Google Discovered the Secret Weapon to Building a Great Team. It's a Lesson in Emotional Intelligence

Inc. By Justin BarisoAuthor, EQ Applied@JustinJBariso

After Years of Research, Google Discovered the Secret Weapon to Building a Great Team. It's a Lesson in Emotional Intelligence

Years of research provide a major clue as to how to get the most out of your team.

Great companies are made up of great teams. It's one thing to hire a bunch of rock stars, but it's a completely different thing to get those stars to work together. 

That's why a few years ago, Google went on a mission: discover how to build the perfect team. 

The study was code-named "Project Aristotle," a tribute to the famous philosopher's belief that it's possible to have a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Studying 180 teams, the researchers interviewed hundreds of executives, team leads, and team members. 

After poring through the data, the research team isolated specific factors that influenced team effectiveness. But they clearly ranked one factor as most important:

Psychological safety.

Google describes it this way:

"Psychological safety refers to an individual's perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea."

In other words, Google discovered that for teams to work well together, team members must feel comfortable enough to be themselves. Then, and only then, can they contribute to their full potential.

What's emotional intelligence got to do with it?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions. Put even more simply, it's the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.

But what does emotional intelligence have to do with Google's research on building great teams?

In a study similar to Google's, psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T., and Union College further broke down individual elements of psychological safety. These researchers discovered that good teams generally did two things:

1. When working on tasks, teammates all got the chance to speak, and no single person dominated the conversation.

2. Teams had high "average social sensitivity." In other words, individual team members were able to correctly interpret fellow teammates' expressions, tone of voice, and nonverbal cues. This led them to be more sensitive to teammates feelings during communication.

How can you apply these findings to your workplace?

In my book, EQ, Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional IntelligenceI share the following practical tips you can follow to build a culture of psychological safety among your teams:

Listen more. Talk less.

This sounds simple, but it's amazing how few people are good listeners, especially in the workplace. 

Just think about your meetings. This is a forum where a team can benefit from collective viewpoints and perspectives, where you can quickly bounce ideas off each other and get immediate feedback. But this will only work if team members feel comfortable enough to share their true thoughts and feelings.

If you're chairing the meeting, you have a special role to play. You need to:

  • ask more questions
  • draw out introverted or shy team members by asking specifically for their opinion
  • refuse to micromanage or solve every problem yourself

In addition, you must be careful not to allow more extroverted team members to dominate the conversation. To avoid stifling their enthusiasm, you can kindly let them know ahead of time about your plans to try and get others more involved.


Praise generously.  

We all crave commendation and praise. So when you see your colleagues do something good, tell them. 

The key is to be specific. By learning to identify, recognize, and praise what you appreciate about your teammates, you encourage them and build their confidence. That will help bring out their best in the future. 

Reframe negative feedback.

Praise may motivate and inspire, but negative feedback is necessary for growth.

The problem is, most people struggle with receiving criticism. But you can influence their reaction if you reframe negative feedback as something constructive.

For example, give your colleague a measure of control by first asking them how they feel about the topic at hand. Use questions to develop empathy and understand their point of view. Then, ask if you can share some feedback that's helped you in the past.

If the feedback centers on a mistake they've made, be sure to acknowledge your own mistakes or share how similar feedback helped you improve. Then, they'll see you as someone who's trying to help, not harm.

Pay attention.

Empathy, the ability to identify with others and their feelings, begins by being observant. When you are in tune with your colleagues' moods and feelings, you can adjust your communication to make a more positive impact. For example, if you notice your teammate is having a bad day, it may not be the best time to share critical feedback, no matter how constructive it is.

So, pay attention to your teammates. And if they share a challenge they're facing, don't dismiss it--even if you think it's not a big deal. Instead, focus on a time when you struggled with a challenge. What would help you at that moment?

A little understanding goes a long way in building trust with your teammates, and it will inspire them to do the same for you when the time comes.

So, benefit from Google's research. Work to build a psychologically safe culture in your workplace by doing the following:

Listen more, talk less.

Praise generously.

Reframe negative feedback.

Pay attention.

Succeed, and you'll have a team worth exponentially more than the sum of its parts.