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Team Success: Is There a Tech-Driven Algorithm to Minimize Team Conflict?


September 28th, 2016

- Updated on

March 21, 2018 - 4:24pm

Want to Avoid Team Conflict? Use this Tech-Driven Formula to Maximize Team Success

How often have you carefully selected staff members for a critical project team, only to have progress mired in discord, inaction, or worse yet, outright rebellion? If we’re honest, each of us has experienced this uncomfortable situation at least once in our careers. You know how it feels. People you expect to act collaboratively refuse to share their knowledge; usually tactful colleagues denigrate co-worker’s ideas; a quiet subject-matter expert won’t stop talking long enough to let others get in a word; or a team member claims that he is “too busy” to attend scheduled team meetings. It’s enough to make anyone fume.  
That’s why I was so intrigued when I learned that Google, that data and innovation giant, applied the latest in neuroscience, human behavior research, and data analytics to determine and implement a team success formula.

Understanding Work – A Social Environment

As mentioned in our first Conflict Management post, studies by Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman, leading UCLA social neuroscience researchers, showed that our brains experience the workplace first and foremost as a social system. When people feel a sense of belonging and connectedness at work, as they may in a well-functioning team, they can give their best in creativity, insight, and analytic thinking.
team at work
Conversely if people feel excluded, unimportant, or ridiculed as one might on a dysfunctional team, the rejection registers the same reaction in the same region of the brain as physical pain elicits. People who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work can temper this automatic threat reaction, but they cannot short-circuit it entirely; leaving them less engaged, less apt to contribute their full capacity, and more protective of their position in the social order. To our human nature, the social threat of being judged “an outsider” is as mentally taxing as any other threat to survival – setting up roadblocks to creativity, innovative thinking, problem solving and working memory.i
Keep these things in mind as you read more about Google’s search for the “secret sauce” of team performance.

 A Social Environment Extraordinaire

All of the 60,000+ employees at Google work on teams of three to 70 people and some employees are assigned to two or more teams at any one time - definitely a social environment with teams at its core. Armed with the result of years of study of their successful managers, Google’s People Operations Division set out to determine what makes a great Google work team - the magic formula that could predict team success.ii  Although team composition was thought to be a key to project success, Google managers were not consistent in how they selected members and managed teams.

The Aristotle Project - Google Tackles Team Success Factors

In 2012, Abeer Dubey, manager of Google’s People Analytics team led a research project, code named Project Aristotle, to study the firm’s hundreds of teams to determine why some were successful while others failed. Was team composition truly the key to productivity, or was it something else entirely? Project Aristotle researchers first conducted a thorough review of existing research on team performance, comparing what they learned with the behavior of 180 teams across Google. What they found puzzled them at first. Said Dubey, “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 did not seem to matter.”iii 
Then drawing upon inspiration from the work of Dr. Amy Edmondson, Leadership and Management Professor at Harvard Business School, on the concept of Psychological Safety, defined as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up”iv  they confirmed that team success hinged on a team’s behavioral norms, not on the composition of the team.v

Group Norms minimize Conflict and Determine Team Success

Foster These Norms in Your Work TeamsWhat matters most in predicting team success is how team-mates treat each other, how teams structure the work before them, and whether or not each team member has an equitable opportunity to contribute his or her ideas. The Project Aristotle team report released in February, 2016, listed five norms essential for team success, with the first, Psychological Safety, the most critical factor overall.vi
With these elements in place, team conflict is kept to a minimum, and productivity rises. As shown in the graphic,vii they are:
  • Psychological Safety – Can members take risks and share opinions and ideas without ridicule or feeling outcast?
  • Dependability – Can each member count on the others to produce timely, high quality work?
  • Structure and Clarity – Are team goals, roles, and tactical operating plans clear to all?
  • Meaningful Work – Is the project viewed as important by all team members?
  • Impact – Do team members feel the work matters and can create positive change?

Foster These Norms in Your Work Teams

Amy Edmondson offered three suggestions for building Psychological Safety, the foundational norm for team success. In her TED Talk, she recommends that leaders:
  1. Frame the work of the team as a learning problem, not an execution problem. Position the work as challenging, requiring skill and input from all in order to meet expectations.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility. Show that it is safe to be vulnerable and to tell the truth, even on the tough stuff.
  3. Model curiosity. Ask lots of questions, then listen. Ensure that each team member has an equitable opportunity to speak his or her mind.viii
Data talks. So, the People Operations Division at Google used the research data to inform the workforce of the power of the five essential group norms. They created and introduced a framework for discussing team norms and processes and an experiential tool called The gTeam Exercise, a 10-minute activity in which teams kick off each meeting with a round-robin recitation of the risk each took the previous week.

After one year of use by 3000 employees in 300 teams, they claim a 6% improvement on Psychological Safety ratings and a 10% increase in Structure and Clarity ratings for those teams.ix  

Team effectiveness transformation pays off. Check out the Google Team Effectiveness Guide: Understanding Team Effectiveness, on Google's re:Work site for more information. 


Kathy Flora is a Career and Executive Coach and AJO Blogger who is actively pursuing her life’s passion, helping others find and fulfill theirs. Known as a positive change agent, mentor and guide, she has assisted hundreds of leaders and their teams understand their strengths, collaborate effectively, and drive organizational success. She has a special affinity for working with virtual teams, using webinars, virtual meet-ups, and online collaborative communities to optimize communication and productivity. Her experience spans over 25 years in executive management and leadership, career development, facilitation, and consulting in private firms, state government, and in federal agencies.