Do you work as part of a management team? Or serve on a board? Or lead a business, department or project team? Most of us are involved with one or more work teams. Some teams work together better than others. Team results also vary. Why is that?

In November, Google published an article about the factors that most influence team effectiveness. Interestingly, their findings determined that team success was not dependent on the mixture or level of talent of the individual team members (even though Google has some highly talented individuals). Instead, what did matter is how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.

Here are the five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google, as well as additional detail from the article defining the most important factor:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics — it’s the underpinning of the other four. How could that be? Taking a risk around your team members seems simple. But remember the last time you were working on a project. Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you’re the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?

Turns out, we’re all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity. Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork. On the flip side, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles. And it affects pretty much every important dimension we look at for employees. Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, bring in more revenue, and are rated as effective twice as often by executives.

These findings by Google are fascinating, and provide insights we can use with our own work teams. For those of us who are leaders or managers, embracing these team dynamics may help us improve overall business performance as well.

Much is written about the importance of #2, individual dependability in work environments as well as #3, clarity of goals by leaders. More recently the importance of finding meaning (#4), and purpose (#5) in our work has been explored through research on employee engagement. According to the Google study, though, creating a culture of trust and psychological safety in the work environment may be the most important challenge we have as leaders.


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