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  • Writer's pictureJason Griffing

The Key Ingredients of High-Performing Teams

Study conducted at Google identified five “effectiveness pillars”

Impactful Ideas - at a glance:

  • Google’s Project Aristotle was a comprehensive and rigorous study aimed at identifying the top factors that contribute to high-performing teams.

  • The study identified five factors that drive results; they called these the “Effectiveness Pillars”.

  • The “Effectiveness Pillars” included psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact.

  • Of these pillars, psychological safety was determined to be “by far” the most important.

  • There are simple, common-sense practices that, when exercised regularly and embedded into your culture, can create a psychologically safe environment where people are able to do their best work.


It’s a question as old as business itself: Why do some teams perform at a level far greater than the sum of their parts while others fail to live up to their potential? In 2012, a team of researchers at Google set out to answer this question. They named their study “Project Aristotle” after the famous philosopher’s quote—“the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The comprehensive study looked at 180 teams across Google. Participating teams ranged in size from three to fifty, with a median size of nine, and included both low-performing and high-performing groups. The researchers conducted hundreds of double-blind interviews with leaders. They also looked at over 250 items from the company's annual employee engagement survey and gDNA, the company's longitudinal study on work and life. The researchers then ran over 35 different statistical models on hundreds of different variables in order to identify the factors that:

  • Impacted multiple qualitative and quantitative performance metrics;

  • surfaced consistently for different types of teams across the company;

  • showed robust statistical significance.

What the study found might surprise you. Before we dive into the factors that had the biggest impact on performance, consider first a handful of factors the researchers determined didn’t matter:

  • Colocation of teams: Turns out you don’t need to force your whole team to come to the office every day. Who knew?

  • Individual performance of team members: It matters less whose on the team and more how the team works together. Brilliant jerks need not apply.

  • Extroversion of team members: Quietness does not equate to a lack of good ideas.

  • Seniority: Years worked doesn't always equate to ongoing skills growth.

Now, on to what did matter…

The Five Effectiveness Pillars

The team identified five “effectiveness pillars” that drive high-performing teams. In order of importance, they were:

1) Psychological safety: “By far” the most important factor the study identified, psychological safety describes an individual's perception of taking interpersonal risks. On teams with high levels of psychological safety, teammates feel confident that they will not be punished or embarrassed for behaviors such as making mistakes, asking questions, offering new ideas, taking a contrarian position, or offering tough feedback.

2) Dependability: Team members reliably complete their work on time and at a high-quality level. No one shirks responsibilities.

3) Structure and clarity: Individuals have clear job expectations, understand exactly how to fulfill these expectations, and know the consequences of how their performance impacts the team. Goals, at both the individual and team level, are specific, challenging, and attainable.

4) Meaning: Individuals have a clear sense of purpose in their work. The specific purpose can vary from person to person (e.g. financial security, helping the team succeed, or self-expression).

5) Impact: The subjective judgment that one's work makes a difference, contributing to the organization's goals.

Make it Safe

Perhaps most interesting is the note that psychological safety was determined to be "by far" the most important factor in driving high-performing teams. The researchers on Project Aristotle found that Individuals on teams with high levels of psychological safety:

  • were less likely to leave the company;

  • were more likely to seek and leverage diverse ideas from their teammates;

  • contributed more to revenue;

  • and were rated effective twice as often by executives.

Quite the return when all that’s being asked for is a little safe space. So what is psychological safety all about?

The term psychological safety was first introduced by Amy Edmondson of Harvard. She defines it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” In order to measure psychological safety, Edmondson asks team members to answer how strongly they agree or disagree with the following statements:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.

  • Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.

  • People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.

  • It is safe to take a risk on this team.

  • It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.

  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.

  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

In her TedX talk, Edmondson provides three simple tips for improving psychological safety on your team:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem

  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility

  3. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions

Google's researchers also put together a comprehensive list of simple actions that managers can take to improve the psychological safety of their teams. It’s a good list; I recommend reading it in full. Here are a few items I found noteworthy:

Mind your body language: Always lean toward the person speaking. Be mindful of your facial expressions. That scowl on your face might be because breakfast isn't agreeing with you, but your employee doesn't know that.

Show appreciation: Express gratitude publicly for the team's hard work. Be quick to assign credit and slow to place blame. Acknowledge and thank people for providing input.

Be present: You're in a meeting; put down the damn phone!

Model curiosity: Ask lots of questions. Aim to understand, not challenge; this isn't a cross-examination.

Model vulnerability (it's not a bad word): Admit when you don't know something. Invite people to challenge your perspectives—"am I thinking about this all wrong?"

Be open: Share information about your personal work preferences. Encourage your team to do the same. Explain your reasoning and thought processes.

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