Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

What Google discovered will change the way you think about teams forever

This one piece of research by the people scientists at Google has inspired us to think about leadership and collaboration in remote, virtual and matrix teams in a new way. This blog is a result of a lively conversation between Tony Poots (one of our senior consultants) and Debbie Marshall-Lee (our research director).

At Global Integration we talk about trust as an enabler of high performance in complex organizations. In our typically pragmatic style we also talk about finding the right balance between trust and control – the daily challenge of a good leader. This research raises a huge question for us.  What if we have been missing something? What if we have been unconsciously overlooking the pre-condition for trust to flourish?

In their continued search for what makes a Google team great, Google’s people analysists examined more than 250 attributes of over 180 Google engineering and sales teams from around the globe.  The attributes covered group dynamics, skill sets, personality traits and emotional intelligence. Being Google, they used over 35 different statistical models to uncover the factors that:

  1. Had a positive impact on multiple qualitative and quantitative business outcomes
  2. Were relevant for different kinds of teams across the organization
  3. Showed consistent statistical significance

Out of the 250 original attributes, one had by far the greatest consistent, statistically significant impact on outcome metrics: ‘team psychological safety’.

That is, “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”, as defined by Harvard Organizational behavioural scientist Amy Edmonson, who first developed the construct.

What Google discovered was that “individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”

Simon Sinek, leadership expert and author of the wonderful book Leaders Eat Last, agrees.  He defines the primary role of a leader as creating safety.

In our work we often talk about the things that make people feel inspired to work in a great team.  Should we now be talking about what is it that stops people from feeling they are part of a great team? What is it that stops people in virtual and matrix teams from feeling safe?

Think about it, what are the symptoms of not feeling safe: we don’t speak up, we multi-task on conference calls, we (often unconsciously) put in less effort. So as team leaders, what can we do to help make each of our team members feel safe?

In her fascinating TEDx talk, Dr Edmonson shares three ways to foster psychological safety in your team, starting now:

  • Frame the team’s work as a learning problem, not an execution problem (‘this is a complex challenge – we’ll need to bring all our brains and voices to the table to solve it’)
  • Acknowledge your own shortcomings (‘I may miss something, so please shout at any point’)
  • Model curiosity and ask lots of questions

At Global Integration we have plenty of other ideas of what we can all do to create what Sinek coins a “circle of safety”, but we’d love to start a discussion.  What do you think is important here?

If you would like to see more of our latest research led insights into virtual, matrix and digital teams please download our white paper here. Please note we only respond to corporate email addresses, not gmail or other generic ones.

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