in a team environment allows all of your staffers to draw on the
strengths of one another, work collaboratively and be productive. Team
members must pull their weight, be willing to share ideas and concepts,
and collectively approach objectives as a cohesive unit to be
successful. Effective teamwork comes in many shapes and sizes and has a
significant impact on the success of the organization.
Hold a Brainstorming Session
a brainstorming session is an effective, high-energy way to launch a
team initiative. In a brainstorming session, all ideas are encouraged,
all concepts are valid, and there’s no hierarchy. Brainstormers should
be encouraged to draw on the contributions of others, building from one
idea to another. This type of approach encourages participation and
includes everyone. It’s an ideal way to introduce a new team or launch a
new project or work group.
Great Teams Trust Each Other
members need to be able to trust and rely on one another. Trust might
include a willingness to hand off an element of a project you feel
proprietary about or trusting that someone else will meet a deadline to
ensure you have the information you need to meet yours. Trust is a
matter of respect for your teammates’ professionalism and dedication.
you have trust, every member of the team is free to pursue their tasks
with pinpoint focus, understanding that their team members will be
handling their elements of a project or undertaking.
Willingness to Share Expertise
team players are willing to share their resources, knowledge and
expertise with others. Rather than playing cards close to the vest,
teamwork involves being open about processes, demonstrating efficient
ways to do things, and being receptive to the fact that the individual
only succeeds when the team succeeds. This collective approach to
co-working strengthens all players.
Complement One Another
a team environment, people must capitalize on their strengths and “fill
in the gaps” where the team needs it the most. For example, on a group
writing project, one person may be better at creating concepts while
another has a keen eye for proofreading final documents. When everyone
on the team uses their best skills and takes up slack where others may
be wanting, the collective strength of the team as a whole is stronger.
Be Open to Suggestion
teammates recognize that someone else may have a better idea, approach
or process, and be open to taking a suggestion. That doesn’t mean that
one person should push an agenda on the rest of the group, but that
everyone is amenable to examining a situation and coming up with best
practices that fit the ultimate needs of the group project.
Rise and Fall Together
never the possibility of part of the team winning a competition – you
win or lose together. Recognizing this cohesive relationship creates a
sense of togetherness and camaraderie that can get a project across a
finish line. When the success of one is dependent on the success of all,
team members are more likely to do what needs to be done to pull up
those around them.
Consistently solid teamwork can have a
significant impact on the success of a business or organization. Shoddy
collaborative work projects waste time, money and human resources.
Great teams are more than just a gathering of smart people. In each
of these four cases, something extra — a spark, a defining principle, or
some business environment juju — helped push them to develop ideas and
products that redefined their companies.
The Java Development Team at Sun Microsystems
Key members: Patrick Naughton,
programmer (Agitator); James Gosling, programmer (Expert); Mike
Sheridan, business development (Wild Card); Bill Joy, chief scientist
(Leader); Arthur Van Hoff, programmer (Workhorse)
Accomplishment: The platform-independent Java programming language added interactivity to the then-static Web.
The backstory: Naughton laid the groundwork with a
12-page criticism of Sun that became a wake-up call for the company to
step up innovation and focus on the consumer.
Guiding principle: Independence. Naughton and
Gosling’s team worked in an office far from the Sun campus on an
assignment initially known as the Stealth Project. With the blessing of
the company’s top execs, the team worked 100-hour weeks and created a
language that stood apart from Sun’s core moneymaking endeavors.
Ford Motor Company
Key members: Henry Ford,
founder and chief engineer (Agitator); Clarence Avery, lead developer of
assembly line (Wild Card); Peter Martin, head of assembly (Leader);
Charles Sorensen, assistant head of assembly (Workhorse)
Accomplishment: Ford used the cost savings from mass production to make the automobile affordable.
Ford and his team believed that cars should be reliable and
reasonably priced. Everything they did was focused on cutting costs and
passing those savings on to the buyer.
Guiding principle: Efficiency. Ford and his team of
engineers applied the lens of efficiency to all aspects of production,
eventually devising the assembly line. Ford also recognized that by
paying his workers twice the industry standard and reducing the length
of the workday and week, he’d not only dramatically reduce employee
turnover but also attract the best workers.
The Google Team
Key members: Sergey Brin,
founder (Wild Card); Larry Page, founder (Agitator); Eric Schmidt, CEO
(Leader); Omid Kordestani, SVP of Business Development (Expert)
Accomplishment: They created the most popular site on
the Web, powered by search-engine technology that helpfully ranks
results based on how many other sites link to a page. The backstory:
Having met and clashed with Brin on a Stanford University campus tour, Page called on him to help develop his doctoral thesis.
Guiding principle: Stay lean. The team stayed small
as they developed the technology, first working out of Page’s dorm room
at Stanford, then a garage. When they were ready to turn their
brainchild into a business, they brought in tech legend Schmidt to run
the company, and Kordestani — known as the first guy at Google to wear
a suit — to handle sales.
Walt Disney and His “Nine Old Men”
Key members: Walt Disney,
founder and head of studios (Agitator); Ub Iwerks, Mickey Mouse creator
(Expert); Roy Disney, founder and CEO (Glue); “Nine Old Men,” animators
(Workhorses) — Les Clark, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, Wolfgang
Reitherman, John Lounsbery, Eric Larson, Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl, and
Accomplishment: Revolutionized children’s films and created some of the most memorable and profitable characters in cartoon history.
The backstory: After a few failed business deals in
their first cartoon studio (including losing control of one of their
first successful characters), Walt Disney and friend Iwerks secured Roy
Disney’s financial backing to build a studio that would compete with
larger studios in New York.
Guiding principle: Determination. Walt Disney and
Iwerks were resolute in their grand vision to create cartoon stars
complete with their own franchises. That vision, in turn, attracted top
talent — namely the nine animators who created and popularized iconic
characters Mickey Mouse, Snow White, and Cinderella.
After winning her first Olympic gold medal at the 2004 Olympics,
DeeDee Trotter returned to the 2008 Games hungry for another gold in the
4×400 meter relay.
However, DeeDee was nursing a knee injury at the time, and just as
the team was moving from the warm-up area to the track, decided
to withdraw from the event. After asking herself if it would hurt her
team’s chances of advancing by trying to run when she wasn’t at her
physical best, she decided that, yes, it would.
“I had to let one of my other teammates run in my place, and she was
prepared to do so. It wasn’t the easiest decision, but it was the
decision I had to make for the team,” says DeeDee.
This selfless action allowed her teammates to record a season-best time and win the gold medal.
Steve Mesler – Four-man bobsled, 2010 Winter Olympics
Although it had been 62 years since the Americans had medaled in
bobsled, TrueSport ambassador Steve Mesler and his teammates (Curtis
Tomasevicz, Steve Holcomb, and Justin Olsen) defied all odds by winning
the gold medal in Vancouver. The four, along with their infamous “Night
Train” sled, used teamwork to overcome a dangerous track, snowy
conditions, and even a degenerative eye disease that driver Holcomb had
to end the drought.
