Why Teams Are Successful

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The Aristotle Project examined the operation of 180 teams at Google and looked for reasons why some were successful while others were not. A huge amount of data has been gathered and complicated diagrams and formulas have emerged. However, it was almost impossible to find a link between a team's composition and its success – at first.

This article directly cites passages from the book Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Businessby Charles Duhigg.

There are an awful lot of studies that have examined the effectiveness of work teams and they give us various guidelines. Some describe how to build teams from people who have a similar level of extroversion and introversion, others think that the most important thing is to balance the ratio of personalities. Some surveys stress that members should have the same interests and hobbies, others call for diversity within the group. Sometimes the willingness to cooperate is highlighted, sometimes people say more successful teams are those in which individuals compete.

Researchers of the Aristotle Project have not found any determinant patterns in the data they have collected. However, they have found convincing proof that group norms, which define the working culture of individual teams and on which their success depends, play a major role.

Psychological safety

Five key norms for successful teams have been described:

  • The team must believe that their work is important.
  • The team must feel that their work has a personal meaning for each of them.
  • The team needs clear goals and well-defined roles.
  • Team members need to know they can rely on each other.
  • The team needs psychological safety.

In general, teams that do not condemn stupid ideas, are not afraid to say they made a mistake or compete with each other and create an atmosphere of psychological security, work better. In the best teams, people are encouraged to express their opinions; team members feel they can show their weaknesses to others and can suggest different things without worrying that it will not reflect negatively on them.

Collective Intelligence

In 2008, psychologists from the Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided to find out what teams are really excellent. They found 699 people and divided them into 152 teams. Each group was assigned a number of tasks requiring different types of cooperation, with the intensive involvement of all team members.

They observed diverse dynamics. It was interesting that the teams that did well in one task also did well in others, and vice versa. One could suppose that "good teams" were successful because their members were smarter and group intelligence was nothing more than the sum of the intelligentsia forming the team. Researchers, however, tested participants’ IQ in advance and found that individual intelligence was unrelated to team performance. 

Another assumption was that good teams had stronger leaders. However, research showed that this was not true either.

The researchers eventually concluded that the reason for success was not the innate disposition of members, but the way they behaved towards each other. In other words, the most successful teams had standards that helped everyone fit into the group. Good norms can increase the collective intelligence of average gifted individuals. And bad norms can hinder a group of exceptionally intelligent people.

The leader of the team must lead by example

Team members do not have to be friends to create psychological safety in the group. But they do have to be socially sensitive and make sure everyone’s voice is heard. "The best tactic to achieve psychological safety is to have a team leader who leads by example," said Amy Admondson, who is currently a Professor at Harvard.

Leaders should admit when they do not know something. They should not end the meeting until all members of the team get to a word at least once. They should encourage annoyed members to express their frustration loudly and encourage the team to respond in a fair manner. They should face conflicts within the group and address them through open discussion.

The key is above-average empathy

Imagine joining one of two teams. Team A has eight men and two women, all of whom are extremely intelligent and successful. When you look at the video that captures them at work, you see well-spoken professionals who do not interrupt anyone’s speech and are polite and courteous. At some point, a question is raised and one person (obviously an expert on the subject) speaks for a long time while others listen. No one interrupts him. When someone deviates from the subject, a colleague gently reminds them of what's on the agenda, and the conversation moves back in the right direction. The meeting ends exactly as it was planned.

Team B is different. There is the same number of men and women; some are successful senior managers while others are middle-line managers with only small-scale professional success. In the video, you can see how team members enter the discussion and leave it again. Some speak for a long time, others speak briefly. They interrupt other people’s speech so much that it's hard to follow the conversation. When one member of the team suddenly changes the topic or does not take the topic into account, others join him or her. At the end of the meeting there is no real ending: everyone is sitting and chatting.

Which group would you prefer to join?

Before you decide, imagine you've got one more piece of information. After the teams first met, all members completed the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes" test. They were presented with 36 photographs of human eyes and chose one word out of four that best describes what the person feels.

They told you the test measures empathy. Team A members picked the right answer with 49% success rate, team B members with 58%. Has this knowledge changed your mind?

People from good teams achieve above-average results in the emotional reading test. If you can choose between serious, professional team A and spontaneous, more informal team B, you should decide on B. Team A is bright and full of efficient colleagues. As individuals, they will all be successful. But the team will still be inclined to act for themselves. It is hard to assume that they will be collectively intelligent as a group. 

Team B is more chaotic. People talk to one another, turn away from the topic, and just speak their minds, instead of focusing on the agenda. But everyone talks as much as they need. They feel that they are heard the same way as others, and they are tuned into their body language and mimic it. They try to guess how others will react. Team B may not be the number one, but when this group comes together, it's more than just the sum of its parts.