The Elusive Effective Team

Posted by jlubans on April 12, 2016


“What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” was a recently featured article in The New York Times.
The story tracks two people, a man and a woman, in their teamwork experiences, and both come to find by story’s end some satisfying answers – at least ones that work for them - about why some teams are better than others. Along with the two personal stories, the article offers up insights about Google’s exhaustive corporate quest for the “perfect team”.
While there is much team research already in place – much of it dating back over 50 years – Google’s brash, young re-inventors come up with some unique interpretations and applications. Being Google, the study is largely data driven, but it is not until the human element is taken into account that the findings begin to take a recognizable shape.
The Times story once again describes the teamwork lab studies at MIT and
Carnegie Mellon and offers a revised conclusion: “… what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right (behavior) norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.”
The studies showed, at least in a laboratory setting, that “social intelligence” or “emotional intelligence” (EQ) or even “collective intelligence” mattered more than IQ in how together a group was and how well it performed.
Googlers have coalesced around an extension of this research, the notion of psychological safety (shades of 1940s Abraham Maslow!) Psychological safety (PS) enables and encourages you to tell your group what is most on your mind, what is “eating your lunch”, and what is keeping you up at night. And, you can do so without recrimination or gossip mongering. One of the article’s two protagonists says: “(Googlers) 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.”
This ramped up intimacy among team members, the Times tells us, was prompted by a project leader’s revealing he had cancer. He did so at an off-site to address data-diagnosed problems in his team. His personal admission seemed to improve the trust level and the amount of sharing among the team members. Indeed, if there were “competent jerks” on that team, they became more humane and more able to work with the “star performers.” As they learned more about each other, the better able they were to work together.
So, Googlers conclude, when PS is established, team members can develop higher levels of trust and frankness than those that do not have psychological safety. While redolent of campus “trigger warnings”, “micro-aggressions” and “safe zones” - by and in which no offending opinions or viewpoints are tolerated - there is every reason to believe that when teammates trust each other, they work better together (they may even like each other) than when they do not trust each other.
But, surely there is a limit to this share-a-personal-story-around-the-meeting-table notion. I recall a friend who, when called upon at a university’s mandatory diversity training to share stories of one’s “former” prejudices, had a prepared story. With a straight face, he’d talk about his immoderate disdain of a certain type of pick-up truck – a Chevy 1956 Model 3100. This admission got him through the go-around and probably gained him a few points from the trainers, since pick up trucks are often associated with red necks. Like my truck hatin’ friend, when we run out of major personal issues, we may have to be ready to tell of minor events in our lives, say of how the barista got our latte order all wrong.
Levity aside, I do see value in sharing aspects of one’s life that we may suppress because of an artificial separation between work and personal life.
Establishing a PS climate brings to mind Tuckman’s group development research from decades ago, and, in particular his anxiety-inducing “storming” phase. Of the four or five stages in a group’s development, storming is often avoided, tacitly skipped over. Well, storming is where trust is established, boundaries are set, the team’s purpose is clarified, and grudges and agendas are buried. Most group failures, I would venture, can be traced back to giving the “storming” phase too wide a berth. Doing so usually results in a “pseudo-team” – barely adequate enough and far below its potential. When honest and vigorous storming occurs, new norms, relationships and expectations help everyone get on board and become effective.
The Times write up, while fully embracing the MIT/CM research, fails to mention “Factor C” (collective intelligence) which includes three elements: participant emotional or social IQ; the number of engaged participants; and, interestingly, the number of women on the team. The latter finding is not mentioned, as far as I can tell, in the Times write up; a remarkable omission given that IT is a field which has had more than its share of charges of sexist behavior directed by males vs. females.
The finding about PS recalls a teaching experience. The class was already a “good” class – about ten students. They did their work, they came prepared, and they were fairly even in their ability to grasp the course ideas and content. But, one thing I did early in the class was to become, at least to me, a difference maker. Due to it, the entire class achieved high levels of performance. What I did was to explain my absence during the previous week. I told them I was away to get my father’s ashes and to transport them from New Hampshire to North Carolina, for internment. I mentioned some of the complications of flying on a commercial airliner with a crematory urn. My giving them this personal glimpse into my life may have ratcheted up the level of PS in this class and led to a higher level of performance. Something did.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

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