“We train countless hours to perform at the highest level in the
world for five seconds at a time,” Steve explains about what you could
call the five most important seconds of teamwork in any sport. “If all
four of us aren’t in the same mindset to ensure that that time spent is
as close to perfect as we can be, then it’s all for naught. Coming
together in intense moments to perform as a team is the essence of
Peter Vanderkaay – Swimming 4x200m freestyle relay, 2004 Summer Olympics
Even though he had some of the all-time greatest names in Olympic
swimming as teammates, it took the entirety of the group giving their
very best to achieve their goal of Olympic gold at the 2004 Athens
Because Peter Vanderkaay and his teammates each pulled their own
weight and gave it their all on their respective legs, they were able to
upset the heavily-favored Australians by 0.37 seconds, winning the gold
medal and setting an American record in the process.
Jimmy Moody – 2007 and 2009 NCAA Fencing Championships
At a fencing event, team points are accrued based on each athlete’s
individual performance. And like with most sports, when everyone focuses
hard on their own contribution, great things can be achieved.
Olympic-hopeful Jimmy Moody has witnessed this several times
throughout his fencing career already. During his time at Penn State,
Moody and his teammates helped the Nittany Lions earn team championship
titles in 2007 and 2009.
“Every team starts as a group of individuals, then you start to lean
on each other,” Jimmy says. “You motivate each other, pick up slack when
someone is having an off day, congratulate others on a performance…then
suddenly you all hold yourselves to a higher standard because you’re
doing it for more than yourself. Now our opponents aren’t just up
against an individual, they have to contend with the whole team.”
More recently, Moody and his USA Fencing teammates used the same idea
to help the American Men’s Epee squad achieve their first-ever world
number one ranking.
Merily Leispublished: June 20, 2017 Updated: May 31, 2019
TEAMWORK SKILLS are important in every field of business. A good team enables you to be
productive both as a group and as an individual. Today’s teams are
different from the teams of the past. They’re more dispersed, digital,
and diverse. But while collectives face new challenges, their success
still depends on a core set of fundamentals that make a team a good
A study by Uri Hasses, a professor at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute,
revealed surprising brain activity in audiences who engaged with
stories. “Not only did all of the listeners show similar brain activity
during the story, but the speaker and the listeners also had very
similar brain activity despite the fact that one person was producing
language and the others were comprehending it,” said Hasses.
Storytelling can be a driver of employee performance, making them feel, think, and respond like the characters in the story.
Here are seven inspirational stories emphasising the importance of teamwork – in the workplace or personal life.
1. After years of intensive analysis, Google discovers the key to good teamwork
In the last decade, Google has spent millions of dollars on measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives – from which traits the
best managers share to how often particular people eat together. The
tech giant was determined to find out how to compile ‘the perfect team’.
company’s executives worked hard on finding the perfect mix of
individuals necessary to form a stellar team. They believed that
building good teams meant combining the best people. But it wasn’t that
In 2012 Google ran a project known as Project Aristotle.
It took several years and included interviews with hundreds of
employees. They analysed data about the people on more than 100 active
teams at the company.
“We looked at 180 teams from
all over the company. We had lots of data, but there was nothing
showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or
backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t
seem to matter.’’ – Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google’s People Analytics division
intense data collection led to the same conclusions that good managers
have always known: In the best teams, members show sensitivity, and most
importantly, listen to one another.
Matt Sakaguchi, a midlevel
manager at Google, was keen to put Project Aristotle’s findings into
practice. He took his team off-site to open up about his cancer diagnosis. Although initially silent, his colleagues then began sharing their own personal stories.
At the heart of Sakaguchi’s strategy, and Google’s findings is the concept of “psychological safety” – a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.
Google now describes psychological safety as the most important factor in building a successful team.
ended up highlighting what leaders in the business world have known for
a while: the best teams are mindful that all members should contribute to the conversation equally, and respect one another’s emotions. It has less to do with who is in a team, and more with how the members interact with one another.
2. Four Seasons & a fresh croissant
Steve Wynn, the founder of Wynn Resort & Casino, shared a story of his family’s vacation in Paris.
They were staying at Four Seasons and had ordered breakfast in bed. His
daughter only ate a half of a croissant, leaving the other half for
later. Wynn and his family left to explore Paris, and upon returning to
the hotel room, the pastry was gone. His daughter was disappointed,
assuming the housekeeping had got rid of it.
On the telephone,
there was a message from the front desk. They said that housekeeping had
removed the half croissant from the room, assuming that upon arrival,
they would prefer a fresh pastry. So the front desk contacted the
kitchen to set aside a croissant, and room service was informed that
upon request, they would need to deliver the pastry.
The level of
teamwork and communication between different departments in the hotel
was simply magical. All participants understood the end result –
customer satisfaction. And everyone accepted their role in making the
It shows that in order to achieve
satisfaction on different levels within the organisation, employees
should be empowered to be creative, intuitive, thorough, and generous.
In 1986, shortly after he was forced out of Apple, Steve Jobs bought a small computer manufacturer named (drumroll) Pixar.
In 2000, he relocated the company to an abandoned Del Monte canning factory. The original plan called for
three buildings, with separate offices for computer scientists,
animators, and the Pixar executives. Jobs immediately scrapped it.
Instead of three buildings, there was going to be a single vast space,
with an atrium at its centre.
behind this design is that it’s good to put the most important function
at the heart of the building. Well, what’s our most important function?
It’s the interaction of our employees. That’s why Steve put a big empty
space there. He wanted to create an open area for people to always be
talking to each other.” – Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar.
for Jobs, it was not just about creating a space: he needed to make
people go there. The primary challenge for Pixar, as he saw it, was
getting its different cultures to work together and collaborate.
John Lasseter, the chief creative officer at Pixar, describes the equation this way: “Technology inspires art, and art challenges the technology.”
saw the separated offices as a design problem. He began with shifting
the mailboxes to the atrium. He then moved the meeting rooms, the
cafeteria, the coffee bar, and the gift shop to the centre of the
Brad Bird, the director of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” said,
“The atrium initially might seem like a waste of space. But Steve
realised that when people run into each other when they make eye
contact, things happen.”
if it came at the expense of convenience, the emphasis on consilience
has always been a defining trait of Steve Jobs. Jobs insisted that the
best creations occurred when people from disparate fields were
connected, especially in an age of intellectual fragmentation.
The Latin crest of Pixar University says it all: Alienus Non-Diutius. Alone no longer.
Jagger, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood – The Rolling
Stones – have played together for more than 50 years. However, they
still recognise the importance of practising together.
understand that for excellence to become a habit, you need to define a
shared approach to working together. You need to practise it over and
over until it becomes second nature.
Before every tour, the band typically commits two months to rehearsing.
They appreciate the opportunity to reconnect with their collective
rhythm. The practice enables the band to perform with almost telepathic
Richards says that he knows exactly what’s happening by simply watching Watts’ left
hand. If the tempo ever drags, one glance from Richards to Wood speaks
volumes. Together they will then step up the pace.
The Stones’ success comes from each member having a distinctive yet complementary role.
Richards is their spiritual leader, Watts the band’s backbone, Wood the
mediator, and Jagger is in control of everything he can be – a chief
executive in many ways.
Each of the band’s members is a talent in
his own right, but it is the chemistry the band has on each of them that
works best. Being part of the Rolling Stones remains the best way for
each member to achieve their individual goals. The best teams are those
who combine individual drive with understanding the importance and power
of the team.
This is the secret to becoming an excellent team:
There is no substitute for the ongoing commitment and deliberate
practice required to build better teams.
A clear and motivating purpose is essential to attracting the right talent.
During the devastating Haiti earthquake of January 2010, the British Red Cross immediately went into action.
