• Westwood International

The Art and Science of Engaged Groups

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

During my junior year of high school, our basketball team won the state championship. In retrospect, I can admit that I was probably the worst player on the team, spending most of my time on bench. I never got put in the game when it mattered. I don’t even recall scoring any points that season.

On the other hand, Harvey Knuckles (One of the best sports names ever!) was the best player on the team. In fact, he played the game in the international league into his late 40s. On the court, we couldn't have been more different. Harvey is 6'6"; I am short. I am Caucasian; Harvey is African American. He was one of the top scorers in the state; I, quite honestly, lacked the required knack for basketball. But as unlikely a pair as we may have been on the court, we were the best of friends off the court—going to parties, movies, and the like. To this day, we still keep in touch.

Despite the great gap in talent on the team, the coach treated everyone as equals. There was always an impartiality and fairness that kept our team cohesive and working together. No matter how talented or skilled, no player got a pass to skip a drill. Looking back now—through the eyes of a leadership consultant—I can see that making sure we all felt an equal member of the team was the main reason we had such cohesiveness. 

“We Were Dead Wrong.”

These aren’t words that you would expect from a high-level corporate spokesperson. But in 2012, Julie Rosovsky, research lead on Google’s in-depth productivity study called Project Aristotle, admitted that her team had faltered in its internal research to find the key elements of successful teams. However, after looking at more than 180 internal teams for longer than one year, the research finally landed on some surprising findings.

It makes sense to most of us that if you put smart, capable people together on a team, the results will be better than if you put a random group of people together. But in reality, “it’s less about who is on the team and more about how people interact [and get their work done] that really makes the difference [in productivity and output],” said Rosovsky, in a YouTube video from Google Partners

Psychological Safety and Group Norms

What Google’s research uncovered was that the most fundamental aspect of a group's performance is that each member feels safe enough within the group to take risks without fear of criticism or judgement from other members of the team. The term used by researchers such as Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School is “psychological safety.” When people feel safe, they are more likely to ask for help, to admit mistakes, to vocalize a divergent perspective, and to try new roles in the project—all of which contribute to performance and ultimately the bottom line metrics. Although there were several other important aspects to consider in the group dynamics, psychological safety came through as the primary factor in bringing the team together.

As was the case in my basketball years long ago, the other key attributes exhibited by most high-performing teams is a sense of parity among the members, and that each group member buys in to what is known as “group norms.”

Group norms are the cultural standards and agreements of a particular group, despite the group’s size, make-up, or duration. Norms can be spoken or unspoken. Something as simple as “we all show up for meetings on time and prepared” or “we joke around for a few minutes before the meeting really kicks in,” or “we get right down to brass tacks and stay on track for the duration of the meeting.” While norms match the personality and unique requirements of each group, high-performing teams typically practice cultural values like respect and sharing airtime. Ultimately, they are providing safety.

Putting It in Practice

How can you make a difference? As a leader, let your team know that their opinions matter, even if they differ from the ones on the table. Inviting disagreement makes way for what Edmonson calls “small moments of learning,” which can yield surprising and often profitable results. 

Action 1: Determine if you, as a team leader, are modeling safety in your meetings. If not, what can you do right away in your next meeting to show your team members that you are genuinely listening to their ideas, concerns, and challenges?

Courage begets safety. One way to model respect is to raise the difficult issues and give respectful space to hear all perspectives. Eye contact, mirroring (repeating what you heard them say), encouraging every person to contribute their input to an equal degree, and thanking them in the moment are a few simple techniques you can use to shift the atmosphere to one that invites innovation and creative ideas. These actions will build greater team productivity and effectiveness.

Action 2: Think carefully about whether your team feels safe to express themselves without fear of being judged or shunned. A few ways to create a team culture where diverse views can be expressed are to model curiosity, acknowledge your own fallibility, and invite alternate viewpoints. This will create the understanding that the team may have missed something important and will benefit from hearing a different perspective. Ask opening questions like: “Who feels differently about this decision?” or “Who has a different perspective that could be helpful?”

Action 3: Engagement comes from different places for different people—not everyone has the same source of inspiration. Some are sparked by working with members of the team, some find value in the service the project provides to others, and others may find internal motivation from the project itself. See if you can discover your team members’ motivation and engage them on that level.

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