Natasha Tamiru leads organisational transformation programmes at Google U.K. She helps Google’s largest advertising customers and agencies, as well as internal teams think about the role teamwork plays in driving transformation and innovation. This article was originally published in 2018, but has since been updated with new insights.
What kind of teammate are you? What kind of team are you on? And what makes a good team tick?
Those might seem like simple questions, but they’re harder to answer than you might think. And with teams needing to be more cross-functional than ever — from collaboration between departments and regions to hybrid working norms — the issues they raise are important.
In a world that’s constantly changing, effective teams may be the most vital ingredient for successful transformation and innovation.
Who is on a team matters much less than how team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.
A key part of my job is helping Google teams improve their effectiveness. And while everyone in the company agrees this is important, no one had put together the data to analyse what actually makes a team effective — until our people operations team decided to change that.
Defining the question, then finding answers
The team conducted internal research to find out what sets apart our most effective teams from the others.
To define what “effective” means in this context, the team asked three different groups of Googlers – executives, team leads, and team members – for their definitions of the word: executives said effectiveness was all about results; team leads defined it in relation to ownership, vision, and goals; and team members found team culture to be the defining attribute.
Those three distinct, equally valid perspectives on effectiveness helped the researchers frame their method. Having prepared more than 250 inputs looking at team dynamics and composition, they used their preparatory research to define three outputs, and finally applied their survey at scale.
The researchers interviewed more than 200 teams across all areas of the business, from engineering to product management, sales, and everything in between. They drew on other data sources too, involving more than 35 statistical models and the coding of over 170,000 words.
The five dynamics of effective teams
We had imagined that building an effective team would be like solving a puzzle – that the best teams would be those where outstanding individuals were put to work together. We even thought that there might be an opportunity to create a new algorithm that could predict how to assemble perfect teams.
Instead, the research revealed something surprising. At Google, who is on a team matters much less than how team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. And across all types of teams, from sales to engineering, from San Francisco to Singapore, five dynamics consistently differentiated top-performing teams from those at the bottom.
- Psychological safety: This was the most important dynamic in an effective team. Psychological safety is about risk-taking and being comfortable with vulnerability. People who don’t feel psychologically safe worry that taking risks will mean they’re seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. Psychological safety means feeling confident about admitting mistakes, asking questions, or offering new ideas.
- Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time. They don’t avoid their responsibilities and they take them seriously, helping to keep the team on track. As simple as it sounds, it proved vital to team effectiveness.
- Structure and clarity: This means that a team has clear roles, goals, and plans. Individuals understand what’s expected of them, what they and their team is aiming for, and how they are all going to get there. Google uses objectives and key results (OKRs) to help set and communicate specific, challenging, and attainable short- and long-term goals, at both an individual and group level.
- Meaning: For individuals on a team, finding a sense of purpose in their work or its output is vitally important for team effectiveness. That meaning is personal, so it varies from person to person, but might include financial security, their ability to support their family, their commitment to the success of the team, or their individual self-expression.
- Impact: Do you fundamentally believe the work you do makes a difference? This subjective judgement marks out the most effective teams and can be based on seeing how one’s work contributes to an organisation’s goals and what it has helped to change.
Take a moment to think about what could have been on the list, but didn’t make it. “Consensus-driven decision making” or “workload” didn’t make the cut. Neither did “being co-located”, which, since we first published this article, has taken on a whole new meaning.
Psychologically safe teams accelerate learning and innovation by acknowledging mistakes and exploring new ideas.
Perhaps most remarkably, the number of top performers on a team, and the general intelligence of a team, emerged as a poor indicator of a team’s effectiveness. While we found both attributes in some of the best teams, we also found them in some of the weakest.
Psychological safety: what matters most
Of the five dynamics, one stands out ahead of the others. Our researchers found that the best teams created a climate of openness where team members admit to their errors and discuss them more often. In other words, they exhibited high levels of psychological safety, a concept originated by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson.
Psychologically safe teams accelerate learning and innovation by acknowledging mistakes and exploring new ideas. And not only are they more adaptable, they can also impact the bottom line. Our research revealed that sales teams with high ratings for psychological safety actually brought in more revenue, exceeding their sales targets by 17%. Teams with low psychological safety fell short by up to 19%.
So how can leaders create psychological safety in your teams and organisations? Edmondson gives us three recommendations:
- Frame the work as a learning problem as opposed to an execution problem: Be clear that there are areas that still require explanation and that everybody's input matters. Admit that the future is not certain and you need to have everybody's brains and voices in the game.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility: Tell team members that you need and respect their input. As a wider attitude, this can be expressed in many ways, but even simple statements, such as "I may miss something” or “I need to hear from you”, can really encourage peers and subordinates to speak up.
- Model curiosity by asking a lot of questions: This creates a need for the team to develop a voice. It gives your team the responsibility to generate answers, engage in a discussion, and take ownership of the process.
How we interact with each other as a team is more important than the people on that team. But would you recognise whether your team had strong or weak psychological safety? How could you tell? Have a go at the short questionnaire below for an idea of how you measure up. And if you want to know more, pick up a copy of Teaching by Amy C. Edmondson or Humble Leadership by Edgar Schein for the expert take on psychological safety.
7 questions to help gauge the level of psychological safety in your team:
- Do you struggle to have tough conversations?
- Do you feel judged and team members disrespect each other?
- Do you fear asking for or delivering constructive feedback?
- Are you or others hesitant about expressing divergent ideas or asking “silly” questions?
- Do you feel you cannot make mistakes or take risks?
- Are team discussions dominated by a few strong voices that marginalise other people’s perspectives?
- Are your team members competitive with each other?