The Surprising Key to Google’s Best Teams

Google Teams 1

In 2012 Google began a quest to understand how to build the perfect team.

It was in recognition that teams need to collaborate more than ever before. One recent study in Harvard Business Review , revealed that the time spent by managers and their teams in collaborative practices has grown by 50%.

Google started their research by tracking 180 teams around the world, and monitored over 250 different factors. So what did this research – known as Project Aristotle – reveal?

At first they evaluated a number of hypotheses. Was it the teams with the highest collective IQ? Was it those with the most “high potential” members? Or those with the most diversity?

They were confident that they could identify individual traits and skills necessary to make the perfect team.

They were very wrong.

What they learnt was that there were 5 key dynamics – or norms – that set high performing teams apart.

 The 5 factors were:

  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 and 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 are doing matters?


Whilst all 5 factors were shown to be important, by FAR the most important one was psychological safety.

Amy Edmondson, a Professor at Harvard Business School first coined the phrase “psychological safety”, and spoke about it for developing teams that take risks and learn rapidly in a TEDx talk.

Edmondson and Google found that if a team could build psychological safety – the remaining 4 critical success qualities were much easier to attain.

So what are the qualities of a psychologically safe team? Google researchers found the following norms applied:

  • Each person on the team speaks approximately equally
  • Team members have good intuition for sensing how others were feeling based on their tone of voice and body language.
  • Members were confident they won’t be judged if they make suggestions.
  • Members felt they could take risks because other team members cared about them.

So how can we encourage greater psychological safety?

Research by Google has found that the following weekly team meeting rituals improves this quality. Each person:

  • Shares a risk they have taken in the last week.
  • Contributes approximately equally to the group conversation
  • Is encouraged to share and welcome new ideas

Some may say that we are too busy to have these touchy feely discussions, and that we should just get on with the job at hand.

This may have been a valid argument when we had repetitive projects where nothing changed from start to finish – and everything was known in advance.

This is rarely the case now, and the capacity to communicate and collaborate well has become a critical success factor.

So in summary – extensive research conducted by Google found that 5 team qualities were paramount for project success, but by far the most important was psychological safety.

Psychological safety is when each team member contributes equally to conversations, feels safe to take risks and be vulnerable, and welcomes ideas.


This GREEN ZONE boost tip relates to ritual 6 – ASK R U OK? – from the 7 Rituals of Resilient Leaders.

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Your organisation may be interested in experiencing the 7 Rituals of the Resilient Leader Workshop –  Sign up for our free poster and course to learn how to create rituals that improve your resilience, mood, and performance.

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