For decades, companies have been spending time and money on “employee performance optimization” efforts. The emphasis has been on identifying the unique traits of high-producing employees and replicating them in others. But a recent New York Times articleby Charles Duhigg,“ What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” shed light on the emerging trend toward optimizing performance in teams rather than individuals.
Over the last couple of decades, employees have been increasingly expected to collaborate. One study demonstrated that only 25% of the typical employee’s workday is spent working alone. Numerous studies show that individuals embedded in teams deliver better results and feel more satisfied on the job. As a result, in Silicon Valley, engineers are encouraged to work together because groups innovate better, catch mistakes faster, and solve problems better. And a 2015 study reported increased profitability from employee collaboration.
You’re probably nodding your head. No surprise there, right?
Observing this trend toward collaboration in teams, Google set out to explore why some of their teams excelled and others failed. Project Aristotle was a 3-year study of data, interviews, and extensive research. But Google’s research team struggled at first to find clear, predictable patterns as to the personalities or qualities team members needed to possess to form productive, highly collaborative groups. Until, that is, they came upon the work of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T., and Union College who were researching a formula for consistently putting together a high-producing team.
Their findings were surprisingly predictable. They found that the most productive teams share two things in common: 1) every member has a chance to be heard, and 2) the team displays a higher-than-average ‘social sensitivity’ to the well-being of other team members. In other words, the most productive teams build and maintain social-emotional safety - they are ‘psychologically safe.’ A psychologically safe team with an environment of mutual trust and respect will operate non-defensively, enabling better thinking and more productive behavior.
Google realized their research supported these findings. Duhigg reports, “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.”
In his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen M. R. Covey asserts that the ability to develop trust is an imperative leadership skill in today’s economy. “Leaders are rediscovering trust as they see it with new eyes. Looking beyond the common view of trust as a soft, social virtue, they're learning to see it as a critical, highly relevant, performance multiplier.”
Leadership behavior that inspires social-emotional safety (i.e., trust) can be learned.
In our work with Fortune 500 companies over the last couple of decades, we’ve learned that any leader can be taught to establish group behavioral norms. And any team can learn behaviors that create psychological safety and increase productivity. That’s why Teamalytics consultants model leader transparency and vulnerability as a means of speeding up the safety process in team formation. It’s also one of the the reasons Flippen Group’s consultants are remarkably quick at establishing trust in our trainings - even with a room full of people they just met.
If you’d like to learn how your leaders and teams can achieve unprecedented levels of productivity by creating social-emotional safety, we’d love to help.