The Heart of Successful Teamwork

July 7, 2017

"Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success."
—Henry Ford

What makes a perfect working team? In 2012, Google embarked on a quest to unlock the answer. The project, code-named Project Aristotle, studied the dynamics of various groups—exploring, for example, whether introverts work best together or whether shared hobbies are important to make teams stronger. After interviews with hundreds of employees and searching for an all-telling data-driven formula, they discovered something surprising: It’s not the type of people, common interests or communication styles that really matter. Psychological safety is what’s essential to a team’s productivity and success.

As the great American scientist Linus Pauling once said, “The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.” Psychological safety—feeling comfortable expressing opposing opinions and taking risks, while knowing your colleagues support you—allows people to experiment with ideas without fear of ridicule or recrimination. It’s a supportive environment where people feel comfortable, even when they’re being vulnerable.

At the same time, Google also discovered that there’s no magic to instill psychological safety in a team instantly. Like any personal relationship, sharing real-life experiences and feelings over time builds trust. So honest interactions—sincere, heartfelt connection—help create stronger bonds in professional teams, too. After all, if we trust the people around us, we aren’t afraid to take risks in front of them.

Matt Sakaguchi, a manager at Google, tested Project Project Aristotle’s findings by sharing his stage 4 cancer diagnosis with his team. After they all digested the unsettling news, he watched his team open up and disclose their own private stories. Gradually, the group found it easier to speak honestly and, after assessing their downfalls as a team, adopted new patterns that helped them perform better.

Emotional intelligence doesn’t fit into a Google algorithms and the Silicon Valley’s data-crunching approach, but lies at the core of psychological safety. And Sakaguchi’s team demonstrated that its four domains—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management—are the foundation of productive teamwork.