(Un)surprising Findings from Google’s Quest to Build the Perfect Team

By Sam Robinson

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” breathlessly told us about ‘new research’ that revealed surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter… and then told us what we knew already about the most highly effective teams.

That’s not a bad thing at all – in fact, it was deeply satisfying to read about yet more evidence that the strength of shared beliefs within teams is the key to that team working well together. This has actually been known for many years and documented extensively in Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organisations, but perhaps not in the same terms.

The article refers to ‘psychological safety,’ a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’.

We tell our clients that culture isn’t simply “what we do around here,” nor is it a complicated abstracted academic concept encouraging analysis only and not action.

When I discuss culture with clients, it’s about “culture” as a group of people who share beliefs about behaviour that (members of the culture believe) demonstrate positive and negative values. An example, as we see in the Google study, is a group of people who share a common belief that, in general, talking over the top of someone is rude and obnoxious. It doesn’t mean members of that group won’t do it occasionally. It does mean that, in general, people share a belief that this particular behaviour is unfair (or even, perhaps, unloving). They might also share a belief that calling someone out about it is “fair enough” (to use the Aussie vernacular). The more beliefs people have, the stronger the culture.

Consider the teams you’ve been a part of that work really well. Consider those that don’t work well.

For a team working well: is it not a team in which you are comfortable in being able to predict that others’ reactions to your behavour will be positive and predictable? Think about a team where you felt it was acceptable to provide feedback on your manager’s work – and that doing so was consistently met with positive reinforcement.

You will certainly recognise the anxiety and stultifying inertia that is the result of a team with very few coherent and common beliefs. Could an explanation that the teams that work well share common beliefs about behaviour actually be the most elemental, satisfying, and useful construct to understand team performance?

This is good news. The work for people in organisations becomes clearer if we accept that:

  • Through our own behaviour we can create beliefs in others
  • Those beliefs can be shared among people
  • If there are enough shared positive beliefs, we can create Google’s “perfect team” through a positive culture

It’s here that Google’s “perfect team” diagnosis ends and this is its major fault. Teams that work well together have high degrees of ‘psychological safety’. So what?

For people leading teams, the work is about understanding current beliefs, discovering what led to those beliefs, and ultimately creating new positive beliefs through, amongst other things, your behaviour.

Describing the perfect team in terms of beliefs about behaviour is one thing. Actually creating it is bloody hard and very rewarding work. Not everyone can or should be expected do it.

However, it must be done in order to create organisations in which people actually want to work. At one time or another, that will be almost all of us.

At LKS Quaero, we help leaders to create the right culture through systemic change and leadership development. If you’d like to know more, visit us at lksquaero.com or follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.