They gathered thousands of workers, from volunteers to frontline
disaster specialists, who would be mobilised into a community of
purpose. The common factor among those people: they did great work, and
they did it together. It didn’t matter whether they were on the ground
in Haiti or at charity shops across the high streets of the UK.
most teams, there won’t be such an innate crisis to respond to, but
there should still always be a sense of meaning in their work. For a
team’s purpose to be potent, it needs to be compelling to its members.
You need to inspire your team, connect the team’s work to an exciting,
meaningful outcome, with a result that everyone finds personally
The Avengers, featuring Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor
is not just inspiring for comics fans. There’s a huge lesson about
teamwork you might not have paid attention to. Not just teamwork – but
the value of teams themselves.
The Avengers’ lesson is that ONE is better than one,
meaning that one team is better than one person. It is universally
different from five people versus one person. A group of five can
probably accomplish more than one person alone, but it’s when those five
people work together as a team when the magic happens.
part is making those five individuals put their egos aside, trust each
other, and act as a team. Captain America and Iron Man have a pretty
different view of the world, and compromise doesn’t come easy. But they
respect and trust one another despite their disagreements, and they can
see the value the other brings to the table. The abandonment of ego is
what allows you to become part of a whole that is greater than the sum
of its parts.
When you’re part of a team, a truly cohesive unit that functions with a single purpose, you can accomplish wonders.
This last story proving the importance of teamwork is about a US jet fighter pilot in Vietnam – Charles Plumb.
He had completed 75 combat missions when he was shot down. Plumb was
ejected and parachuted into enemy hands, where he spent six years in a
One day, a man came up to him and said, “You’re
Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty
Hawk. You were shot down!”
Plumb was confused and asked how the man knew about that. “I packed your parachute,” the man replied.
man then shook his hand and said, “I guess it worked!” Plumb assured
him it had and said, “If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here
Plumb thought a lot about that man who held the fate of
someone he did not even know, in his hands. He kept pondering how many
times he might have seen the guy, and not even said anything because he
was a fighter pilot and the stranger was just a sailor.”
Plumb is now a motivational speaker telling this story to hundreds.
After telling it, he always asks his audiences, “Who’s packing your
In our life, be it personal or work related, many
people have a hand in our parachutes. Are you taking the time to
acknowledge, thank, and reward them? It is very easy to overlook the
work of many. It takes a lot of people to create a team.
Us versus them
teams are facing an increasingly complicated set of challenges, it’s
the essentials that set the tone for successful teamwork – trust,
collaboration, hard work, appreciation, purpose, agility, and
Modern teams are vulnerable to a corrosive problem –
the “us versus them” thinking. Overcoming this requires a critical
condition: a shared mindset.
Hopefully, these stories
inspired you and helped to see teamwork from a new angle. Share them
with your team, and learn from these lessons together.
Merily Leis is the Digital Marketing Manager at Scoro, and a serial
entrepreneur with a track record in the lifestyle industry. She’s all
about growth hacking, fun facts, and llamas. Follow her: @merilyy
man is an island. From time to time, we all find we’ve gone as far as
we can go on our own. Therein lays the beauty of teamwork: a helping
hand to pick you up and see you through to the end.
the joy of working together, we’ve compiled the definitive list of the
best teams ever assembled, along with what each of them has to teach us.
We made our picks from all walks of life, from sports to space and from
fictional to factual.
As another summer Olympics came and went, there were rumblings about
this year’s U.S. men’s basketball team being the best ever. To all such
Lakers shooting guards we say, we’re gonna let you finish but the Dream
Team was the greatest basketball team ever assembled. The 1992 team’s
roster reads like a list of the greatest NBA players ever: Michael
Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles
Barkley. The Dreams won every game by an average of 40 points on their
way to gold. So sorry, Kobe; there will only ever be one true Dream
What we can learn from them: A practice game loss to a group of college players reminded the Olympians (and us) that motivation and hustle can overcome talent any time.
It’s been 85 years since the last work was published and this
crime-solving duo remains one of the most popular literary teams ever.
Sure, Holmes was the best crime-solver ever, but it was the way he
solved them that made him great. Never seeking recognition for his
genius, quietly thwarting horrible crimes or saving entire governments,
almost none of London’s other inhabitants knew the man at 221B Baker
Street was one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen. Without
Watson tagging along and documenting his cases, we never would have
known it either.
What we can learn from them: There is no such thing as a self-made man.
Name your favorite musical; odds are these guys wrote it. The
coming-together of these two musical virtuosos resulted in a 16-year
partnership that produced instant classics like Oklahoma!, State Fair, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.
For their work, they received a staggering 34 Tonys, 15 Academy Awards,
two Grammys, and a Pulitzer Prize. They were recently named to a list of top-earning deceased celebrities, proving America’s love of their work has not faded in the half a century since their last collaboration.
What we can learn from them: Rogers and Hammerstein
perfected their team dynamic: each had an extraordinary talent to which
the other deferred. As Hammerstein once said, “I hand him a lyric and
get out of his way.”
This is the only team on our list whose ranks are regularly changing,
as old members leave and new ones join. It’s also the only team that
doesn’t officially exist. The black operatives in this super-secret
group (which is formally called the United States Naval Special Warfare
Development Group) can swim hundreds of feet with their hands and feet
bound and are trained to withstand arctic temperatures and tear gas. As one author put it,
the SEALs are the Navy’s elite, and Team Six are the SEALs’ elite. On
May 2, 2011, the team cemented their spot as some of the greatest
soldiers in history by killing America’s Public Enemy Number One, Osama
What we can learn from them: They’re living testaments to what the human body can do.
It’s so cliche to call The Beatles the best band ever. It’s also
quite true. The influence of the music made by John Lennon, Paul
McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr on music and culture cannot
be overstated. They were more than the sum of their individual parts, as
some of their future projectswould
come to prove. Apart, Lennon and McCartney were good; together, with
McCartney providing the poppy, light optimism and Lennon the searching,
contemplative depth, they made music that will never be forgotten.
What we can learn from them: All good things, even the best things, must come to an end.
On their way to beating the Patriots so badly in Super Bowl XX that Patriots player Ron Wooten compared his team to the Washington Generals,
the ’85-’86 Bears stomped everyone in the league except the Dolphins
and Dan Marino, the Bears’ only loss of the year. There were William
“The Refrigerator” Perry playing both sides of the ball, the legendary
Walter Payton at running back, the solid Jim McMahon at QB, and the
speedy Willie Gault at receiver. With a suffocating defense that gave up
only 198 points all season (compared to the 456 points the offense put
up), the Bears shuffled their way past the undefeated 1972 Dolphins to
the spot of best NFL team ever.
What we can learn from them: It’s not bragging if you can really do it.
If we had room for two superhero teams on this list, The Avengers
would fill that second slot. But as it stands, the Justice League of
America (JLA) gets our nod as the greatest group of supers ever put to
paper (and later to film, many, many times). DC Comics’ team brings to
the world-saving table Superman’s struggle for “truth, justice, and the
American way;” Batman’s take-one-for-the-team nobility; Green Lantern’s
handy jewelry; and Aquaman’s, um, super-amazing breaststroke skills.
Besides, JLA could beat the Avengers in a fight.
What we can learn from them: In their first fight as
a team against the Appelaxian warriors, the JLA members learned they
had to work together to win. Ergo, killing aliens is easiest in teams.
