What separates a great team from an average one? Managers at Google asked the same thing and decided to find out in Project Aristotle. Some of the things they asked were:
- How frequently particular people eat together?
- Which traits the best managers share?
- Should you put introverts together?
- What happens when you put together only the best workers in a team?
- Are teams more effective when everyone is friends outside work?
They took everything into the account: socializing outside office, shared hobbies, educational backgrounds, outgoingness, memberships, age, gender balance, team longevity, etc.
In the end, researchers didn’t find the magic formula for the right mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds. No matter how they arranged the data, they couldn’t find a pattern. How a team was composed didn’t make any difference.
But they did find out what made one team better than another: psychological safety. In successful teams, people:
- are comfortable to be vulnerable in front of others,
- feel safe to take risks.
There were other important dynamics, but psychological safety was critical.
The reason was simple: we don’t speak up when we don’t understand something because we don’t want to risk sounding stupid. Although this self-protection is normal, it’s detrimental to effective teamwork.
People also don’t want to put on a “work face” and leave a part of their personality at home. They want to be who they are without fearing someone might say something negative. To fulfill our maximum potential, we must know that we can freely talk about messy and sad things without fear of recrimination. We can’t just focus on efficiency - we need to know others really hear us and that work is more than labor.
This psychological safety is difficult to create. There’s no memo or a rule that can force us to respect others. It’s part of the company culture which takes years to evolve. In today’s fast-paced age, where companies are opened and closed every few years and people drift from one company to another every few months, the culture doesn’t have a chance to get created in the first place.
The best you can do is:
- discourage negativity,
- lead by example by sharing your own personal highs and lows,
- appreciate every idea, no matter if it’s good,
- focus on creating a positive workplace where people aren’t afraid to speak up or ask for clarification,
- build trust by giving trust.
For teams that are spread among 3 continents, this is a bit trickier because there is rarely the right time to talk about personal life. As teams became more virtual, cooperation naturally declines. The only way to prevent it is to take concrete measures to establish a collaborative culture, like organizing get-togethers every month (or at least every year).
Keep in mind that, while respecting diversity is good, diversity itself can inhibit collaboration. The more strangers there are on a team and the greater their diversity is (like background and experience), the less likely they’ll share knowledge and collaborate. Age, educational level, seniority, even nationality, prevent us from treating others as our peers so talking and bonding is harder.
This happens because people don’t know each other and the gap is more difficult to bridge. But if people work together long enough, they’ll develop tacit understanding: they’ll know each person’s strengths and weaknesses, have shared experiences from which to draw upon, and unspoken habits and rules that’ll help them collaborate more closely.
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