It was 2012. After well over a decade in business, Google had hit its stride. It was on pace for its biggest year to date, with revenue skyrocketing and its first $50 billion year in the making.
But a question lingered in the minds of company executives.
They knew that the key to Google's success was teamwork and collaboration--allowing the company to innovate faster, identify mistakes more quickly, and solve problems more effectively. Yet, while some teams at Google flourished, others faltered.
What if the company could figure out a way to get more out of their teams? What if they could identify the formula for "the perfect team"?
So, the company set out on a multiyear project designed to find the answers to those questions.
Its code name? Project Aristotle.
There exists a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
What Google discovered.
Conventional wisdom states that to create the best teams, you need the most talented people. But evidence showed that wasn't always the case.
Think about it. You've probably seen a team of A-players who didn't work well together, resulting in subpar performance. (Case in point: The 2004 NBA finals, when the L.A. Lakers and their four future Hall-of-Famers were handily defeated by the Detroit Pistons.)
So, how do you get your team to work well together?
The Project Aristotle researchers pored over tons of data. They conducted hundreds of interviews. They closely studied 180 teams, including those with reputations for both high and low performance.
In the end, they concluded that the most successful teams shared five traits:
1. Psychological safety
3. Structure and clarity
Each of these traits is related to emotional intelligence--the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions.
Let's break down each element and show how you can put them into practice in your own company. (Note: You'll find more specifics and case studies to illustrate these principles in my book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence.)
Google's definition: Psychological safety is when team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another.
How you do it:
Team leads should regularly admit mistakes and share what they've learned from them. Team members will follow.
Arrange for a team lunch or coffee break. Talk about your lives outside of work. (This can also be done virtually if necessary.)
Praise generously. But also set ground rules for respectful yet candid feedback. (See more below.)
Learn to disagree and commit.
Google's definition: Team members get things done on time and meet Google's high bar for excellence.
How you do it:
Team leaders must set the example. Like everything else, when it comes to deadlines, people follow the leader.
Make it clear that if someone can't reach a deadline, they should communicate that and get help. (Reward this behavior and give as much help as possible/practical.)
Meet as often as necessary to achieve good quality and meet deadlines. If there are problems, you may need to increase how frequently you meet. (For project meetings, for example, twice-weekly or even daily huddles for a shorter amount of time may be more effective than meeting weekly.)
Treat everyone as an individual. What works for one person won't work for another; therefore, adapt your approach to the person. At the same time, hold everyone (including high-performers) to the same standard.
Structure and clarity.
Google's definition: Team members have clear roles, plans, and goals.
How you do it:
Clearly communicate cultural norms. When do team members need to be available? How quickly should they respond to emails and instant messages? Setting and reminding team members of these norms can help them to achieve balance between collaboration, having time for "deep work" (work that requires special concentration or focus), and other areas of life.
Clearly communicate scope. Team leads and team members must be on the same page regarding the scope of specific tasks and assignments, including how much work is involved and how much time it will take to complete.
Clearly communicate appropriate milestones, as well as long-term strategy and goals.
Google's definition: Work is personally important to team members.
How you do it:
Team leads should be alert to team members' strengths and weaknesses. Also, team leads and team members should openly communicate about what type of work and assignments they enjoy. This allows team leaders to look for opportunities to assign meaningful work, and everyone to pitch in and help with difficult or unwanted (but necessary) tasks.
Make praise emotionally intelligent. Be generous with commendation, but make it sincere and specific.
Give emotionally intelligent feedback. Some individuals are more sensitive than others; so, again, adapt your approach to the individual. To some, you'll be able to deliver criticism or areas of improvement more directly. For others, you'll need to soften your words.
Still, a good general rule is to treat all critical feedback as constructive feedback. Ask the other person for permission to share something you think will help them grow. Share experiences when you made mistakes and benefited from making an adjustment, to show that we all have blind spots and need help to readjust.
Google's definition: Team members think their work matters and creates change.
How you do it:
Every company and department is inique, but look for opportunities to show the end result of the work.
How have sales impacted the company's bottom line? How did marketing make the sales department's job easier? What are employees' (positive) reactions to HR's initiatives?
Regardless of company or department, don't simply share numbers, charts, and figures. Share real-life stories from employees and customers.
Step by step
If all of this advice seems overwhelming, don't fret. Not every company will be equally great at doing all of these things.
The key: Pick one or two categories and specific actions, and then work to implement them over the next few weeks or months. Once you're happy with the results, pick another one or two.
Slowly but surely, you'll see that having great people is only half of the equation. The other half is getting them to work well together.