What’s the “secret sauce” for a great team?

Ever wonder why some of the teams you’ve worked on have been highly enjoyable and productive, and others seem doomed to failure?

The Project Aristotle team at Google took this question very seriously as it embarked on a two-year quest to discover the common traits of the company’s best teams. And their findings were unexpectedly “squishy”– especially for a company that thrives on hard data and number crunching.

The “secret sauce” that differentiated great teams from mediocre ones had nothing to do with the diversity of the team or expertise of its members. Instead, the teams that out-performed were those where everyone felt psychologically safe.

Here’s how Charles Duhigg reported on their findings in his recent New York Times piece:

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.

His conclusion is worth repeating as well:

Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.

Good to remember the next time I’m leading a client team or volunteer committee. Making sure all participants have psychological safety — a chance to be themselves, to offer out-of-the-box ideas and solutions without fear of judgement — is vital to producing better results AND a happier experience.

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