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3 Team Building Lessons from Google

While the importance of teamwork has been recognized in business for 100 years, technology has deconstructed boundaries of work and made the skill of teamwork more important and more complicated to operationalize in the modern workplace. Given this reality, many companies are focusing on improving the way teams work together to get the benefits of more innovation, better problem solving, and faster results through high functioning, competent teams. However, these benefits only come to fruition when the team is working collaboratively and firing on all cylinders.

Google recognized the many benefits of high-performance teamwork in a software engineering environment and committed to building the perfect team. In 2012 they launched Project Aristotle, an initiative to analyze teams and identify which factors contributed to success (and which ones did not).

While it’s true that few companies can match Google’s resources, you will see from their findings that many of the essential elements are not resource dependent at all.

One of Project Aristotle’s key findings was that it doesn’t matter who is on the team, but what the accepted behaviors within the group are. So what are those behaviors and group norms that help make a great team?


1. Allow Equal Talk Time

Teams in which every member speaks in roughly the same proportion tend to be more successful. Interestingly, the distribution doesn’t necessarily have to be even all the time, but as long as all members of the group have an equal opportunity to speak, the team will work better together. To ensure each team member receives an equal opportunity to provide input, implement one of these methods at your next meeting:

  1. Every team member speaks for about the same amount of time on each topic
  2. Team members speak up more when they have more expertise on the topic, but the total amount of speaking time is roughly the same

Researchers found that either way was likely to succeed, but teams in which some members spoke little or not at all suffered from a lower collective intelligence.

The team building takeaway: Make sure all members of a team have an equal opportunity to share their thoughts.

2. Empathy is Important

The ability to recognize how other team members feel contributes to a more successful group. An important empathic trait on a team is noticing when others are not participating and giving them an opportunity to share their thoughts. Of course, some individuals are naturally more intuitive than others, but team building training can teach empathy skills like active listening, sharing your own vulnerability, and considering how others might feel.

The team building takeaway: Highlight the importance of recognizing how other people in the group feel to encourage a more collaborative environment.


3. Create a Safe Space

The researchers at Google discovered that encouraging equal talk time and exhibiting empathy are two critical factors for creating a safe space in which every team member believes they can voice an opinion without risking judgment or rejection. Groups in which the leaders set a calm, respectful tone are more likely to succeed than those in which the leaders have little emotional control.

The team building takeaway: Create a team culture of mutual respect and interpersonal trust to allow all team members to feel that they can safely contribute to the conversation.

Google spent the resources to crunch the numbers and found that the best teams were those that created safe spaces that allowed every individual to speak for an equal amount of time. The most successful teams also displayed more empathy, recognized when other members weren’t contributing, and made an effort to include them. You can apply this knowledge to your own company, no matter how small or large, to develop strong teams. Remember, it’s not the individual personalities but the culture you create that will inform how well a team will perform.


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