Google Discovers the ‘Secret to the Perfect Team’

Google is one of the most sought after jobs in the world in an organization obsessed with the use of data and analytics to achieve excellence. Starting in 2012, they spent millions of dollars, examined the latest neuroscience, studied best practices from other organizations, and tested every variable they could analyze about their highest performing teams. Their goal – identify the most important elements to be adopted by less successful teams in their 50,000+ employee organization.

Their findings:

  • The mix of mix of personalities, skills, and backgrounds did NOT matter much.
  • The right norms (traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules) for treatment of each other distinguished good teams from the rest.
  • Two behaviors of the best teams were (1) giving each person a fair opportunity to talk and contribute, and (2) the social sensitivity to read voice tone, expressions, and nonverbal cues to understand others’ feelings, i.e. emotional intelligence.
  • Other behaviors like having clear goals and a team culture of dependability were important, but Google’s data indicated that PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY was essential.
  • When you boil down psychological safety to its essence you arrive at interpersonal trust and mutual respect that support interpersonal risk taking and creativity.

These conclusions may seem like human relations 101. However, in our brave new technological world, it is useful to have an endorsement from the ultimate organizational data geeks certifying the ‘gold standard’ of 21st century team performance, the enduring power of trusting, respectful human relationships.

If GOOGLE is right (and I believe they are), then the next question is: How do the members of a ‘team’ develop interpersonal trust and mutual respect. In my experience, the only predictable norms of communication that are up to this task are wrapped up in the practice of DIALOGUE.

As devoted as many are to a good, honest debate, it is important to recognize that any healthy debate is only a half step away from adversarial argument that can embarrass, alienate, or even shame the person or group on the short end of the stick, undermining the psychological safety that is foundational to participation, risk taking, and creativity. The inherent tendency of debate toward argument stems from the root of the word in the French verb ‘debattere,’ meaning to beat upon. Debate assumes a win-lose outcome and usually involves criticizing, knocking down, or attacking the arguments and positions of the other ‘side.’ It is not easy to debate without identifying with your own position as right. Then, when another criticizes your position, it is easy to take it personally. The basic orientation of debate doesn’t require emotional intelligence.

Dialogue is an exchange designed to learn together. The word is formed from the root words ‘dia’ and ‘logos,’ which mean the exchange of meaning through the word. The intention that guides a dialogical exchange is a deeper conversation oriented toward discovery, not victory. Unlike debate, dialogue is naturally rich in respect and participation that:

  • engages different perspectives,
  • develops shared understanding,
  • reaches for level of meaning,
  • forges connection between people and their ideas, and
  • enables possibility.

Dialogue requires and encourages emotional intelligence.

Fans of debate sometimes characterize dialogue as a polite, warm-fuzzy exchange that lacks the muscular candor and clash of perspectives of a robust debate where truth and the best approach is the survivor. In reality, dialogue requires more skill than debate and is a better search for truth as it requires an open mind AND the emotional intelligence that strengthens relationships and builds psychological safety.
Governing boards of profit and nonprofit organizations, management groups of all types and sizes across sectors, work groups, and project groups are all ‘teams.’ Any member of any form of team can be a ‘leader’ who, by example, models behavior norms that create psychological safety through dialogue. The power of example is much better received than any words that could come across as preaching. Here are some guidelines to follow.


Agreement is not necessary, nor is liking someone. Listen with the expectation of learning. Assume that the speaker has something new and valuable to contribute to your comprehension and then stretch your mind to find out what that is.

None of us has the whole truth. Listen attentively with the intent to learn rather than confirm what you already believe or find a weakness in the other postion. Seek to comprehend the facets of meaning that emerge within the team. Appreciate how diverse perceptions enrich the quality of the dialogue. In your responses do not problem-solve, argue, analyze, rescue, nit-pick or give advice. Instead, look for patterns and connections among the diverse views.


Pay attention to your listening. Listen for the “voice of the heart” as well as the mind–yours and others’. Tune into the language, tone, and the unspoken feelings beneath the words. Listen as you would to hear the themes played by various instruments in an orchestra and they way they relate to each other. That’s what makes the music. In dialogue, that’s what makes the collective meaning.

Observe, rather than identify with, your judgments. Notice when you are holding a strong judgment.  Examine the observations and assumptions it is based upon. Find ways to describe it honestly in a firm, calm manner or let it go.

Practice Tip #7

Respond, don’t react Take a ‘step’ back and reflect, rather than reacting automatically or defensively. Balance advocacy (making a statement of opinion or position) Here’s how I see this issue….. with inquiry (seeking clarification and understanding) Since I see this very differently, help me understand how you reached the opposite conclusion. When advocating, do not impose your opinion, simply offer it as such. I feel strongly that we have to move forward now and cannot risk further delay because …..   In inquiry seek clarification and a deeper level of understanding, not the exposure of weakness. Is there an example that you can offer to illustrate how this would work?

Words of Wisdom

“Politeness is the poison of collaboration.”
Edwin Land  inventor and industrial pioneer

“When people are determined, they can overcome anything.”
Nelson Mandela  nation builder

“The greatest distance in the world is the 14 inches between the head and the heart.”
Agnes Baker Pilgrim  Council of Indigenous Grandmothers