Connections

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.