Men walking on the Moon was one of the greatest moments in human
history; a giant leap, if you will. And while Armstrong and Aldrin will
always be the headliners of the accomplishment, they make up only about
0.0005% of the full Apollo 11 team. It took an estimated 400,000
scientists, engineers, and technicians to send them to our celestial
neighbor, from the seamstresses who
sewed 21 layers of fabric into each spacesuit to the contractors
scattered across the country who had never made parts for space travel
before. When the 400,000 watched the historic walk on TV on July 21,
1969, they each knew they’d been part of something special.
What we can learn from them: Even what seems like the most insignificant work on a team can be incredibly rewarding in the end.
This young crop of comics and comediennes first appeared on live TV
on Oct. 18, 1975. Although they started in the first season of Saturday Night Live as
unknowns, by the end of the season, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Dan
Akroyd, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtis, and Garrett Morris
were household names. And while other seasons’ casts have legitimate
arguments as being a funnier ensemble, The Not Ready for Primetime
Players paved the way. TV had never been edgier or more exciting week in
and week out, and even today’s cast falls far short of bringing the
public something it had never seen before.
doesn’t have to exist only in big, international companies. Smaller
organizations and businesses benefit when individual team members work
in cooperation with each other, setting and reaching unit and individual
goals. Take teamwork lessons from nature and from the experiences of
others and begin working together — not only will each member of your
IT or sales team benefit individually, but your entire team will see
Within Job Industries
employer and customers benefit when employees work together
collaboratively. If one customer service representative is on the phone
with a customer who has a particularly tricky technical issue, for
instance, it is better for several CSRs to assist that one
representative in trying different techniques and strategies to correct
the issue, suggests professional people-skills coach Kate Nasser.
each CSR is focused on her call-in numbers and calls completed, she can
take just a few minutes out of her day to suggest troubleshooting ideas
to a colleague. Although her call-in numbers and calls completed
numbers will fall, this will be temporary — and her colleague,
remembering the help he received, will be more willing to help other
coworkers in the future.
In Nature — Monkeys
monkeys learn that attempting to reach a banana results in a negative
consequence imposed by someone more powerful, they stop trying to reach
the banana. If one of the original monkeys leaves the group and a new
monkey replaces him, she will be attacked by the remaining original
monkeys when she spies the banana and tries to get it. She doesn’t know
why she is attacked, and she doesn’t know about the original
consequence. When another monkey from the original group leaves and is
replaced by yet a second new monkey, the same thing happens. The first
new monkey participates in the attack on the second new monkey.
of the new monkeys experienced the powerful entity’s initial
punishment, and they were attacked by the original monkeys remaining in
the group. As this process moves forward, eventually none of the
original monkeys remains in the group, but none of the new monkeys tries
to get the banana. Each new monkey learns that its counterparts don’t
try to get the reward, because that’s the way it has always been.
the monkeys’ learning experience into how your employees respond to new
procedures and policies in your business. Developing a new policy on
customer relations or generating sales leads, then introducing the new
methods to your employees, may generate a variety of responses. Because
the old method “is the way it’s always been done,” some employees will
resist, saying, “But we’ve always done it the old way and it worked. Why
fix what’s not broken?” This can create disharmony as some employees
try to adjust to the new policy while others continue to resist and
Manchester United soccer team relied on the teamwork and cooperation
between its two strikers, Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole. As they played
a match against another team, that opposition team scored a goal.
Sheringham blamed Cole and Cole blamed Sheringham. After this, the two
teammates never spoke to each other again.
Fast-forward to the
next year — 1998-1999; Cole and Sheringham continued competing on the
same team and cooperating with each other while on the soccer pitch,
despite not talking to one another. In that season, Manchester United
won the Premiership League, the FA Cup and the European Cup. One year
later, the team made 50 goals in 19 matches and scored 97 goals for the
Two people on a team may not like each other
personally, but if they are able to work together toward a common goal,
they can help the entire team reach that goal.
a company’s sales team works on moving into a new area, each team
member is responsible for learning about his particular territory. As
that team member accumulates new knowledge about sales prospects and
customers in the area, he can decide to keep this new knowledge to
himself as he pursues the highest individual sales goal for the team —
or he can share his knowledge so the entire team benefits, says Kate
Teamwork from Geese
from the flocks of geese that fly south before every winter season. If
you observe a flock’s behavior, you’ll see the geese in that flock
working together to achieve the common goal of reaching their winter
The geese honk at each other to encourage other geese
who are getting tired or straggling. When the entire flock flies
together in the V formation, each goose creates uplift and reduces drag
for the goose flying behind it. Each goose in a flock shares and rotates
the “front bird” position.
Your employees can learn from the
geese by verbally encouraging colleagues who are struggling and falling
behind, just as the geese honk to encourage each other. Develop a “team
mentality” in your different departments, reminding supervisors and
employees that when each department develops and shares a common goal,
achieving it becomes easier — like the geese flying in the “V”
formation. As you encourage teamwork and cooperation, allow several
employees to take leadership positions so your business benefits from
the different strengths of each employee. This practice allows your
business to practice the “front bird” behavior demonstrated by a flock
About the Author
Van Wyden began writing in 2007. She has written for “Tu Revista
Latina” and owns three blogs. She has worked as a CPS social worker,
gaining experience in the mental-health system. Van Wyden earned her
Bachelor of Arts in journalism from New Mexico State University in 2006.
Instead of retelling the same old stories about best teamwork
practices from companies such as Google, Chevron or Southwest airlines
(which don’t really help when you have a small-to-medium team), we
decided to find real-life examples of successful teamwork.
We asked everyday entrepreneurs, CEOs, and HR managers one simple question:
How did you improve teamwork in your organization?
Here are the best 9 examples we came across.
Developing teamwork should start as soon as the new employee walks through the door. According to Lauren McAdams, career advisor and hiring manager at ResumeCompanion.com,
the most successful method for creating excellent intra-team relations
were instilling a sense of teamwork early on in the onboarding process.
”While we do experiment with different team-building measures, there are three that have become common practice:
during onboarding, we have new employees shadow an experienced “coach”
who is tasked with helping their integration into the team. After the
initial phase, we assign the new employees to shadow other people so
they get to have more than one “coach”.
when we begin a new project, I personally assign mini-teams to handle
those projects. These smaller units are often comprised, in part, of
employees who haven’t had a chance to work together. This way, new hires
get an opportunity to work and develop relationships with everyone they
leadership rotates on these projects so different people have a chance
to test their leadership skills. Also, since project teams always have
different people on them, everyone in the company gets to know each
other at some point by working together. This level of exposure and
collaboration resulted in very strong teamwork at our company.”
Some organizations encourage their employees to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Lee Fisher, an HR manager at Blinds Direct,
says that successful teamwork should be based on solidarity, respect,
communication, and mutual understanding. With that in mind, his company
has been organizing a series of team building events over the years.
most unconventional event to date was the ‘Role Switch’. It was
launched across our web and marketing department. In the event, each
team member switches roles with a colleague. Usually, team members work
together closely but they don’t really understand the complexities of
other person’s role.
