Project Aristotle and High Performing Teams

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Our conventional wisdom about teams are about to change radically because everything we previously knew, or thought we knew, about team work have all been quite incomplete.

What would you say makes a cohesive, effective and high performing team?

I’m sure most of us would start to think about the following:

    – Clearly defined goals
    – Strong, charismatic leader
    – Competent team members
    – Personality types
    – Skills
    – Educational background

But are these the be-all and end-all for a high performing team?

Project Aristotle

In 2012, Google embarked on an initiative – code-named Aristotle – to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some teams stumbled while others soared.

As we all know, Google loves data. And that is exactly what they did. They combed through half a century of academic studies on how teams worked. They also studied 180 different teams within Google and collected a huge amount of data. Amongst some of the data they collected include insights into the following questions:

    – Did team mates socialise outside of office hours?
    – Were the best teams made up of people with the same interests?
    – Did they have the same hobbies?
    – Were they of similar educational backgrounds?
    – Was it better for all teammates to be outgoing or for all of them to be shy?

They also wanted to know why teams stuck together and if gender balance had any influence on the success of a team.

But no matter how they arranged the data, they were not able to identify any useful patterns that would indicate why a team did really well.

However in their research, they kept coming across research by psychologists and sociologists that focused on “Group Norms”. Norms are the traditions, behavioural standards, and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather. One team may be comfortable with being more confrontational. While others may be comfortable with giving every team member equal airtime for them to voice their comments, concerns and feedback.

Group Norms

After studying over a 100 groups for over a year, Project Aristotle’s researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving Google’s teams.

Group norms include unwritten rules about how each team member should behave and how each team member disagreed with one another. Some groups may be comfortable with a more confrontational style while others may thrive on a more civilised and polite way of disagreeing with another team member.

This is sometimes known as Team Culture. It is the way each member on the team interacts with each other, and how each member treats other members on the team. At this juncture, I would like to point out that there is a difference between Organisational Culture and Team Culture.

Organisational Culture refers to the over-arching culture within the organisation at large. Team Culture refers to the team norms and culture within the team (or function or department).

Psychological Safety

As the researchers continued their studies, they noticed TWO behaviours that all good teams had in common.

    1. Equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking

    First, is the “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking”. This gobbledygook simply means whether each team member is given more or less equal airtime to talk and voice their opinions. They found that as long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well.

    2. High average social sensitivity

    Second, all good teams had high “average social sensitivity”. What this simply means is that team members were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other non-verbal cues. Research shows that the more successful teams seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out.

Psychologists sometimes call these two behaviours “psychological safety”. Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmondson, defines psychological safety as “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

In other words, it is a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. Such a climate is underscored by a strong sense of interpersonal trust and mutual respect, and this in turn, encourages everyone on the team to be themselves.

Were there other important behaviours or norms that would encourage good teamwork? The answer is yes. Things like setting clear goals and creating a culture of dependability were important.

However Google’s study indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

Workplace FEAR

Clearly, the primary reason for under-performance in teams everywhere is this thing called FEAR.

All you have to do is look around you in your office. Are people comfortable speaking up in-front of the boss? Do most people keep quiet during meetings when the big boss is present? Is the office generally very quiet all day, with very few people talking and interacting – because they are afraid of who might hear what they are saying? And when you conduct team meetings, and you invite feedback, suggestions and comments, do most of your team members say they have no comments and just keep quiet?

Well, these may be signs and symptoms that FEAR has a strangle-hold on your team.

And this directly contributes to sub-par team performance.


If you want your teams to reach their full potential, you need to foster a High Trust–Low Fear environment because people communicate and perform best when they feel safe and trusted around their leaders. Create a “psychologically safe” environment for everyone on the team.

It is only with a psychologically safe environment that you can foster the meeting of minds, incubate great ideas, and establish a crucible of performance excellence.

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April 5, 2016

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