Ever wondered why some teams soar and others stumble? So did Google.
The tech giant charged a team of statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists, engineers, and researchers to find out. In 2012, the initiative—code name Project Aristotle— was born.
Project Aristotle’s researchers began by reviewing a half-century of academic studies and studying Google employees looking at what makes teams click. Were the best teams made up people with similar interests? Or did it matter more whether everyone was motivated by the same kinds of rewards? Based on those studies, the researchers scrutinized the composition of groups inside Google: How often did teammates socialize outside the office? Did they have the same hobbies and educational backgrounds? Was it better to have all introverts and extroverts together? They looked at how teams stuck together and if gender balance seemed to have an impact on a team’s success.
After years of intensive analysis, the magic formula that Google was searching for had less to do with who is in a team, and more with how a team’s members interact with one another. The best teams were mindful that all members contribute to conversation equally and had what researchers call “average social sensitivity”. A fancy way of saying they were skilled at being respectful of how others felt based on their emotions.
Within psychology, researchers sometimes refer to these traits as aspects of what’s known as “psychological safety”. A group culture that the Harvard Business Professor Amy Edmondson defines as “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Psychological safety is a “sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,” Edmonds wrote in a study published in 1999 which concluded that psychological safety boosted performance in teams. As Google explains to the New York Times:
Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you’re the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?
Project Aristotle researchers began sharing their findings with select groups of Google’s 51,000 employees. Matt Sakaguchi, a midlevel manager, was one of them. He was keen to put the findings into practice with his new team. He instructed his team to complete a Project Aristotle survey and took them off-site to discuss the results. He then decided to open up about his cancer diagnosis. Initially, his colleagues were silent, but then began sharing their own personal stories he told the Times. As a result the team found it easier to speak honestly about the things that had been bothering them, their small frictions and everyday annoyances.
At the heart of Sakaguchi’s strategy and Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs. But that doesn’t mean Google’s feels its insights aren’t valuable.
“Just having data that proves to people that these things are worth paying attention to sometimes is the most important step in getting them to actually pay attention,” Project Aristotle researcher Julia Rozovsky told the Times. “Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common platform and operating language.”