Spending a day in your
colleague’s shoes highlights their efforts, which brings more
understanding and respect for one another. The ‘Role Switch’ was a huge
success: it brought the team closer together and made people more
considerate of other’s workloads and requirements.”
experience with your peers is important, but recognizing where they can
best help you improve is even more important. According to Steven Benson, founder, and CEO of Badger Maps,
his company has benefited from one self-initiated cross-training
session which resulted in the increase in both teamwork and
”An example of successful teamwork at our
company was when the customer relation department put together an
initiative of cross-training and specializing team members for different
roles. After deciding who will focus on what, the group sat down and
taught one another what they would need to become the expert in their
Because people were
cross-trained, they had a broader set of skills they could use to handle
customer interaction – which resulted in fewer hand-offs. This not only
enhanced teamwork and productivity, but also improved customer
satisfaction. Everyone worked as a team and covered for one another,
which made everything move smoothly and quickly.”
Scheduled breaks and self-reflection
Publicly reflecting on achievements increases everyone’s morale. Bryan Koontz, CEO of Guidefitter,
considers teamwork to be more than just brainstorming ideas or helping a
colleague on a project – it’s about fostering a culture of trust and
“A few ways we cultivate an
environment of trust and respect is through meetings, or rather
“breaks”, that don’t necessarily focus on work. By scheduling “break”
times in our calendars, we allow our employees to talk, relax, and
discuss the ins-and-outs of their days.
strengthen our teams through brief weekly meetings with the entire
office: each Wednesday morning we huddle up to recap the past week, with
each employee sharing one professional and one personal “win”. This
encourages everyone to pause for self-reflection on their achievements,
often serving as motivation to their peers while forging a bond among
our team members.”
Members of jelled teams have a strong sense of identity and often share traditions like getting together for a drink after work. According to Katerina Trajchevska co-founder and CEO of Adeva, establishing team traditions is the foundation upon which teamwork is built.
than using one particular method for strengthening our team, we focus
on creating an environment that fosters team spirit and communication.
We organize after hours drinks and hangouts, and develop a culture that
encourages everyone to speak up and take part in the big decisions for
Team traditions can do wonders, no
matter how trivial they seem: we have a team lunch every Friday,
celebrate birthdays and other important dates, and celebrate one of our
national holidays together. All of this has contributed to a more
cohesive and a close-knit team.”
Unconventional business meetings
Some companies use their business meetings to improve teamwork within the organization by making them fun and laid-back. James Lloyd-Townshend, CEO of Frank Recruitment Group believes
that bringing teams together in an informal environment improves
teamwork, strengthens bonds, and bolsters morale – which is why he
decided to spice up company’s monthly meetings.
unusual method we’ve introduced is “First Thursdays”: we start off our
monthly business meetings with a business review, promotions, and awards
– and then move on to an open bar event.
from “First Thursdays,” we also have “Lunch Club”: another monthly event
where employees enjoy an all-expense-paid afternoon to celebrate their
success and enjoy fine dining and have fun with their colleagues.
the most popular team building method we employ is our incentivised
weekends away. Our top-performing consultants get the chance to travel
to major cities such as London, New York, and Miami as the rewards for
their hard work.”
Some companies are building teamwork through peer recognition. Jacob Dayan, a partner, and co-founder of Community Tax said that encouraging employees to be active participants in
recognizing their peers has proven to be quite a powerful motivational
”I ask employees to share or report
instances when someone on their or another team has been particularly
helpful or has gone above and beyond their call of duty. After we thank
the contributing employee for their input, we make sure the employee
being acknowledged knows the source of information. Having employees
“nominate” their peers for recognition has the additional bonus of
bringing them closer together and building camaraderie with long-term
However, Mr. Dayan is well aware
that peer reports and nominations can be driven by personal feelings
(positive as well as negative), and can give an unrealistic
representation of certain employee’s contribution.
relationships, both close and less so, are an important consideration
when pursuing this approach, which is why we do not hand out recognition
without validating the worthiness of the employee’s contribution. We
ask the appropriate manager to review the submission and keep an eye on
it over time, just to make sure there are no dubious activities.”
teamwork happens when members of a group trust each other, are
comfortable expressing themselves, and deal effectively with conflict,
according to Laura MacLeod, a licensed social worker specialized in group work, an HR consultant, and a mastermind behind “From the inside out project”.
companies think that team building is about company picnics, happy
hours, and other fun events. These things are fine, but they don’t
address the real issues people face when they have to work together.
Going out for a drink with someone you can’t get along with will be just
as uncomfortable and awkward as trying to finish a project with that
person – the only difference is having alcohol as a buffer.”
According to Laura, certain team building exercises can help individuals overcome both intragroup and personal conflicts.
simple activities that help build cohesion and trust amongst team
members. For example, you can use “Pantomime in a circle” exercise:
without using words, pass an imaginary object (a bucket of water or a
ball) around the circle; the point of the exercise is for group members
to rely on each other to complete the activity.
it comes to personal misunderstandings, you might want to choose an
activity where you are actually allowed to yell at a person. So, pair
off people and have them repeat opposing sentences (such as it’s
hot/it’s cold) back and forth – going from soft to very loud. This will
allow people to get out strong emotions in a non-threatening way, and
blow off some steam in the process.”
“Spotless” team building exercise
Dmitri Kara, a tenancy expert at Fantastic Cleaners, shared with us a team building exercise his team uses to increase cooperation and efficiency.
in the office has to simultaneously perform a 2-to-5-minute cleaning
routine (like wipe their desk, keyboard, monitor, shelves). But there’s a
catch: the tools are limited. For example, make everybody wipe the dust
off their desks at the same time but provide only 2 sprayers and 1 roll
of paper towel (if your team has 10 members)-. Scarcity will encourage
people to share and help each other.”
obvious benefits (like cleaner working environment), Dmitri says this
team building activity boosts organization, improves long-term
productivity, and develops a sense of moral, discipline, and shared
responsibility. He even shares how the exercise came into being:
first it was not really a dedicated exercise. The first time we did it
all together, it was because of a video shoot. But since it felt good, a
few days later somebody said, “let’s do that again”. And that’s where
the whole thing came to be.”
Like most 25-year-olds, Julia Rozovsky wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. She had
worked at a consulting firm, but it wasn’t a good match. Then she
became a researcher for two professors at Harvard, which was interesting
but lonely. Maybe a big corporation would be a better fit. Or perhaps a
fast-growing start-up. All she knew for certain was that she wanted to
find a job that was more social. ‘‘I wanted to be part of a community,
part of something people were building together,’’ she told me. She
thought about various opportunities — Internet companies, a Ph.D.
program — but nothing seemed exactly right. So in 2009, she chose the
path that allowed her to put off making a decision: She applied to
business schools and was accepted by the Yale School of Management.
Rozovsky arrived on campus, she was assigned to a study group carefully
engineered by the school to foster tight bonds. Study groups have
become a rite of passage at M.B.A. programs, a way for students to
practice working in teams and a reflection of the increasing demand for
employees who can adroitly navigate group dynamics. A worker today might
start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers, then send
emails to colleagues marketing a new brand, then jump on a conference
call planning an entirely different product line, while also juggling
team meetings with accounting and the party-planning committee. To
prepare students for that complex world, business schools around the
country have revised their curriculums to emphasize team-focused
Every day, between classes or after dinner, Rozovsky and
her four teammates gathered to discuss homework assignments, compare
spreadsheets and strategize for exams. Everyone was smart and curious,
and they had a lot in common: They had gone to similar colleges and had
worked at analogous firms. These shared experiences, Rozovsky hoped,
would make it easy for them to work well together. But it didn’t turn
out that way. ‘‘There are lots of people who say some of their best
business-school friends come from their study groups,’’ Rozovsky told
me. ‘‘It wasn’t like that for me.’’
