In Teams We Trust

In some organizations, “teamwork” is a buzzword. But in others, it has become a latter-day Holy Grail—pursued obsessively, but not always productively. What makes the difference?

In February, a profound article in the New York Times Magazine, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” revealed some interesting, data-driven findings for our teamwork-obsessed economy.

Here’s what the article (by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Charles Duhigg) says about why some work teams are energetic and productive—and others produce little (except perhaps for extra stress).

Google’s findings

  1. Team function has little, if any, correlation to members’ education, compensation, social status, organizational rank, or outside-of-work connection.
  2. One major factor—if not the major factor—in team success is how comfortable members are sharing their thoughts. Social scientists describe this feeling as “psychological safety.”
  3. Psychological safety stems from “conversational turn-taking” (when team members spend about the same amount of time talking) and members’ empathy.

In Duhigg’s words, “In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings.”

Finally (and perhaps most excitingly), in another direct quote from the article:

   4. “Empathy and sensitivity can be measured.”

Why is this exciting?

It’s exciting to great team leaders because Google’s five-year study (dubbed “Project Aristotle”) confirms what they’ve learned from experience: that people who feel heard and respected work better together, and they contribute more.

It’s exciting to productivity and stress-reduction consultants (like me) because Google, the world’s most famous data-driven organization, has just confirmed decades of our own on-site observations and recommendations.

It’s exciting to the MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) community (of which I’m also a member) because mindfulness is the best-known, most scientifically accepted way to boost empathy and sensitivity.

Why mindfulness matters to groups

Psychological safety (a feeling we have about groups) is closely akin to trust (a feeling we associate with individuals). Mindfulness (being aware of one’s surroundings, including others within those surroundings) is supportive of both.

Mindfulness supports trust by helping us accurately perceive individuals’ tones of voice, postures and facial expressions.

Mindfulness supports psychological safety by helping us “tune into” group dynamics and interact with empathy. Mindfulness also helps us stay calm and confident when we sense that other group members may not be.

Mindfulness is like WiFi.

At work, as in all aspects of life, we all have a fundamental need for interpersonal connection. In fact, one of the most primal, universal human fears is being alone, abandoned and helpless.

Psychological safety reduces that primal fear within groups, freeing participants to think and contribute fully.

By developing mindfulness-supported empathy and trust, we not only contribute to our group’s psychological safety, we also connect to a universal network of primal motivation. Learning to help others feel less alone tends to reduce our own aloneness.

We help create teams of people who care for each other, and who instinctively build good things together. Ultimately, we find ourselves part of flexible, sustainable, vibrant business and social groups that can grow, ebb and flow without retribution or rancor.

Paradoxically, such an inclusive attitude “comes back around” to enhance our individual wellbeing—and career prospects.

Because, as cutting-edge corporations like Google know, inclusion has become the most productive strategic path.

Here are some simple mindfulness exercises to help boost your empathysensitivity and psychological safety. Here is one to help others feel psychologically safe.

Try them and see if they change how you experience teams. And as always, let me know how it goes.