Aristotle’s Impact on Work Teams at Google

Ever wondered what the secret sauce is that goes into making an effective team?

Researchers at tech’ behemoth Google, launched an impressive study to find out what puts great teams ahead of good or average teams. Code-named Project Aristotle – a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” – the goal was to answer the question: “What makes a team effective at Google?”

We’ve all worked in effective teams at some stage of our career, yet don’t always have the insight or access to make objective assessments or comparisons. An awareness of this led Google to create a series of survey-type questions for participants to respond to. Here are some sample items used in the study that participants were asked to agree or disagree with:

  • Group dynamics: I feel safe expressing divergent opinions to the team.
  • Skill sets: I am good at navigating roadblocks and barriers.
  • Personality traits: I see myself as someone who is a reliable worker
  • Emotional intelligence: I am not interested in other people’s problems

The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. The summary of their findings can be condensed into 5 essential traits. In order of importance, these were:

  • Psychological safety: Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.
  • Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs the opposite – shirking responsibilities).
  • Structure and clarity: An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging, and attainable. 
  • Meaning: Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary: (e.g. financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed)
  • Impact: The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact.

To improve the leaders and managers understanding of the dynamics of their own teams, the project authors offered tips for improving and created a survey for teams to take and discuss amongst themselves. The survey items focused on the five effectiveness pillars, and questions included:

  • Psychological Safety – “If I make a mistake on our team, it is not held against me.”
  • Dependability – “When my teammates say they’ll do something, they follow through with it.”
  • Structure and Clarity – “Our team has an effective decision-making process.”
  • Meaning – “The work I do for our team is meaningful to me.”
  • Impact – “I understand how our team’s work contributes to the organization’s goals.”

In summary, by turning the lens back on themselves and their people, Google was able to identify – and now leverage – the elements which make good teams great, and to commit to ongoing development in the quest for improved effectiveness.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Aristotle)

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