Instead, Rozovsky’s study
group was a source of stress. ‘‘I always felt like I had to prove
myself,’’ she said. The team’s dynamics could put her on edge. When the
group met, teammates sometimes jockeyed for the leadership position or
criticized one another’s ideas. There were conflicts over who was in
charge and who got to represent the group in class. ‘‘People would try
to show authority by speaking louder or talking over each other,’’
Rozovsky told me. ‘‘I always felt like I had to be careful not to make
mistakes around them.’’
So Rozovsky started
looking for other groups she could join. A classmate mentioned that some
students were putting together teams for ‘‘case competitions,’’
contests in which participants proposed solutions to real-world business
problems that were evaluated by judges, who awarded trophies and cash.
The competitions were voluntary, but the work wasn’t all that different
from what Rozovsky did with her study group: conducting lots of research
and financial analyses, writing reports and giving presentations. The
members of her case-competition team had a variety of professional
experiences: Army officer, researcher at a think tank, director of a
health-education nonprofit organization and consultant to a refugee
program. Despite their disparate backgrounds, however, everyone clicked.
They emailed one another dumb jokes and usually spent the first 10
minutes of each meeting chatting. When it came time to brainstorm, ‘‘we
had lots of crazy ideas,’’ Rozovsky said.
One of her favorite
competitions asked teams to come up with a new business to replace a
student-run snack store on Yale’s campus. Rozovsky proposed a nap room
and selling earplugs and eyeshades to make money. Someone else suggested
filling the space with old video games. There were ideas about clothing
swaps. Most of the proposals were impractical, but ‘‘we all felt like
we could say anything to each other,’’ Rozovsky told me. ‘‘No one
worried that the rest of the team was judging them.’’ Eventually, the
team settled on a plan for a microgym with a handful of exercise
classes and a few weight machines. They won the competition. (The
microgym — with two stationary bicycles and three treadmills — still
Rozovsky’s study group dissolved in her second semester
(it was up to the students whether they wanted to continue). Her case
team, however, stuck together for the two years she was at Yale.
always struck Rozovsky as odd that her experiences with the two groups
were dissimilar. Each was composed of people who were bright and
outgoing. When she talked one on one with members of her study group,
the exchanges were friendly and warm. It was only when they gathered as a
team that things became fraught. By contrast, her case-competition team
was always fun and easygoing. In some ways, the team’s members got
along better as a group than as individual friends.
figure out why things had turned out so different,’’ Rozovsky told me.
‘‘It didn’t seem like it had to happen that way.’’
Our data-saturated age enables us to examine our work habits and office quirks with a scrutiny
that our cubicle-bound forebears could only dream of. Today, on
corporate campuses and within university laboratories, psychologists,
sociologists and statisticians are devoting themselves to studying
everything from team composition to email patterns in order to figure
out how to make employees into faster, better and more productive
versions of themselves. ‘‘We’re living through a golden age of
understanding personal productivity,’’ says Marshall Van Alstyne, a
professor at Boston University who studies how people share information.
‘‘All of a sudden, we can pick apart the small choices that all of us
make, decisions most of us don’t even notice, and figure out why some
people are so much more effective than everyone else.’’
many of today’s most valuable firms have come to realize that analyzing
and improving individual workers — a practice known as ‘‘employee
performance optimization’’ — isn’t enough. As commerce becomes
increasingly global and complex, the bulk of modern work is more and
more team-based. One study, published in The Harvard Business Review last month,
found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative
activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’’ over the last two
decades and that, at many companies, more than three-quarters of an
employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.
Valley, software engineers are encouraged to work together, in part
because studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes
more quickly and find better solutions to problems. Studies also show
that people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report
higher job satisfaction. In a 2015 study, executives said that
profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more.
Within companies and conglomerates, as well as in government agencies
and schools, teams are now the fundamental unit of organization. If a
company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not
only how people work but also how they work together.
years ago, Google — one of the most public proselytizers of how
studying workers can transform productivity — became focused on building
the perfect team. In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold
millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’
lives. Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything
from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive
employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions)
to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good
communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical; more shocking,
this was news to many Google managers).
The company’s top
executives long believed that building the best teams meant combining
the best people. They embraced other bits of conventional wisdom as
well, like ‘‘It’s better to put introverts together,’’ said Abeer Dubey,
a manager in Google’s People Analytics division, or ‘‘Teams are more
effective when everyone is friends away from work.’’ But, Dubey went on,
‘‘it turned out no one had really studied which of those were true.’’
2012, the company embarked on an initiative — code-named Project
Aristotle — to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some
stumbled while others soared. Dubey, a leader of the project, gathered
some of the company’s best statisticians, organizational psychologists,
sociologists and engineers. He also needed researchers. Rozovsky, by
then, had decided that what she wanted to do with her life was study
people’s habits and tendencies. After graduating from Yale, she was
hired by Google and was soon assigned to Project Aristotle.
Project Aristotle’s researchers began
by reviewing a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams
worked. Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Or
did it matter more whether everyone was motivated by the same kinds of
rewards? Based on those studies, the researchers scrutinized the
composition of groups inside Google: How often did teammates socialize
outside the office? Did they have the same hobbies? Were their
educational backgrounds similar? Was it better for all teammates to be
outgoing or for all of them to be shy? They drew diagrams showing which
teams had overlapping memberships and which groups had exceeded their
departments’ goals. They studied how long teams stuck together and if
gender balance seemed to have an impact on a team’s success.
matter how researchers arranged the data, though, it was almost
impossible to find patterns — or any evidence that the composition of a
team made any difference. ‘‘We looked at 180 teams from all over the
company,’’ Dubey said. ‘‘We had lots of data, but there was nothing
showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or
backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t
seem to matter.’’
Some groups that were ranked among Google’s most
effective teams, for instance, were composed of friends who socialized
outside work. Others were made up of people who were basically strangers
away from the conference room. Some groups sought strong managers.
Others preferred a less hierarchical structure. Most confounding of all,
two teams might have nearly identical makeups, with overlapping
memberships, but radically different levels of effectiveness. ‘‘At
Google, we’re good at finding patterns,’’ Dubey said. ‘‘There weren’t
strong patterns here.’’
As they struggled to figure out what made a
team successful, Rozovsky and her colleagues kept coming across
research by psychologists and sociologists that focused on what are
known as ‘‘group norms.’’ Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards
and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather: One
team may come to a consensus that avoiding disagreement is more valuable
than debate; another team might develop a culture that encourages
vigorous arguments and spurns groupthink. Norms can be unspoken or
openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound. Team members
may behave in certain ways as individuals — they may chafe against
authority or prefer working independently — but when they gather, the
group’s norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage
deference to the team.
Project Aristotle’s researchers began
searching through the data they had collected, looking for norms. They
looked for instances when team members described a particular behavior
as an ‘‘unwritten rule’’ or when they explained certain things as part
of the ‘‘team’s culture.’’ Some groups said that teammates interrupted
one another constantly and that team leaders reinforced that behavior by
interrupting others themselves. On other teams, leaders enforced
conversational order, and when someone cut off a teammate, group members
would politely ask everyone to wait his or her turn. Some teams
celebrated birthdays and began each meeting with informal chitchat about
weekend plans. Other groups got right to business and discouraged
gossip. There were teams that contained outsize personalities who hewed
to their group’s sedate norms, and others in which introverts came out
of their shells as soon as meetings began.
