Building the Perfect Team? Is it Even Possible?


A recent New York Times Magazine article, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” went viral and became one of the most emailed and widely shared stories for days – for good reason, in our opinion. Building a good team is a difficult task for most companies, organizations, agencies, classrooms, and families alike. And building the perfect team? That often feels impossible.

So why do some groups thrive? Why do others falter? Is there a key to team success? These were the questions Google set out to answer. Here’s our spin on what Google discovered.

Teams = Teams

The best teams are teams and not just collections of individuals. A team is bigger than the sum of its part – at least it should be.

Oftentimes, when people are placed in a team, they enter the group with already well-established boundaries and preconceived ideas about hierarchy, roles, and regulations. When this happens, the team focuses more on meeting deadlines and goals and their interactions become less collaborative. Of course, deadlines and goals are important for any organization, but the purpose of a team is much more significant. Teams should be focused on collaborating in pursuit of creativity and building new ideas. The best teams are the most collaborative ones.

So, try starting a team effort with a different mindset: collaborative, respectful, and honest. Think of your teammates as people who are on your side working towards a common good. Try to take advantage of their strengths, opinions, and experiences that each individual brings to the table, instead of trying to compete with one another, outperform another teammate, or simply please your co-workers or leader.

Empathy and Emotional Intelligence Matter

In their research, Google unearthed what separates good teams from dysfunctional ones, and the answer surprised them. It’s all about how teammates treat each other while working together.

When team members treat each other with respect and exhibit empathy and compassion, the overall intelligence of the team increases. When people are socially sensitive – for example, when they notice subtle signs of how others are feeling, such as tone of voice, facial cues, and body language – teams excel, producing better results.

In team situations, it’s important to take time to set aside your personal or professional motivations. Instead, notice the other people in the room. How are your co-workers feeling? How are you making them feel? How can you be more empathetic to their needs and desires? This kind of unselfish, empathetic mindset can help move your team and overall business forward as a whole.

Psychological Safety and Emotional Sharing

We’ve been saying this for years, but it was gratifying to read what Google wrote about this additional finding : feelings matter. A lot. Feeling safe, also known as psychological safety, matters more to building a successful team than any other factor – more than clear goals or establishing a culture of dependency. Feeling safe matters the most.

Which makes sense. You can’t be open, receptive, or even engaged if you’re fearful about your role in the team and/or how you’re being perceived.

The challenge is that psychological safety isn’t easily measured or implemented. There’s no simple formula for ensuring it, but communication, empathy, and connectedness definitely help to foster it.

Google discovered one easy and effective tactic for establishing and fostering psychological safety: emotional sharing. When people share something personal and human, they create authentic human bonds. In any human relationship, professional or personal, when emotional discussions become the norm (frequent, comfortable), the relationship becomes more successful.

So don’t just jump into the subject of the meeting. Start a meeting by asking how people are doing or feeling. Share something about yourself and show a little vulnerability. Be human. You are human. We all are. Why should that be different when you’re working with a team?

Experience > Optimization

Most business goals tend to focus on optimization. But Google’s research finds that team success actually hinges upon the experience of the team effort itself, not on optimizing team productivity.

How do people feel about the project? How do they feel about the future? Do clients trust their agencies? Do employees feel safe enough to share opinions and thoughts equally with peers? Lots of aspects of a business can be optimized, but a person’s feelings most definitely cannot. If you really want to succeed, don’t try to optimize teamwork; humanize it. By approaching team building in this way, you will create a naturally optimized environment.

All in all, it makes sense that an organization as performance-driven and innovative as Google would make such a strong effort to understand how teams work and how to make them work better. But the surprising takeaway is that the latest technology and careful planning don’t necessarily accelerate successful teamwork. The thing to do – and this fits in well with our experience at Emotive Brand – is to be human and emotive and learn to enjoy the experience.

Emotive Brand is a San Francisco brand strategy firm.

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