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Gray Rule
March 2017 | VOLUME 18, NUMBER 2
Gray Rule
Psychological Safety and the Qualities of Team Success
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»AI in Law—It's Here, It's Coming
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»A Case for Standards in the Legal Industry
»Psychological Safety and the Qualities of Team Success
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Psychological Safety and the Qualities of Team SuccessBy Elaine M. Egan, Head of Research & Information Services-Americas, Shearman & Sterling LLP, New York, NY
Improving employee performance has become a central component in realizing the potential for organizational growth, competitiveness, innovation, talent retention, and success. Over the last two decades companies have seen an increase in the work of teams. If working in teams is the new normal, what are the fundamental elements that create a highly effective team? Google invested hundreds of hours studying how workers can transform productivity by building the ideal team. This article summarizes the results of that study and identifies the qualities that develop team success.

Google's Human Resources People Analytics division dedicates tremendous resources to studying both productivity and employee satisfaction. The People Analytics division compiles data on employee satisfaction, coworker engagement, compensation, work-life balance, and whether employees found their work intellectually challenging. In evaluating employee survey responses, People Analytics observed a pattern where an employee's comments would reference their relationship or experience with their team(s). For example, a respondent might say they really have a good working relationship with their manager but don't feel their team is effective. Comments like this led Google to want to understand what makes a team effective. Based on these survey responses, People Analytics was tasked with the project code-named Project Aristotle (PA). The Project Aristotle team began with an academic review of the literature and studies about team relationships. It seemed to the PA project team that the literature and studies were all over the place. Based on these findings the PA team turned their attention to theories and studies in academic areas focusing on "group norms."

Psychologists have studied and written extensively on group behaviors and the unwritten codes of conduct that assert themselves within a group. These behaviors then manifest themselves in cultural behavior. These behaviors are most represented by how communication flows within the team. For example, is interruption an accepted model or are static conversational turns enforced? Studies also indicated that individual personality type didn't necessarily align as expected. For instance, when a team is primarily composed of extroverts they might model their behavior to a team's sedate norms while conversely introverts might open up and become more expressive. The collection of the PA team's raw data demonstrated what employees believed made their team effective. Within this framework a baseline for measuring a team's effectiveness moved beyond the team's formal scope, such as hitting sales targets. Google teams are highly diverse both in project scope and functional makeup. For example, a team could be made up of friends who socialized outside of work where other teams are composed of strangers in a conference room. Although Google's data correlated with some elements of team effectiveness, it was survey comments like "my team leader is direct and straightforward which creates a safe space for you to take risks," while others would respond "my team leader has poor emotional control and panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control." Survey participants referred to their "feelings" more often than expected. What was obvious to the PA team was the influence of group norms as a contributor to the emotional experience of the team. What was observed over and over again was that "safety" was a major influencer in the perceptions about a team. If the group felt drained because of power conflicts or pressure to demonstrate expertise, perceptions of safety were reduced.

After evaluating more than a hundred groups for more than a year, the PA team determined that the next phase of the study was to identify the group norms that are most important and, further, if one effective team could be just as successful even if it contradicted group norms. In other words, which norms were most crucial? The PA team noticed two behaviors that seem to align with "good teams." First, with a good team, members expressed themselves evenly. Researchers termed this "equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking." This didn't imply a formal speaking rotation but in each case everyone had spoken and contributed equally. Second, a good team had high "average social sensitivity." In other words, they were skilled in tone, voice, expression, and nonverbal cues. What Google ultimately determined was that in order to be an effective team you needed to manage "the how of teams, not the who."

In observing these two common behaviors, the PA team turned to the psychology studies referring to traits like "conversational turn-taking" and "average social sensitivity" that identified these traits as aspects of psychological safety. Psychological safety is described as a feeling of confidence characterized as trust and mutual respect and people feeling comfortable being themselves. The research the PA team conducted on psychological safety directed them to those norms that are vital for success. The data Google collected on psychological safety identified specific norms required for the success of the team and, although other behaviors are important such as dependability, it was the feeling of safety that influenced a team's effectiveness.

Ultimately Google determined that who was on a team was less important than how the team members interacted. Google observed five key dynamics or norms that set successful teams apart:

  • Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  • Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  • Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans in our team clear?
  • Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  • Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we're doing matters?

In response to the PA team research, Google had collected a lot of data and, because they are Google, they treated the data in a way that has meaningful impact. Google created a tool called the gTeams exercise, a 10-minute pulse-check on the five dynamics/norms of how your team is doing to help teams improve.

There are many resources and studies in the field of team effectiveness, but the Google study showed that the company recognized team performance as a beneficial outcome beyond the team scope or task. The team experience has a broader impact on organizational strategy and optimizing the employee experience. Without a doubt, the activities in an organization require interaction and communication, and these activities are most apparent in how teams work together. If an organization is committed to competitive advantage, innovation, talent management, and understanding what makes a good team are a strategic advantage.


Duhigg, Charles. Smarter Faster Better, the Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2016.

Edmondson, Amy, and Jeff Polzer. Why Psycholgical Safety Matters and What to Do About It. September 6, 2016.

Rozovksy, Julia. The Five Keys to a successful Google Team. November 17, 2015.

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