Monthly Archives: February 2016


stormtroopersWhen companies are optimizing everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.

Teams are now the fundamental unit of organizations. Studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems. 

Google has scrutinized everything.Working to figure out what made a team successful, Google kept coming across research focusing on what are known as ‘‘group norms.’’ Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules for how we function when we gather. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound. Team norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team.

There were two behaviors all the good teams generally shared.

First, members spoke in roughly the same proportion. On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. 

Second, the good teams were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. The more successful teams seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams seemed, as a group, had less sensitivity toward their colleagues.

On the better teams people may speak over one another, go on tangents, and socialize instead of remaining focused on the agenda. The team might seem inefficient to a casual observer. But all the team members speak as much as they need to. They’re sensitive to one another’s moods and share personal stories and emotions. While the team may not contain as many individual stars, the sum will be greater than its parts.

Other behaviors seemed important as well — like having clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

Establishing psychological safety is messy and difficult to implement. The kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

No one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office, leaving part of their personality and inner life at home. But to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things without fear of recriminations. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning we want to know that our team mates really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.

At the core of Silicon Valley are certain self-mythologies and dictums: Everything is different now, data reigns supreme, today’s winners deserve to triumph because they are cleareyed enough to discard yesterday’s conventional wisdoms while searching out the disruptive and the new.

The paradox is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.

When companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.

That’s my condensed version of a NYT article about successful team at Google.

It turns out that the best teams engender a feeling of psychological safety through building “connections” between team members.

This finding struck me because the importance of connections with other people has showed up in two other spots I know of.

One is in the Harvard Medical School study that began monitoring a group of young men starting in 1939 (the ones left are now old).

For 75 years, at least every two years, the participants were evaluated on their mental and physical health, career and retirement  satisfaction, and marital happiness.

The study’s goal identifying the  predictors of healthy aging. What’s the big takeaway from the study? Connections (good relationships) make us healthier and happier, and live longer. It wasn’t money or fame.

And the other spot I know of is from sociologist Dr. Brene Brown who says that the surest thing she took away from 12 years of research is “that connection is why we’re here.”

Keep building those connections for a better life at work and at home.

Just wondering

bernard hopkinsThis is an idea I had about small people, short men in particular.

If sex and violence are two of the most popular themes in human experience, why don’t we see more small people, particularly men. There seems to be a bias toward bigger men in both areas.

Look at boxing revenues and you see people generally prefer the heavyweight matches. Maybe the bigger guys are more intimidating? They’re harder hitting, and get more knockouts. Most spectators watching a heavyweight boxing match realise that as a “normal person” they couldn’t go toe to toe with a heavyweight boxer. But with the lighter class boxers, spectators might feel they could hold their own against that guy (even though they couldn’t).

So watching the lighter classes of fighters isn’t as compelling (unless you’re an aficionado) because they’re perceived as not intimidating like the big guys are. When Mike Tyson was describing his life before it spun out of control, he said something like, “If there’re seven billion people in the world, think how you feel when you know that you can beat anyone of them in a fair fight.”

And consider mass market porn, and you’ll see the stature of the men tending to be bigger and taller. There don’t seem to be many shorter male porn stars.

For men, pornography is about sex. Whereas for women, romance trumps sex. But in both pornography and romance novels, the lead male character tends to be handsome, confident, and tall.

Visual pornography is generally catering to the evolved sexual preferences of men for low-investment sex with different partners. Romance novels cater to the evolved sexual preferences of women, the sex happens later in the book, after building tension and a “getting to know the partner” has occurred.

I guess you could make the claim that really tall men aren’t being represented in boxing and pornography. But there’re fewer really tall men than there are short men.

I was just wondering.

Food for thought

old stadiumIn our car the other day, we wanted to know the price difference between the US dollar and the Australian dollar ten years ago. A quick internet inquiry on our smart phone gave us the answer. It would’ve been a pain in the ass tracking down that obscure tidbit of info a few years ago.

There’s so much food for thought sloshing around the internet. I realized this past week I’d collected some interesting snippets of information. They’re unrelated to each other except that they’re weird ideas gleaned from cyberspace. Here are some of them.

When the system is evil people will do evil things. A recently published book called “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry” points out a disturbing commodification of humans when they’re bought and sold: “The price of a slave peaked in his or her late teens. There was another price spike upwards at about age eight, when child mortality declined.”

Okay, maybe an argument can be made that this falls under a similar category – when the system is bad people will do bad things. In an article about how rapidly marriage is changing the author made an interesting point, “If monogamy were natural we probably wouldn’t need to have so many rules about it.”

A happiness study looked at two factors characterizing basic differences between ancestral and modern life, population density and frequency of socialization with friends. Population density is negatively associated, and frequency of socialization with friends is positively associated with life satisfaction – except that “More intelligent individuals experience lower life satisfaction with more frequent socialization with friends.”

Sometimes making a change can be upsetting, consider this snippet about education, “The access to teacher training in Finland is highly competitive; there’re ten applicants for every training place to become a primary schoolteacher. It doesn’t seem  to dawn upon those in Britain and the US who want to implement the Finnish system that it’d mean firing something like three-quarters of the current teachers.”

Then there was this bridge between prehistoric and current times, “Tusks from dead mammoths, found in the frozen Siberian tundra, have risen to account for as much as 20 percent of all ivory production. Crunching the numbers, the researchers concluded, ‘Mammoth ivory trade may be saving elephants from extinction.'”

What is the scary stuff?

known:unknownThe internet is a cross between the world’s largest stage and library, and most people have access to it. Science and the internet are game changers.

But we still have some baked-in biases that once helped us, but now those biases can hold us back if we’re not aware that they’re present. One thing we do for example is over prioritizing our own experience above real science when forming impressions of the world around us. Another is giving too much weight to the scary or bad news that isn’t likely to affect us.

Making judgements this way was appropriate for most of human history since it was the best we could do before we had science and easy worldwide communication. But nowadays, we can do better.

To attain greater-than-caveman results in your life, you need to make life decisions using smarter-than-caveman techniques.


luche masksIntimates and strangers are at opposite ends of our personal interaction spectrum.

We just got back from Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world, where we were surrounded by 25 or so million strangers.

In transactions between strangers, cash scales. We paid a cab driver to take us to the airport. Cash enabled us to interact with people we don’t know and probably won’t see again.

In environments built on personal interaction and trust among intimates, like in the little town where we live, transactions based on money don’t increase efficacy, they degrade it.  We’d never pay a friend to take us to the airport, nor would we consider charging  friends for taking them to the airport. In small groups, money corrupts.

It’s a big world and cash helps us operate among people we don’t know. But if you want to build an intimate circle that lives on favors and gift exchange, don’t bring cash. Bring generosity.