In “Group Study,” a fascinating article in the February 28th Worklife issue of the New York Times Magazine, Charles Duhigg reports on Google’s efforts to understand and nurture the perfect work team. The company’s executives accepted without question seemingly logical truisms such as the idea that the best teams are made up of the most talented people. However, the persistent and inconvenient reality is that in a place like Google, where most if not all teams can draw from significant talent, some soar while others flounder.
In 2012, Google set out to discover why. The company gathered the best statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists, engineers, and researchers and launched Project Aristotle to understand what accounts for great teams. At first, the researchers were baffled. No matter how they parsed the data, they could not correlate specific personality types, skill sets, or backgrounds with a team’s success. In fact, the data revealed that two teams with almost identical makeups could have radically different results.
Since in the digital era, the majority of modern work is team-based, this is important to nail down. As commerce becomes increasingly global and complex, collaboration is on the rise. One study, published in The Harvard Business Review in January 2016, found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’’ over the last two decades. In fact, at many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is now spent communicating with colleagues  .
Turns out, this is a good thing. Studies show that “groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly, and find better solutions to problems  .” In addition, people working on teams tend to achieve better results and are happier on the job . Finally, a 2015 study found that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more . Therefore, if a company wants to succeed, it must find ways to improve not just individual productivity, but that of the team as a whole.
As they kept digging, Google’s researchers found that group norms—that is, the standards and unwritten rules that we live by when together—surfaced again and again. These norms are not an established code—different teams can have diametrically different norms. One team may avoid disagreement while another encourages healthy argumentation. Whatever they happen to be, however, a group’s norms tended to encourage deference to the team, overriding individual traits and tendencies.
A 2008 Carnegie-Mellon/MIT study found that teams that did well on one assignment usually did well on all of them, while those that failed at one thing tended to fail at everything. They deduced that a team can have a collective I.Q. unrelated to the individual smarts of the team—where the sum could be measurably greater than its parts. They concluded that what separated “good” teams from poor ones came down to how people treated one another. The right norms, therefore, raised a group’s collective I.Q., while the wrong ones lowered it, regardless of the talent quotient of a team’s members.
The task then was to identify the right norms. When it came to Google, good teams differed in terms of many of their team norms. Then, the researchers hit the jackpot. They discovered that there were two norms that all of the good teams shared. First, on the good teams, all members spoke in roughly the same proportion. According to one researcher, "As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well. But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.”
Second, good teams all had a high level of what the researchers called “social sensitivity.” This means they were skillful at intuiting how others felt based on tone of voice, facial expression, body language, eye contact, and other non-verbal cues. Both of these traits promote what psychological safety—a state where people are comfortable simply being themselves. Teams with these two norms in place were characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect. They were a safe place to take risks. Relaxed and energized, they brought out the best in people. Turns out, psychological safety is more important than anything else.
In some ways, this is unsurprising. Communication, empathy, and trust have been the keys to effective human interaction since time immemorial. The question now is, how can we promote this kind of connection in the workplace? How do we make sure people feel they can be themselves at work, even though that self is sometimes messy or sad, rather than focusing solely on efficiency? As humans, we want to know that “people really hear us, that work is more than just labor.” Not shying away from emotional connections makes work fulfilling.
Rather than aiming for perfection, getting the best out of people revolves around making them feel safe psychologically. How do you build this kind of trust and collaboration? How do you take a team from good to great? One thing’s sure: email and phone calls won’t cut it. As the Times article noted, facial expression, body language, and eye contact are all-important signals that allow humans to understand and communicate on a deeper level. They’re essential to building connection and forging great teams.
Flying employees around the world is unrealistic. Even if it were not insanely time-consuming and expensive, teaming and collaboration are no longer a some-time activity. It’s now the way work gets done on a daily basis.
We can’t coach you on how to develop stellar listening skills or dramatic empathy in your employees. What we can do, however, is provide you with the tools you need to support these endeavors. Video communications connects your teams so they can be greater than the sum of their parts. By giving them an easy, casual way to sync up visually—a safe space to collaborate and be themselves—you raise the team’s collective IQ, and your company’s bottom line.
Try an instant meeting free on BlueJeans. In one click you can explore video communications and invite a colleague to join your live meeting.
 Group Study, by Charles Duhigg, The New York Times Magazine, February 28, 2016.