I have focused on the topic of teams several times in this series of articles.  And indeed there has been enough written about the topic these past twenty-five years to fill an entire library shelf.

I return to the subject here, however, to highlight author Charles Duhigg’s latest book entitled “Smarter, Faster Better”.  In particular, I commend Chapter two entitled “Teams: Psychological Safety at Google and Saturday Night Live” for its insights into the fundamental importance of basic human needs in creating high performing teams.

Chapter two spends considerable time discussing the process through which groups and teams develop behavioral norms. These are the traditional understandings, acceptable behaviors, and unwritten rules — often quietly understood rather than openly expressed or codified — that govern how we behave in group settings and undertakings.

The creation of behavioral norms is a universal human activity and it would be almost impossible for us to function effectively in collective activities without them.  In simple terms, group norms determine which of our behaviors are acceptable and which are not when we are acting in group settings. Fans of the original Saturday Night Live cast are likely to be fascinated by Duhigg’s description of how these highly talented, intense and extremely competitive men and women managed — under the guidance of Director Lorne Michaels — to successfully pull off one fantastically funny team skit after another (PP. 51-56).

Duhigg also focuses special attention on a Google project code-named Aristotle, conducted by members of its People Analytics Group.  Their task was to try to determine what factors were most likely to improve the effectiveness of  Google various teams.  Their answer, the right “group norms” (P. 46). But what specific norms? 

When Laszlo Bock, head of Google’s People Operations Department (Google’s HR) , addressed Google employees assembled in their auditorium and via video screens, he presented a series of slides and told them that Project Aristotle had concluded five key norms seemed to matter most (P. 65-66).

“Teams need to believe that their work is important; teams need to feel their work is personally meaningful.; teams need clear goals and defined roles; team members need to know they can depend on one another; but most important, teams need psychological safety.” (P. 66)

Certainly talent, innate abilities and natural aptitudes and skills are critical elements and go a long way toward predicting a team’s potential for success.  But alone they are rarely enough.  If team or group members do not believe their work is important, do not feel their individual contributions are valuable or valued, are uncertain regarding goals and their roles, do not trust one another or believe their team mates will have their backs, these teams are likely to under-achieve.  Most of us have been members of and witnessed such teams in action, and the bad memories linger on.

But perhaps most damaging of all, when we feel no sense of psychological safety in a team environment, when we do not feel free to fail occasionally or say something absolutely stupid without fear of humiliation, ostracism and sanction, we almost certainly will hold back, retreat to our protective shells, and withhold our potential contribution.

Human history amply illustrates that man is by nature a social animal.  Through out our lives we are regularly required to engage in activities that demand cooperation and interdependence for successful accomplishment. Without agreed upon behavioral norms, trust in one another and a feeling that we are psychologically safe in each other’s company, the prospect for effective teamwork fades.

In sports, for example, how often have we seen a team loaded with talent fail to produce the team chemistry necessary to fulfill their potential.  And that chemistry invariably comes down to a set of basic human needs whose fulfillment we all crave in the collective endeavors that mark our lives.

The remaining chapters in Duhigg’s book contain numerous additional insights for managers, parents and leaders seeking to unleash their own and team productivity.  But failing to comprehend and heed the findings captured in chapter two and by Google’s Aristotle project, will likely hinder every other aspect of successful team performance.

NOTE: For more on Google’s working environment, see “Google’s Work Rules”, an article also found in this collection.



Categories: Exercising Responsibility, Leadership, Managing & Leading, Managing People, Motivating Top Performance

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2 replies

  1. My business professor referred these to high performing systems. He has done extensive research on this concept. Wish I could remember his name.

  2. There was a lot to think about in this essay and in the resources you cited, Terry. As a Social Biologist I could see some of the required traits for a successful group endeavor in both vertebrates [think a pack of wolves, where we will never know how secure a cooperating individual really feels], and invertebrates [think army ants, where genetics seems to cover all requirements for a successful group. Who knows if a lowly group member feels secure and convinced that participating in the group endeavor permits personal gain?] But the whole article got me, a non businessman, thinking. And that’s why I’m a member of this particular group/team.

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