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Building 'Psychological Safety' within teams. Is Google's quest for the perfect team re

An interesting article on Google’s quest to define great teamwork, from Charles Duhigg of the New York Times, has really got me thinking.

What might the term “psychological safety”, and Google’s quest for the perfect team actually mean for other organisations and teams?

As an often-quoted Harvard Business Review study on teamwork quite rightly points out, “time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more over the last decade”.

Astute leaders and managers likely also realize that 75 percent or more of people’s time is spent engaging and communicating with their teammates.

Myriad studies confirm what most know by gut feel, and that is that good teams repeatedly demonstrate a higher ability to innovate and find solutions better and faster that solo workers or working groups.

Effective teams are now established as a fundamental and mission critical ingredient for success in any organization.

So if this is the case, why are people still struggling to come to grips with the fundamentals of what makes a good team tick? Why is Google still spending millions of dollars to find the “Holy Grail” of teamwork?

Perhaps like the Grail of Arthurian mythology, it has always been attainable and in plain sight for those with the drive, wisdom and authenticity to seek it?

Google’s ‘Project Aristotle” was a massive research project designed to generate data, find patterns and possible lessons for creating the best teams.

A quote from a Google researcher Abeer Dubey is revealing of the problems encountered when one tries to reduce the subtleties of human interactions to any simple pattern or graph.

“We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.”

We would agree here that personality, background and functional skills are merely some of many contributing factors towards what actually drives and defines teams, and that is “behaviour”.

Understanding the impact of individual and collective behavior in teams (as opposed to just ‘personality’ or “job titles”) is the key to building better teams.

Some of the major points emerging from Google’s research with regards to what was present to define more effective teams were:

1. Shared airtime / contributions

Psychologists often use the term “conversational turn taking” to describe shared airtime in team discussions and shared input. Studies from Google found that in teams where there was some fluidity of input from all team members and shifting leadership roles then “collective team intelligence” was enhanced.

Where this did not occur and discussions / team problem solving were monopolized by one or only a few, then collective team intelligence was lowered (and team effectiveness with it).

2. Empathy and social sensitivity matter

Group norms that are oriented towards not just equal contributions from others, but also for genuine empathy being shown (and valued), also tended to increase “team intelligence”.

Good social sensitivity and the ability to read and understand the behavioural signals of how others are feeling, reacting and contributing matters a great deal.

3. Building “psychological safety” within teams is important

If people feel that a team presents them with a trusting and open environment to be themselves, share ideas and take risks then there is “psychological safety”.

Psychological safety is critical for teams to be truly effective.

So these points are truly useful gems of insight, but arguably nothing that’s really new.

A better understanding of the contributions of others, affording people with different operating styles equal importance and generating interpersonal empathy have always mattered.

It’s just that some serious minded and pragmatic leaders and teams may struggle to see the true value of insights into their own behaviours and those of others in business. Isn’t that just “soft and fluffy” stuff?

Having a genuine dialogue within the team about how each person prefers to operate and work, and what behavioural clusters actually exist within the team is of great pragmatic use to leaders and team members alike.

For decades we have used the Belbin Team Role Model with corporate, government, defence and even global NGO’s like the United Nations to do exactly this.

It is critical to feel that you can be yourself at work, just a better understood version of yourself (within the context of your work team, or indeed teams).

Authenticity in behavior at work also matters, and it helps people to feel psychologically safe and engaged. Why should people feel they need to be a substantially different person at work than at home or at their weekend sporting club? Masking behaviour can really de-skill you in fact.

Belbin’s 9 Team Role types clearly define how people contribute to teams, and that the mix of preferences that we each have is created by a lifetime’s worth of personal and work experience. It can also change subtly as dictated by changes to the context of our team, functional roles and new external challenges.

A Belbin profile enables us to measure this accurately and offer practical advice for how teams can better understand the contributions made by one another.

Genuine psychological safety can thus be created with an enhanced respect and tolerance for the operating styles of others.

Belbin also provides a common language to explore who is best suited to make certain contributions, each potentially quite different but of equal importance. It also helps to engender better understanding and empathy for shared interactions when clashes occur due to differences of operating style, or indeed from too much similarity in operating styles.

A quote I love from Dr Meredith Belbin himself is, “what is needed is not well balanced individuals, but individuals who balance well with one another”.

So what of Google’s millions spent on this research?

On the one hand there’s nothing really new here in my humble opinion, but on the other, it’s always nice to be reminded of just how critical certain aspects of good leadership and teamwork can be.

The fact that one of the biggest brands on the planet ‘Google’ has undertaken this quest has just given some new gravitas to what are already good and simple insights.

Google’s search for the Holy Grail of teamwork has perhaps just reminded me that for those who have known where to look, the Grail has always been within reach.

Creating psychological safety, a value for shared contributions and empathy within teams will always matter.

Having an open and common language to explore these factors within teams is a potent enabler to turn ideas about how to build better teams into real actions.

A quote from Harvard PHD researcher Julia Rozovsky, (who was involved with the Google project and quoted in the New York Times), is quite apt I think.

“Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common platform and operating language”.

To see more on how we tailor our approaches to achieve great outcomes for building better teams visit and

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