CreditIllustration by James Graham
looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Project
Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group
norms were the keys to improving Google’s teams. But Rozovsky, now a
lead researcher, needed to figure out which norms mattered most.
Google’s research had identified dozens of behaviors that seemed
important, except that sometimes the norms of one effective team
contrasted sharply with those of another equally successful group. Was
it better to let everyone speak as much as they wanted, or should strong
leaders end meandering debates? Was it more effective for people to
openly disagree with one another, or should conflicts be played down?
The data didn’t offer clear verdicts. In fact, the data sometimes
pointed in opposite directions. The only thing worse than not finding a
pattern is finding too many of them. Which norms, Rozovsky and her
colleagues wondered, were the ones that successful teams shared?
Imagine you have been invited to join one of two groups.
A is composed of people who are all exceptionally smart and successful.
When you watch a video of this group working, you see professionals who
wait until a topic arises in which they are expert, and then they speak
at length, explaining what the group ought to do. When someone makes a
side comment, the speaker stops, reminds everyone of the agenda and
pushes the meeting back on track. This team is efficient. There is no
idle chitchat or long debates. The meeting ends as scheduled and
disbands so everyone can get back to their desks.
Team B is
different. It’s evenly divided between successful executives and middle
managers with few professional accomplishments. Teammates jump in and
out of discussions. People interject and complete one another’s
thoughts. When a team member abruptly changes the topic, the rest of the
group follows him off the agenda. At the end of the meeting, the
meeting doesn’t actually end: Everyone sits around to gossip and talk
about their lives.
Which group would you rather join?
2008, a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union
College began to try to answer a question very much like this one.
‘‘Over the past century, psychologists made considerable progress in
defining and systematically measuring intelligence in individuals,’’ the
researchers wrote in the journal Science in 2010.
‘‘We have used the statistical approach they developed for individual
intelligence to systematically measure the intelligence of groups.’’ Put
differently, the researchers wanted to know if there is a collective
I. Q. that emerges within a team that is distinct from the smarts of any
To accomplish this, the researchers recruited 699
people, divided them into small groups and gave each a series of
assignments that required different kinds of cooperation. One
assignment, for instance, asked participants to brainstorm possible uses
for a brick. Some teams came up with dozens of clever uses; others kept
describing the same ideas in different words. Another had the groups
plan a shopping trip and gave each teammate a different list of
groceries. The only way to maximize the group’s score was for each
person to sacrifice an item they really wanted for something the team
needed. Some groups easily divvied up the buying; others couldn’t fill
their shopping carts because no one was willing to compromise.
interested the researchers most, however, was that teams that did well
on one assignment usually did well on all the others. Conversely, teams
that failed at one thing seemed to fail at everything. The researchers
eventually concluded that what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the
dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right
norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence,
whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all
the members were exceptionally bright.
But what was confusing was
that not all the good teams appeared to behave in the same ways. ‘‘Some
teams had a bunch of smart people who figured out how to break up work
evenly,’’ said Anita Woolley, the study’s lead author. ‘‘Other groups
had pretty average members, but they came up with ways to take advantage
of everyone’s relative strengths. Some groups had one strong leader.
Others were more fluid, and everyone took a leadership role.’’
the researchers studied the groups, however, they noticed two behaviors
that all the good teams generally shared. First, on the good teams,
members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the
researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational
turn-taking.’’ 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. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk,
the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small
group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’
the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy
way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on
their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of
the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos
of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are
thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes
test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored
above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to
know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the
ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a
group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues.
words, if you are given a choice between the serious-minded Team A or
the free-flowing Team B, you should probably opt for Team B. Team A may
be filled with smart people, all optimized for peak individual
efficiency. But the group’s norms discourage equal speaking; there are
few exchanges of the kind of personal information that lets teammates
pick up on what people are feeling or leaving unsaid. There’s a good
chance the members of Team A will continue to act like individuals once
they come together, and there’s little to suggest that, as a group, they
will become more collectively intelligent.
contrast, on Team B, people may speak over one another, go on tangents
and socialize instead of remaining focused on the agenda. The team may
seem inefficient to a casual observer. But all the team members speak as
much as they need to. They are sensitive to one another’s moods and
share personal stories and emotions. While Team B might not contain as
many individual stars, the sum will be greater than its parts.
psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like
‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as
aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a group culture that
the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a
‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for
interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of
confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone
for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999.
‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and
mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’
Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of
psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything
suddenly fell into place. One engineer, for instance, had told
researchers that his team leader was ‘‘direct and straightforward, which
creates a safe space for you to take risks.’’ That team, researchers
estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups. By contrast, another
engineer had told the researchers that his ‘‘team leader has poor
emotional control.’’ He added: ‘‘He panics over small issues and keeps
trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the
passenger seat, because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel
and crash the car.’’ That team, researchers presumed, did not perform
Most of all, employees had talked about how various teams
felt. ‘‘And that made a lot of sense to me, maybe because of my
experiences at Yale,’’ Rozovsky said. ‘‘I’d been on some teams that left
me feeling totally exhausted and others where I got so much energy from
the group.’’ Rozovsky’s study group at Yale was draining because the
norms — the fights over leadership, the tendency to critique — put her
on guard. Whereas the norms of her case-competition team — enthusiasm
for one another’s ideas, joking around and having fun — allowed everyone
to feel relaxed and energized.
Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms
that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed
important as well — like making sure teams had 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
‘‘We had to get people to establish psychologically
safe environments,’’ Rozovsky told me. But it wasn’t clear how to do
that. ‘‘People here are really busy,’’ she said. ‘‘We needed clear
However, establishing psychological safety is, by
its very nature, somewhat messy and difficult to implement. You can tell
people to take turns during a conversation and to listen to one another
more. You can instruct employees to be sensitive to how their
colleagues feel and to notice when someone seems upset. But 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
Rozovsky and her colleagues had figured out which
norms were most critical. Now they had to find a way to make
communication and empathy — the building blocks of forging real
connections — into an algorithm they could easily scale.
In late 2014, Rozovsky
and her fellow Project Aristotle number-crunchers began sharing their
findings with select groups of Google’s 51,000 employees. By then, they
had been collecting surveys, conducting interviews and analyzing
statistics for almost three years. They hadn’t yet figured out how to
make psychological safety easy, but they hoped that publicizing their
research within Google would prompt employees to come up with some ideas
of their own.
After Rozovsky gave one presentation, a trim,
athletic man named Matt Sakaguchi approached the Project Aristotle
researchers. Sakaguchi had an unusual background for a Google employee.
Twenty years earlier, he was a member of a SWAT team in Walnut Creek,
Calif., but left to become an electronics salesman and eventually landed
at Google as a midlevel manager, where he has overseen teams of
engineers who respond when the company’s websites or servers go down.
