The key to high performing teams
The origins of the game of baseball are still unclear despite the 1907 Mills Commission concluding that Abner Doubleday, West Point graduate and military officer, had invented the game in 1839. What isn’t disputed is that it derives from the English game of rounders, originating in New York circa 1840. It didn’t take long, 1858 to be exact, for the box score to be developed by a sportswriter in New York named Henry Chadwick. Thus the first statistics became available for tracking various aspects of game play. Over the next hundred years, these statistics morphed into the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) giving rise to sabermetrics - the empirical analysis of baseball.
In 2003, author Michael Lewis, gave us an inside peek into Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane’s sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team on a small budget, with the publishing of Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Since then managers in every sport and industry have been seeking the right metrics, data, and statistics to unveil how they can boost their teams’ productivity or likelihood of a winning season. Despite the risk of the Hawthorne effect, whereby people change their behavior because they know they are being observed, managers have insisted there must be a way to measure and improve performance. Even Google, inspired by Greek philosopher Aristotle's quote, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts", began a research project dubbed Project Aristotle in 2012 to determine what makes teams successful. Researchers spent two years evaluating over 180 teams and 37,000 employees looking for the secret sauce. Google was trying to “moneyball” development teams.
Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google’s People Analytics division and lead of Project Aristotle, recalled, “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 didn’t seem to matter.’’ Google, who undoubtedly is excellent at finding patterns, could not find a pattern in the data. In other words, there was no correlation between successful teams and their composition, individual’s intelligence, composition, etc. However, the one thing they did begin to notice was that successful teams had a set of norms by which everyone on the team behaved. This led researchers to the term psychological safety, which according to Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School, is “people’s perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace.” According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. At work, it’s a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.”
Within the phenomenon of psychological safety are observable traits such as taking turns while speaking, being aware of other’s feelings, and clear norms. Google researchers eventually determined that a number of factors were involved in making some teams more successful than others but psychological safety was the most important. Charles Duhigg, columnist and senior editor of the NY Times and author of The Power of Habit, wrote, “For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”
The Google research team went on trying to identify what particular behaviors were most important to establish psychological safety. What they determined was that the behaviors that create psychological safety are part of the same unwritten rules we often use to establish a bond. In summing these up, Duhig stated:
The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs…Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.
Psychological safety is often misunderstood and confused with things like being nice and not ever being uncomfortable. Edmondson, the Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School mentioned earlier, believes that, “Too many people think that it’s about feeling comfortable all the time and that you can’t say anything that makes someone else uncomfortable or you’re violating psychological safety…Anything hard to achieve requires being uncomfortable along the way.” Anyone that has been part of a well run postmortem realizes that admitting mistakes is usually uncomfortable. Being vulnerable feels risky. But, when you can do that in an environment that doesn’t have negative interpersonal consequences, then you have psychological safety. In the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, the two base requirements for highly functioning teams are a solid foundation of trust and being comfortable with conflict.
The evolution of baseball, from simple box scores to the sophisticated analytics of today, mirrors a broader trend in both sports and business towards data-driven decision-making. The story of baseball's statistical revolution, highlighted by the impact of sabermetrics and the Moneyball era, underscores the value of empirical analysis in enhancing performance. Yet, as Google's Project Aristotle vividly illustrates, not all aspects of team success can be quantified or predicted through data alone. The project's findings reiterate the importance of psychological safety, a concept rooted in the human elements of teamwork, such as trust, respect, and open communication.
This revelation from one of the world's most data-centric companies serves as a powerful reminder of the limitations of data in capturing the nuances of human interaction and team dynamics. It underscores the enduring importance of emotional intelligence, empathy, and interpersonal skills in creating effective teams. As organizations continue to seek the perfect formula for team success, blending both quantitative and qualitative approaches seems to be the key. While statistics and data provide valuable insights, the human element – the ability to foster a safe, trusting, and collaborative environment – remains central to unlocking the full potential of any team. Baseball's ongoing journey and Google's insightful findings both highlight a fundamental truth: the heart of team success lies not just in the numbers, but in the people who make up the team and how they interact with each other.