The New York Times published an article on the 25th of February 2016 looking at Google’s Project Aristotle. I encourage everyone to read it. Essentially, Google’s researchers found that the sense of safety was essential to a Team’s productivity. There were few common factors for team’s that did well, other than psychological safety – the sense that a group is safe for personal risk-taking. More specifically, “equality in the distribution of turn-taking” and high “average social sensitivity” were observed in the more productive groups, and are the key ingredients of psychological safety. A psychologically safe group tends to allow all its participants to chime in equally, and it’s members are fast to detect the emotions of others, emitting empathy. But these factors are to do with how individuals interact together. The researchers came to the conclusion that group norms, instead of the personal attributes of every individual, were the key factor in determining whether a group was successful.

The problems researchers face was how to ignite change in group norms. One cannot simply advise teams to spend the first 15 minutes of their meetings sharing their weekend plans. A direct approach most likely wouldn’t seem natural. Midlevel manager Matt Sakaguchi connected with his team after they conducted a survey gauging the team’s performance attributes. He opened up to the group through sharing his personal illness, but in his opinion it was the data-driven survey that made it easier to talk about it. ‘‘It’s easier to talk about our feelings when we can point to a number’’, he is quoted saying in the article. Through numbers, the team found a common language to building a more empathy driven and sharing relationship.

Next I would like to look at EASEL’s Relationship Building Process. This formula was first created over ten years ago, and We’ve been using it ever since. The reason I want to bring this up, is because it correlates greatly with the findings established in the NY Times article.

Now let as consider Sakaguchi’s example again. The team was gathered together to analyse the survey results, which we established as forming a shared language for the group to talk about their feelings. Then, Sakaguchi asked everyone to share something about themselves. He began, sharing something that very few knew about him. He had stage 4 cancer. Where would you place this statement on the above scale? It is certainly exploring together. Generally, sharing can be placed on that level, together with learning. One might even argue that this was risk-taking on Sakaguchi’s part. His statement tested the group’s bonds. His co-workers described as having been slightly speechless by his statement.

This is hardly surprising, taking into account that they had jumped from sharing a language to risk-taking together. However, it worked. His team continued to share their own personal experiences, and then they had a very productive conversation about how to improve their team norms. The team felt more natural talking about the small, almost invisible, causes of friction in their community. Sakaguchi has refused to leave Google until it is his only choice: Why wouldn’t I spend time with people who care about me?’’

Most working communities probably have a level of mutual respect and goodwill, but how often is a group simply stuck with finding a shared language? As with the example above, most of the time people feel inclined to leave their personal life home. The “work face” that people put on when they come to the office is essentially a way of agreeing on what can be the topic of conversations. It narrows down what is in the sphere “work”. The end result is a language that lacks the words to tackle the small frictions and points of contention. These small things prevent trust. If there are things one is not sharing with his group, than how do you expect the group to build a shared sense of belonging? The Devil is truly in the detail.

Humor is placed as high in this process as risk-taking. How do you imagine your team to develop itself, if it is stuck on the lower levels of relationship building? Have you ever tried to build team spirit with a joke, only to find that it leads to an awkward pause? It probably wasn’t a bad joke. Humor demands a very strong relationship to begin with.

The article looks at one of the Project Aristotle researcher’s past experiences of group-projects in business school. Julia Rozovsky had two very different experiences. In her study-group, the members tended to challenge each other in meetings, seeking leadership. They would argue, who had the chance to represent the group in class. She felt she had to consider everything she said, to make sure she wasn’t criticized. In another group, a case competition team, Rozovsky felt like everything clicked. They would spend the first 10 minutes of every meeting chatting. They would throw out crazy ideas, without feeling the risk of being critized. They would even email each other dumb jokes. For a long time Rozovsky couldn’t understand why these two groups functioned so differently.

Let’s put those two groups into our Relationship Building Process. The second group was happy to take risks together, throwing out crazy ideas, and engaging in humor. Most likely, the group had achieved the highest level in our Relationship Building Process. The first group doesn’t seem to pass the first step! The group was trying to learn together, but it hadn’t even found mutual respect and goodwill. Now sometimes it might take 5 minutes for two people (or a group) to go through most of the steps in the process. Other times it might take a lo-ong time. But it is impossible to jump up and skip a step. The study-group had missed a step, and failed to double back and start building up again. The second group glided through the steps as everything just clicked. Sakaguchi’s team of engineers realised they were missing a shared language, went back and started from there.

If you want to develop a great team, you don’t need great individuals. What you need, is great relationships. Even the brightest minds working at 80% will be overshadowed by someone who feels twice the person he is, just because of the people around him.