Google’s Lesson on Making Your Team Excel

Dan Richards

All successful advisors reach a point where the only way to achieve continued growth is by leveraging the efforts of the team around them. That’s why, over the last year, I have featured a series of articles featuring advice from advisors who’ve built strong teams. And that’s why advisors need to pay attention to new research on creating psychological safety as the key factor that sets top-performing teams apart, something that Google has built into its team management.

“The harder I was working, the more I was falling behind”

Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times who recently published Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. In a talk to students at the MBA program at the University of Toronto, where I’ve taught for many years, he discussed the background to the book:

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Like many of us, I struggle with the sheer volume of emails and the number of things on my to- do list each day. And while I’ve found that the harder I was working the more I felt like I was falling behind, I did encounter people who are one or two standard deviations more productive than the norm.

For example, Dr. Atul Gawande is a professor at Harvard Medical School, author of three best selling books, consultant to the World Health Organization and co-founder of a nonprofit that sends surgical supplies to developing countries. When I emailed him about setting up a call, it turns out that he was not available that week because he was attending a rock concert with his children and then going on a mini-vacation with his wife. To which I said to myself: How can he possibly find the time to do that?

Duhigg discussed how encounters like the one with Gawande led him to study individuals and organizations that have found secrets for maximizing their productivity. His research identified eight traits that drive individuals and organizations to excel. Key among those is creating teams that share a culture of open communication and psychological safety.

From hospitals to Saturday Night Live

In the chapter on creating strong teams, Duhigg discussed work by the People Analytics Group at Google to identify the things that created effective teams. Initially, they looked at team composition, but found nothing about the backgrounds of team members that correlated with effectiveness. At that point, they shifted their focus to the norms that define how groups operate. There is overwhelming research that a team’s norms define how it operates. The question for Google was which of the dozens of norms that their teams had adopted correlated with success.

The People Analytics Group came across research by Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson on how good teamwork in hospitals led to better patient outcomes. In conducting her work, Edmondson came across a puzzling finding: The teams that reported the highest level of team cohesion made more mistakes than those that scored lower on teamwork. In digging deeper, the answer became clear. It’s not that strong teams made more errors, but rather that members of strong teams felt more comfortable admitting that they’d made mistakes. Here’s what Duhigg wrote about Edmonson’s key insight:

It wasn’t the strength of the team that determined how many errors were reported – rather, it was one specific norm … Edmonson found a handful of good norms that seemed to be consistently associated with higher productivity. On the best teams, for instance, leaders encouraged people to speak up; teammates felt that could expose their vulnerabilities to one another; people said they could suggest ideas without fear of retribution; the culture discouraged people from making harsh judgments. As Edmonson’s list of good norms grew, she began to notice that everything shared a common attribute: They were all behaviors that created a sense of togetherness while also encouraging people to take a chance.

“We call it psychological safety,” she said. Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the group is a safe place to take risks. It is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,” Edmonson wrote in a 1999 paper.

In his book, Duhigg used the writing staff at Saturday Night Live as an example of how a group of highly talented but high-strung, competitive, Type-A personalities could meld together into a strong team. The key to making this happen was the strong leadership by SNL’s creator Lorne Michaels.