How to Build the Perfect Team: The Importance of Psychological Safety
October 12, 2016
At the National Sales Conference last week, Will Greenwood spoke about the England Rugby World Cup winning team of 2003. As you may already know, England’s team at the 2003 Rugby World Cup was one of the best sporting teams that the country has ever produced. Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Jonny Wilkinson – it was full of big names and great players, but the team had a chemistry which went far beyond even the very best of them.
A team is always more than the sum of its parts. The question for anyone involved in leading or managing teams is: what makes the difference between a good team and a great team, or what is the secret of great teamwork?
Will Greenwood’s Opinion
So, at the National Sales Conference last week, which also included speakers on topics such as the new ‘hybrid’ salesperson, and the importance of sales to the British economy, attendees were lucky enough to hear former England centre-half Will Greenwood explain why he thought that the England team had been so successful.
Much of it he of course attributed to the genius of Clive Woodward. Although Sir Clive “was not a great rugby coach” (Will Greenwood’s words!), he did know how to build an effective and successful team. And over a number of years, he was able to implement a series of changes which helped to shape the world-beating rugby squad of 2003.
These changes included a philosophy of marginal gains (including peripheral vision training and fetching new shirts at half-time), as well as a buddy system in which each player was partnered with the direct rival(s) for his position.
But one of the more interesting points raised by Greenwood – and which will be the subject of this blog – was the atmosphere of open dialogue which Woodward helped to create. After every game, and certainly every tournament, each player would be given his turn to speak – and every player’s contribution had to be taken seriously.
In combination with the brilliant banter typically associated with the male locker room, Woodward’s squad developed a culture and purpose which involved everyone. The result was a powerful team spirit, and exceptional levels of performance.
How to Build the Perfect Team – Google’s Project Aristotle
Admittedly the world of competitive rugby, with all its gigantic, testosterone-filled supermen, may seem very far removed from the 21st century workplace. But Will Greenwood’s emphasis on the value of open dialogue and conversational turn-taking, on feeling free to ‘be yourself’, has been echoed very recently – and in a very different context – through the findings of a five-year long research project carried out by tech giant Google in its own quest to build the perfect team.
Codenamed ‘Project Aristotle’, Google’s researchers – who should know a thing or two about data analysis – concluded that the most important factor in successful teams is not the composition of the team, nor the traits of individual members, but the behavioural standards which govern how the group functions.
In other words, the people on a team are much less important than the way those people interact with each other.
Two Behaviours that Good Teams Share
In carefully studying data from across Google’s vast network of teams, Project Aristotle researchers noticed two behaviours in particular that all the good teams seemed to share:
The first was conversational turn-taking. In good teams, researchers found that members spoke in roughly the same proportion. When every member of the group got a chance to speak, the team did well; but when the dialogue was dominated by one person or by a small group of people, the team was less successful.
The second was ‘social sensitivity’, which is a way of describing the ability of group members to understand how others are feeling through tone of voice, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues. People on successful teams seemed to know when members were feeling upset or left out; conversely, on less successful teams, members showed less sensitivity towards their colleagues.
Conclusion: it’s About Psychological Safety
The findings of Project Aristotle fit very well into aspects of what is known by psychology researchers as ‘psychological safety’. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson puts it like this:
“Psychological safety describes individuals’ perceptions about the consequences of interpersonal risks in their work environment. It consists of taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself on the line, such as by asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea… In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake others will not penalize or think less of them for it.”
What, you ask, was the conclusion of Google’s Project Aristotle? That an atmosphere of psychological safety is the key ingredient of effective teamwork. That as long as its members treat each other in a certain way, a team will function effectively.
“The behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.
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.
In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.”
Check out this video of Charles Duhigg by Tech Insider for an extra learning point on ‘ostentatious listening’:
How to Improve the Performance of Your Team?
Understanding the dynamics of effective teamwork is more important than ever. Indeed, the time spent in collaborative activates by both managers and employees has ballooned by 50 per cent or more over the last twenty years.
The team is now the fundamental organising unit of the modern workplace. And whether you wish to take it from Will Greenwood, or from Google’s Project Aristotle researchers, embedding behavioural norms such as conversational turn-taking and average social sensitivity may help to make your team more successful.