There’s nothing that beats the feeling of being part of an exceptional team and yet it is strangely difficult to define exactly what makes one team great and another team not-so-great. Google recently set out to learn how to build the perfect team and came up with some interesting, albeit previously discovered, answers.

To summarize their findings, Google’s Project Aristotle concluded that on good teams:

  1. All team members spoke roughly the same amount, and
  2. Team members were empathetic towards each other

Harvard Business School’s professor Amy Edmondson described this as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up”. This may seem obvious until you find yourself on a team that crucifies anyone for speaking their mind. I have experienced those teams first hand, and believe me, they’re no fun. Conversations become antagonistic and argumentative and the team dynamic rapidly degrades.

… on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount.

… the good teams all had high “average social sensitivity” - a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.

Ok, great, but how can you use this to fix a broken team? The Google article describes how one manager, Matt Sakaguchi, approached the issue. He held an offsite meeting and opened up his personal issues to the team - by telling them that he has Stage 4 cancer. By making himself vulnerable and dismantling the work/life division he was able to reach the members of his team and get them to see each other as people, rather than just workers.

Trust, respect and empathy are the foundational attributes of a strong team, where people are comfortable being themselves.

There’s also a series of questions known as the Westrum items (1, 2) which can be used to measure the culture of a team (or organisation) by simply answering a few questions on a scale of 1-7.

The Westrum items are:

  • On my team, information is actively sought.
  • On my team, failures are learning opportunities, and messengers of them are not punished.
  • On my team, responsibilities are shared.
  • On my team, cross-functional collaboration is encouraged and rewarded.
  • On my team, failure causes enquiry.
  • On my team, new ideas are welcomed.