Google Googled ‘What makes a successful team?’ – here’s what they found

Outsiders have been trying to unlock Google’s secrets for attracting and retaining top talent for the last couple of decades.

  • Is it the cafeteria food?
  • How about the ping-pong tables or video games?
  • Maybe it’s just that Google pays extraordinarily well.

All of these factors certainly play a role, but when Google decided to carefully examine what makes their teams successful, five qualities were revealed:

  1. Psychological safety
  2. Dependability
  3. Structure and clarity
  4. Meaning of work
  5. Impact of work

Items two through five on that list probably look familiar to anyone in a leadership position. But I believe it’s worthwhile to examine them in two contexts:

  • How they relate to the group dynamic, and
  • How they relate to individuals within the group.

Let me start with that second point and make a statement whose truth is apparent to everyone, but is sometimes ignored: Individuals within work groups must shoulder their share of responsibility for the group’s success. Now let’s quickly examine those last four points in this light.

Dependability. This is the most obvious attribute where individuals must take a great deal of responsibility. All of us have been in situations where we’re waiting for someone else to finish their work before we can begin ours. You have probably worked with someone whose inbox seems to be a black hole. Not only does this kind of behavior slow the process, it poisons the work group. It fosters an attitude of “Why bother?” within team members.

On the leadership side, if teams can’t depend on follow through or implementation from management, it has an even worse effect on employee attitude.

Structure and clarity. Teams need a healthy amount of structure and to achieve this, communication must be clear.

Do you remember all the press Zappos received a few years ago when it bulldozed its org chart and implemented self-management through a system dubbed holacracy? I wrote about it here, ending my article with, “There are a lot of hurdles for Zappos to overcome as it makes this move and I don’t think success is guaranteed.”

That Google found structure and clarity necessary for success goes contrary to the philosophy behind holacracy, and it turns out the Google is on the right side here. A follow-up article in Fortune revealed that after adopting holacracy, Zappos fell off the magazine’s yearly 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2016. The company had made the list for eight straight years. More testimony to the fact that Google’s structure trumps Zappos’ “flat management” system is evidenced in Google’s command of the number one position in the 2017 100 Best Companies to Work For list (Zappos is still out of the top 100).

Providing structure and clarity doesn’t mean you have to burden your team with hidebound rules, regulations, and red tape. You should communicate goals, time tables, and provide direction. This could be as creative as “Bring back five off-the-wall, never-tried marketing ideas at the end of the month.”

You may have some folks on your staff who are founts of innovative ideas. You might want to cut the loose and have them sometimes operate with little supervision. But remember that it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between a mad genius and a loose cannon!

Meaning of work and impact of work. I’m going to deal with these together because I believe they are closely related.

Members of your team need to find personal satisfaction or meaning in their work and they need to believe that their work has some lasting impact. If they feel they are merely cogs on the wheel of a meaningless commercial grind, your employees will become apathetic and unresponsive to efforts to grow your business.

When people sense meaning in their work and believe it makes an impact, it keeps them motivated to come in tomorrow and the next day and the next, contributing the best of what they have to offer.

There are, of course, certain positions where this kind of “meaningfulness” is difficult to achieve. When that is the case, make a concerted effort to let people in on the “big picture” and give them a chance to express their ideas in issues both big and small. When people know their ideas are heard, considered, and sometimes even acted on, their position in your company becomes meaningful and they know they have made an impact!

Also, individuals need to take some responsibility here. When they find themselves stuck in a position where they sense no meaning or impact, they should speak up and express their reservations to leadership. In turn, leadership should see this as a positive and not penalize employees who sense they aren’t in the right position.

I’ve left psychological safety for the end, but you need to know that Google considers it the single most important factor for successful teams. Above, I mentioned that even within structure, team members can contribute innovative ideas. However, stepping outside of the norm or your company’s tradition requires psychological safety. In fact, Google contends that the other four qualities are built on a foundation of psychological safety.

A friend told me once about working for several months under his company’s “fixit guy.” This manager was sent in to straighten out troubled departments or projects. He made it clear to everyone that as long as what they did was in line with his goals, he was fine with it – and he was true to his word. People discovered that they could try big things and even fail as long as they aligned with his goals.

He turned the department around.

Being able to draw on and experiment with diverse ideas is critical for success today. If you don’t create a culture where individuals feel psychological safety, they won’t come forward with ideas they fear will be criticized.

The negative not-invented-here attitude has no place in today’s business environment.

Now that you have an overview of these five items, if you were to grade yourself and your culture on each point, how would you do?

Further, why not conduct a survey with your employees and see how they would rate your company on these points? When employees find faults, encourage them to make suggestions on how to improve. This exercise will put you well on the road to creating a successful team.

Image: Charlie Chaplin, by Insomnia Cured Here, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.