How Google used data to build the perfect team

Emily Rappleye (Twitter) - Print  | 

When a team is right, you can feel it. The team's members are energized and they bring out the best in each other. Unfortunately, when group is wrong you can feel it too. Teams that aren't clicking can be exhausting, make individuals feel uncomfortable or put up a guard.

Five years ago, Google, a company that has led the impetus for data-driven answers, productivity and efficiency, decided to channel that data into finding out what makes teams click. The work of its People Operations department and code-named Project Aristotle, which was profiled in a recent New York Times Magazine report, yielded some interesting, though perhaps intuitive results.

According to the profile, Google tried without success to find what combination of personalities made for the perfect team. What they found after crunching the data was surprising — the composition of the team did not matter. Gender makeup, educational background, introversion or extroversion, motivation, socializing outside of work, strong managers, no hierarchy — it didn't seem to matter, according to the report.

"At Google, we're good at finding patterns," Abeer Dubey, who leads the People Analytics division, told New York Times Magazine. "There weren't strong patterns here."

It was only when they started studying group norms that they found the answer. The No. 1 determinant of a good team was what is called "psychological safety," or a general sense that a team provides a safe environment to speak up and take risks, according to the report. They found what really mattered in creating this sense of psychological safety was how teammates treated one another, giving every team member equal time to speak and having a high sense of social sensitivity or empathy.

They found creating an open and safe environment at work really mattered because work is a significant part of each person's life, like it or not.

"I think, until the off-site, I had separated things in my head into work life and life life," Google engineer Sean Laurent told The New York Times Magazine. "But the thing is, my work is my life. I spend the majority of my time working. Most of my friends I know through work. If I can't be open and honest at work, then I'm not really living, am I?"


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