The thing I’ve most wanted to share here in recent months has been “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” published in the New York Times Magazine’s recent Work Issue. Building perfect teams—or at least more effective ones—is pretty important for the legal profession. For law firms, the complexity of many legal matters demands collaborative work. Yet client teams—and other types of teams such as deal teams and trial teams—are more likely to fail without a good understanding of team dynamics. And “law students baulk at the idea of group work.”
To understand why some of its teams performed better than others, Google launched a large study. At first no patterns emerged. Eventually, the key issue was something a bit more abstract than any specific metric. The issue was “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.
The impact of group norms on team performance was critical. It could make a team of individually “average” performers out-perform other groups. And it could make a team of individual rock stars perform poorly.
So if effective teams could be built upon consensus of any type—either to argue all the time or to build consensus all the time—then is there really any content to the idea of effective group norms? Actually, yes. The Google study found two common traits of good teams. This is where listening comes in:
Actually, yes. The Google study found two common traits of good teams. This is where listening comes in:
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.’’
Second, 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.
The broader impact of these two traits is that team members felt “psychological safety.” The New York Times article cited a study by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson describing psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”
This article and the concepts it describes should, in my view, be required reading for any law school activity based on teams. It seems like a pretty good idea for law-firm managers as well. The lead researcher on Google’s Project Aristotle study became interested in the topic while attending graduate business school. She had one team that didn’t click, didn’t exactly fail but also didn’t prosper, and didn’t stick together for future projects. And she had another team that clicked and succeeded in competitive environments even though the group dynamics didn’t feel internally competitive.
Law students who’ve done any sort of group work and lawyers working collaboratively have similar stories. This article helps to explain why these teams end up the way they do. And it begins to address even more difficult questions about taking steps to create effective team dynamics from the outset and to make existing teams more effective.