CreditIllustration by James Graham
ImageCreditIllustration by James Graham
might be the luckiest individual on earth,’’ Sakaguchi told me. ‘‘I’m
not really an engineer. I didn’t study computers in college. Everyone
who works for me is much smarter than I am.’’ But he is talented at
managing technical workers, and as a result, Sakaguchi has thrived at
Google. He and his wife, a teacher, have a home in San Francisco and a
weekend house in the Sonoma Valley wine country. ‘‘Most days, I feel
like I’ve won the lottery,’’ he said.
was particularly interested in Project Aristotle because the team he
previously oversaw at Google hadn’t jelled particularly well. ‘‘There
was one senior engineer who would just talk and talk, and everyone was
scared to disagree with him,’’ Sakaguchi said. ‘‘The hardest part was
that everyone liked this guy outside the group setting, but whenever
they got together as a team, something happened that made the culture go
Sakaguchi had recently become the manager of a new team,
and he wanted to make sure things went better this time. So he asked
researchers at Project Aristotle if they could help. They provided him
with a survey to gauge the group’s norms.
When Sakaguchi asked his
new team to participate, he was greeted with skepticism. ‘‘It seemed
like a total waste of time,’’ said Sean Laurent, an engineer. ‘‘But Matt
was our new boss, and he was really into this questionnaire, and so we
said, Sure, we’ll do it, whatever.’’
The team completed the
survey, and a few weeks later, Sakaguchi received the results. He was
surprised by what they revealed. He thought of the team as a strong
unit. But the results indicated there were weaknesses: When asked to
rate whether the role of the team was clearly understood and whether
their work had impact, members of the team gave middling to poor scores.
These responses troubled Sakaguchi, because he hadn’t picked up on this
discontent. He wanted everyone to feel fulfilled by their work. He
asked the team to gather, off site, to discuss the survey’s results. He
began by asking everyone to share something personal about themselves.
He went first.
‘‘I think one of the things most people don’t know
about me,’’ he told the group, ‘‘is that I have Stage 4 cancer.’’ In
2001, he said, a doctor discovered a tumor in his kidney. By the time
the cancer was detected, it had spread to his spine. For nearly half a
decade, it had grown slowly as he underwent treatment while working at
Google. Recently, however, doctors had found a new, worrisome spot on a
scan of his liver. That was far more serious, he explained.
knew what to say. The team had been working with Sakaguchi for 10
months. They all liked him, just as they all liked one another. No one
suspected that he was dealing with anything like this.
have Matt stand there and tell us that he’s sick and he’s not going to
get better and, you know, what that means,’’ Laurent said. ‘‘It was a
really hard, really special moment.’’
After Sakaguchi spoke,
another teammate stood and described some health issues of her own. Then
another discussed a difficult breakup. Eventually, the team shifted its
focus to the survey. They found it easier to speak honestly about the
things that had been bothering them, their small frictions and everyday
annoyances. They agreed to adopt some new norms: From now on, Sakaguchi
would make an extra effort to let the team members know how their work
fit into Google’s larger mission; they agreed to try harder to notice
when someone on the team was feeling excluded or down.
nothing in the survey that instructed Sakaguchi to share his illness
with the group. There was nothing in Project Aristotle’s research that
said that getting people to open up about their struggles was critical
to discussing a group’s norms. But to Sakaguchi, it made sense that
psychological safety and emotional conversations were related. The
behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking
and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as
individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds
matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter
‘‘I think, until the off-site, I had
separated things in my head into work life and life life,’’ Laurent told
me. ‘‘But the thing is, my work is my life. I spend the majority of my
time working. Most of my friends I know through work. If I can’t be open
and honest at work, then I’m not really living, am I?’’
Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants
to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to
leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully
present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we
can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without
fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or
sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us
crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the
morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails
to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want
to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is
more than just labor.
Which isn’t to say that a team needs an
ailing manager to come together. Any group can become Team B.
Sakaguchi’s experiences underscore a core lesson of Google’s research
into teamwork: By adopting the data-driven approach of Silicon Valley,
Project Aristotle has encouraged emotional conversations and discussions
of norms among people who might otherwise be uncomfortable talking
about how they feel. ‘‘Googlers love data,’’ Sakaguchi told me. But it’s
not only Google that loves numbers, or Silicon Valley that shies away
from emotional conversations. Most workplaces do. ‘‘By putting things
like empathy and sensitivity into charts and data reports, it makes them
easier to talk about,’’ Sakaguchi told me. ‘‘It’s easier to talk about
our feelings when we can point to a number.’’
knows that the spread of his cancer means he may not have much time
left. His wife has asked him why he doesn’t quit Google. At some point,
he probably will. But right now, helping his team succeed ‘‘is the most
meaningful work I’ve ever done,’’ he told me. He encourages the group to
think about the way work and life mesh. Part of that, he says, is
recognizing how fulfilling work can be. Project Aristotle ‘‘proves how
much a great team matters,’’ he said. ‘‘Why would I walk away from that?
Why wouldn’t I spend time with people who care about me?’’
The technology industry is not just one of the fastest growing parts of our economy; it is also
increasingly the world’s dominant commercial culture. And 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 and search out the disruptive and the new.
paradox, of course, 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.
The fact that these insights
aren’t wholly original doesn’t mean Google’s contributions aren’t
valuable. In fact, in some ways, the ‘‘employee performance
optimization’’ movement has given us a method for talking about our
insecurities, fears and aspirations in more constructive ways. It also
has given us the tools to quickly teach lessons that once took managers
decades to absorb. Google, in other words, in its race to build the
perfect team, has perhaps unintentionally demonstrated the usefulness of
imperfection and done what Silicon Valley does best: figure out how to
create psychological safety faster, better and in more productive ways.
having data that proves to people that these things are worth paying
attention to sometimes is the most important step in getting them to
actually pay attention,’’ Rozovsky told me. ‘‘Don’t underestimate the
power of giving people a common platform and operating language.’’
Aristotle is a reminder that 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. Rozovsky herself was reminded of this
midway through her work with the Project Aristotle team. ‘‘We were in a
meeting where I made a mistake,’’ Rozovsky told me. She sent out a note
afterward explaining how she was going to remedy the problem. ‘‘I got an
email back from a team member that said, ‘Ouch,’ ’’ she recalled. ‘‘It
was like a punch to the gut. I was already upset about making this
mistake, and this note totally played on my insecurities.’’
this had happened earlier in Rozovsky’s life — if it had occurred while
she was at Yale, for instance, in her study group — she probably
wouldn’t have known how to deal with those feelings. The email wasn’t a
big enough affront to justify a response. But all the same, it really
bothered her. It was something she felt she needed to address.
thanks to Project Aristotle, she now had a vocabulary for explaining to
herself what she was feeling and why it was important. She had graphs
and charts telling her that she shouldn’t just let it go. And so she
typed a quick response: ‘‘Nothing like a good ‘Ouch!’ to destroy psych
safety in the morning.’’ Her teammate replied: ‘‘Just testing your
‘‘That could have been the wrong thing to say to
someone else, but he knew it was exactly what I needed to hear,’’
Rozovsky said. ‘‘With one 30-second interaction, we defused the
tension.’’ She wanted to be listened to. She wanted her teammate to be
sensitive to what she was feeling. ‘‘And I had research telling me that
it was O.K. to follow my gut,’’ she said. ‘‘So that’s what I did. The
data helped me feel safe enough to do what I thought was right.’’
Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times and
the paper’s senior editor of live journalism. He is the author of ‘‘The
Power of Habit’’ and the forthcoming book ‘‘Smarter Faster Better: The
Secrets of Productivity in Life and Business,’’ from which this article
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