What’s Wrong With Your Team Building—And How to Fix It

Danielle Beurteaux

Utter the phrase “team building” and watch your employees run for cover. There’s the association with mandatory team-building exercises that many a worker associates with forced enthusiasm and awkward moments. There are better ways to build teams, and they don’t involve failed trust falls.

In 2009, Google (in its pre-Alphabet days) embarked on an ambitious research project to discover the benefits (if any) of managers. Called Project Oxygen and run by the company’s People and Innovation Lab, the research came up with a list of 8 elements that lead to good management. The short version: Technical expertise was not at the top of the list; communications skills took top place.

Then it was onto the next mission: teams.

Google’s Project Oxygen researchers looked at everything from the groups eating lunch in the cafeteria to decades of academic research on the elements of good teams. They looked at the members of a large number of Google teams to see if there was a particular set of characteristics or combinations that stood out as successful. But they couldn’t find one single recipe for success.

But then they focused on what’s called “group norms.” Group norms are the sort of unwritten and accepted code of conduct, and they seem to be the biggest factor in whether or not a team is successful. And the group norms that really worked were ones where team members felt psychologically safe—the most successful groups had a level of emotional intelligence in practice.

They ranked the top 5 successful team attributes:

  1. Psychological safety
  2. Dependability
  3. Structure and clarity
  4. Meaning of work
  5. Impact of work

Psychological safety, according to analyst Julia Rozovsky, is the most important because it allows team members to put down their guards and stop worrying how they’re perceived by others, and therefore encourages creativity and risk-taking with less fear of failure. This will resonate with anyone who’s stayed silent in a meeting, worried about sounding unintelligent or saying the “wrong” thing. Turns out that being in a respectful group where taking a chance with a new idea is supported, even if the idea doesn’t work out, is a big predictor of success. Teams that encourage the human element are successful.

This echoes the findings of another recent study from Cornell University. The researchers examined the mealtime practices of 395 firefighters at 13 firehouses (it’s the tradition at many fire houses for firefighters to buy groceries and cook meals together). They found that eating together meant better work relationships and performance.

Older research from MIT found that “the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings.” So they advised a manager at a call center to let employees take a break at the same time (going against the grain of staggered break times), and it worked: the teams were more productive and happier as well.

Google can (and does) put together teams of some of the smartest and most competent employees—but if they don’t listen and respect each other, it’s all for naught.

For more insight on effective team building, see Considering Team Chemistry: Would You Hire Stephen Colbert?

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.