Most companies say their people are their most important asset. Google does more than talk, putting its (considerable) money where its corporate mouth is. 

For years, Google's People Operations department has analyzed every conceivable aspect of the its employees' lives in an effort to foster greater productivity, innovation, and engagement. (Like coming up with a few simple questions to determine whether a leader is great.)

For example:

  • Highly productive employees tend to build larger, more productive networks by intentionally eating lunch with different people instead of the usual suspects.
  • Even though Google's best leaders have outstanding technical skills (which runs counter to conventional wisdom that a great leader can lead any company or team), they also don't micro-manage.
  • While the best leaders keep their teams focused on goals and priorities, they also show consideration for each person as a person -- proving that it is possible to care about results and care about people.

Google knows a lot about what makes individual employees great. 

Then, in 2012, Google focused on how to build great teams. 

What Makes a Team Great?

Every Google team has smart, creative, and dedicated employees -- yet some struggled, while others were extremely successful.

Why? Good question.

Google started by looking for patterns. Teams with people who had similar interests. Teams with people who got together outside of work. Teams with the same backgrounds -- or different backgrounds. Teams made up of introverts. Or extroverts. Or a mix of both. Teams that had been together for years, and teams that were relatively new.

In total, Google evaluated 180 teams from all areas of the company and found that "who" was on the team didn't really matter. There was no magic combination of personalities, backgrounds, genders, motivational drivers, experiences...

It's All About the 'What'

That's because who is on a team matters less than how a group functions together. Since teams -- by Google's definition -- rely heavily each other to "plan work, solve problems, make decisions, and review progress in service of a specific project...." which means they "need one another to get work done," group dynamics were much more important than the skill sets, perspectives, etc. of individual members. 

According to Google:

"The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together."

And that's a critical point. Few companies -- especially small businesses -- have the ability or resources to hire "perfect" employees. Even the greatest teams are made up of imperfect people. 

Take the best production team I ever worked on. Steve was our Steph Curry: always encouraging, always pushing, always making "assists." Lee was solid: never made mistakes, helped out the entry-level workers, was quick to make repairs and get things running again. Jeff was our glue, coaxing surprising uptime out of the least reliable machines on the line while also serving as our quality conscience. (Which we definitely needed. Doug was easily rattled, but his nervous energy helped him catch up when he got behind and keep the end of line workers straight. 

Me: I was definitely the weak link, but because I hated to be seen only as the weak link, I tried to be useful in as many other ways as I possibly could.

As individuals, we were above-average. As a team, we were unbeatable.

Why? It turns out the way we functioned -- our team "norms" -- matched up perfectly with Google's findings on the norms the most effective teams shared. 

Here they are, from Google's re:Work article on Project Aristotle in order of importance:

1. Psychological safety: "If I make a mistake on our team, it is not held against me."​ 

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 seen as 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.

2. Dependability: "When my teammates say they'll do something, they follow through with it."

3. Structure and Clarity: "Our team has an effective decision-making process."

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. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate short and long term goals.

4. Meaning: "The work I do for our team is meaningful to me."

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: financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example.

5. Impact: "I understand how our team's work contributes to the organization's goals."

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.

But Not This Kind of 'What'

Here are some of the things Google determined do not contribute significantly to team effectiveness:

The researchers also discovered which variables were not significantly connected with team effectiveness at Google:

  • Teammates sitting together in the same office (which may serve as more proof that remote workers really do out-perform office workers)
  • Decision-making by consensus
  • Extroverted team members
  • Team member individual performance
  • Seniority and tenure of team members
  • Amount of workload expected or required
  • Size of team

The last point is especially interesting; even though Jeff Bezos follows the 2-pizza rule (no team should be larger that two pizzas can feed), Google found no correlation between size of team and effectiveness. 

Nor does making decisions by consensus, long thought a hallmark of effective teams. Which makes sense if you consider psychological safety: I don't have to agree with a decision as long as I feel team members heard and respected my opinion. If the team lets me feel comfortable asking questions, raising objections, and occasionally playing devil's advocate... then I can still support a group decision without having to agree with every aspect of it.

That's why psychological safety is so important. When people feel valued and respected, they feel more engaged. They feel like a real part of a team. Their work -- both collectively and individually -- has greater meaning.

They feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves.

Which is how we all want to feel.

And want to work.