The Secret to Google’s High Performing Teams

What’s the secret to creating a high performing team?

Over the last few years, Google has spent millions of dollars researching the performance of different teams to try and find why some teams were consistently more effective than others. In a recent article in the New York Times, Charles Durhigg shared the results of Google’s efforts to find the “secret sauce” for their high performing teams.

In essence, what they found was that the high performing teams were able to create group “psychological safety” – a group culture that Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmundson defines as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Psychological safety is a “sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It describes a climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”

Google found that while other behaviours were important for high performing teams, including having clear goals and creating a culture of dependability, psychological safety was the critical differentiator between consistently successful teams and others.

So as a leader, how do you create psychological safety?

Establishing psychological safety doesn’t happen overnight – it takes time. As my colleague Craig Runde, Director of the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College observes, “you can’t legislate trust”.

As a leader you can however take steps to facilitate psychological safety. Here some suggestions that Craig and I came up with when bouncing this question around:

  1. Be Courageous – share your own thoughts and feelings openly and honestly – the essence of trust is being willing to be vulnerable. Courage is also demonstrated by having difficult conversations – modelling a preparedness to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.
  2. Ensure everyone has a voice – Encourage feedback and make sure everyone is given equal airtime to share their views; when necessary encourage quiet team members to speak up and gently pull back the louder members of your team. This will also probably mean you end up talking less and listening more.
  3. Welcome criticism – accept criticism and seek out different points of view. Don’t take things personally but rather treat different perspectives as an opportunity to explore ideas and make better decisions.
  4. Protect team confidentiality – spell out that you are not going to allow people to use what’s said in confidence in team meetings against one another in other contexts (and hold people to account if they breach the rule).
  5. Insist on common courtesy – encourage discussion and debate, but don’t be afraid to remind people of the need for common courtesy when things start getting out of hand.
  6. Build a sense of “Teamness”– Do things in a way that helps members of the team feel like everybody is putting the organisation’s interest ahead of personal interests. Share information broadly and ensure you don’t create little cliques. Involve everyone in relevant decision making and share rewards as a team rather than just rewarding star performers.
  7. Promote and Support the Team – take every opportunity to promote the virtues of your team and team members. This is not suggesting you do this no matter what, but when appropriate. An important part of psychological safety is for the Team to feel that their leader is actively supporting and promoting them within the organisation.
  8. Invest in developing Team communication and conflict management skills – take steps to develop the skills and confidence of team members to have honest conversations and manage their emotions. Sometimes good intent isn’t enough. Many highly intelligent people are often uncomfortable talking about their emotions and expressing different points of view in public. Understanding this and helping the team develop these skills is an important part of creating psychological safety.

When people feel psychologically safe and believe that everyone has the team’s interest in mind they are willing to give others the benefit of the doubt when something is said that is confusing. Instead of immediately assuming bad intent and reacting, they will have the hard conversation, resolve the issue and continue to focus on delivering great results.

Have a great week.

Mark Rosenberg