What Google can teach the rest of us about team building

Technical excellence isn't enough—teams must be 'psychologically safe'

The key to creating high-performance teams is to create a cultural of psychological safety, two Google researchers write in NEJM Catalyst.

To learn what makes effective teams tick, Google conducted more than 200 interviews with its employees over two years and identified more than 250 attributes that can drive team performance. In NEJM Catalyst, Jessica Wisdom, a people analytics manager at Google, and Henry Wei, a benefits medical director, condensed those findings and shared how Google's best practices can be transferred to other institutions.

A key takeaway, Wisdom and Wei write, is that good teams are defined more by how they work together than by who is on the team. In successful teams: 

  • There is a climate of psychological safety: Team members feel that they can take risks without feeling insecure and embarrassed.
  • Team members are dependable: Members of the team can be counted on to perform their job tasks effectively and can rely on one another for help.
  • The team is well-structured: The team has well-defined roles and responsibilities—and people are held accountable.
  • Team members find meaning in their work: Team members feel they are working toward a goal that is both professionally and personally fulfilling.
  • The team is making an impact: Team members feels that their work "matters" and is helping achieve a "higher-order" goal. 

The most important of these dynamics is creating a climate of psychological safety. "In fact, it's the underpinning of the other four," Wisdom and Wei write.

For instance, Google found that sales teams that feel a high degree of psychological safety exceed their targets by 17 percent, on average. In contrast, sales teams that have low psychological safety fall short of their goals by an average of 19 percent. The takeaway, according to Wisdom and Wei, is that psychological safety boosts effectiveness because it creates a "learning culture."

Google has launched several efforts to improve psychological safety on its team, such as providing a quick survey to help teams understand their internal dynamics. The tool, called gTeams, generates discussion among teams, as well as suggestions and resources to improve performance (Wisdom/Wei, NEJM Catalyst, 10/19). 

To build a high-performance team, embrace diverse work styles

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