perfect role, doesn’t it?
But since it’s the best and the brightest, team members seem to be pretty darn confident in their views. If they think someone else’s idea is dumb or unworkable or not bold enough or whatever, they don’t hesitate to say so. Some members are prone to interrupting, and as a result the team sometimes finds itself talking over each other. And to get your voice heard, you soon find you have to do the same thing: put your views out there more forcefully than you’re used to, interrupting, ‘controlling’ the direction of the meeting.
Is your team of A players likely to be highly effective? And will you enjoy it?
That’s exactly the position Julia Rozovsky found herself in several years ago. As a student at Yale’s School of Management, Julia’s study group was filled with dynamic, intelligent students. Her group, which was specially selected by the school, got along fabulously. Except during meetings. Then, they became competitive, sometimes even hostile with each other. Julia felt alienated and started to withdraw.
This is how she described it:
‘I always felt like I had to prove myself. People would try to show authority by speaking louder or talking over each other. I felt like I had to be careful not to make mistakes around them.’
“I always felt like I had to be careful not to make mistakes around them.”
Later, Rozovsky ended up in another group — a crew of random characters that had nothing special about them, nothing much in common with each other. But this group regularly had meetings that sparked off spectacular brainstorm sessions and came up with ideas so good that they ended up winning a school competition.
“We all felt like we could say anything to each other.”
Why did these two teams produce such different experiences and outcomes? Why did a carefully formulated team do so poorly, and a random team do so well?
These questions are important to leaders, especially today when an extraordinary level of teamwork is required to run a business efficiently on a global scale. These were questions Rozovsky asked herself at the time, so she was excited when she was invited to join Google’s Project Aristotle: an internal project designed to uncover what it takes to create the perfect team.
In its search for the answers, Google left no stone unturned. Project Aristotle employed statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists, engineers and researchers – of which Rozovsky was one. Their research spanned several years and looked into over a hundred of Google’s teams. And their findings surprised both the researchers and Google’s leaders.
What we think works, doesn’t
The common belief, particularly amongst the top brass at Google, was that you built a high-performing team by staffing it with outstanding individuals. This philosophy is in line with Silicon Valley’s mantra: only hire A players who in turn will hire A players.
What Google’s research data showed was that these conventional assumptions aren’t true. When they looked at their highest-performing teams, it didn’t seem to matter much who was on the team or how many ‘stars’ it had. It didn’t matter what their backgrounds were. It didn’t matter what they did outside of the office, or how much they hung out together.
What mattered was how team members treated each other when they met.
What mattered was how team members treated each other when they met.
How great teams behave
What Google’s research revealed was that while the profiles of individuals in their top-performing teams varied enormously, the behaviors of the top teams were very similar.
Virtually every one of Google’s top teams shared three common traits:
1. When they met, team members shared air-time pretty equally. That is, they took care to make sure that no individual or subgroup dominated, and that everyone had equal chance to state their views and contribute.
2. They listened to each other really well. While one person was talking, the others weren’t distracted by their phones or laptops, and they weren’t busy thinking about what they were going to say. They were just listening, carefully.
3. They paid attention not only to what their fellow team members were saying, but also to how they were feeling. By tuning in to emotional indicators such as tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and other non-verbal cues, they could check in when they saw someone was feeling uncomfortable, upset, annoyed or whatever. Their discussions to process these emotional responses proved as important to the team’s performance as the more ‘rational’ debates they held.
Google’s highest-performing teams consistently operated with these norms, which are referred to as psychological safety.
This means they make sure that team discussions are a safe place for everyone to take risks, by ensuring that no one will be dismissed, attacked, ridiculed or isolated for speaking up. As a result, people don’t hold back when sharing their thoughts, because they know they will be heard and treated with both curiosity and respect, even when others disagree.
The key to playing well together
What Google discovered is not new. Many of the best managers do this instinctively. But if there is a shortcoming with this research, it’s that it tells you what to do, but not how to do it. Rozovsky’s team came up against this problem as well.
“We had to get people to establish psychologically safe environments.
We needed clear guidelines.’’
Remember the three key elements of great teams: that everyone participates roughly equally, listens deeply, and pays attention to how each other is feeling.
It turns out that these skills can easily be learned through practice. But a little structure can be a big help. The most powerful method I have found to help teams do this is a technique called Time to Think, created by Nancy Kline.
At the heart of her method sits what she calls a ‘Round.’
A Round starts with a really good question: one that engages and energizes the team, and also gets to the heart of the issue. This means that it should address the crucial problem or question the team needs to resolve address to make progress. It’s a question that points precisely to where the team is stuck.
It’s important to formulate the question well. Most teams waste a tremendous amount of time wandering in the woods: either because they don’t have a specific question, or they have several questions, or their questions aren’t clear or well crafted.
Once you have a powerful, well-formulated question, making rapid progress comes much more easily.
After everyone is clear on the question, the Round begins. It’s incredibly simple: each team member goes in turn to give their thoughts on the question. While they do this, no one interrupts, interjects, questions, challenges or comments. No one picks up their phone or looks through their papers. They just listen with interest, while keeping their eyes on the speaker.
In exchange for this guarantee that you will have a chance speak your mind uninterrupted, you as the speaker agree to be concise. This makes it easier for the listeners to keep listening to you.
This very neatly starts to create the norms that Rozovsky’s group identified: everyone gets their fair share of air-time, and everyone listens to each other in a way that removes the risk of being attacked, dismissed or ridiculed.
Soon the trust begins to flow, and it becomes easier for people to open up about their true feelings about the issue at hand, not just the ‘data and facts.’ And, as Google’s research has proved, that’s when real performance starts to take off.