Science of Success

7 years ago, Google set out to find what makes the 'perfect' team — and what they found shocked other researchers

Carsten Koall | Getty Images

Put five, eight, 12 or more people together in a room, and it's a crapshoot as to how well they'll function as a team. The larger the group, the more difficult it becomes.

It's a lot like dining out with a bunch of friends. Where to go? Italian? Vegetarian? Steakhouse? Each person has their own appetite, which can make creating a "shared-interest" extremely challenging.

Shared-interest is the lifeblood of teams, and only the most successful companies know how to foster it. But how?

That's exactly what Google wanted to learn in 2012, when it embarked on a quest to discover how to build the "perfect team." The experiment, led by Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google's People Analytics division, was called "Project Aristotle."

The key characteristics of 'enhanced teams'

After years of analyzing data and interviews from more than 180 teams across the company, Google found that the kinds of people (a.k.a. the individual personalities) in a team are not so relevant.

"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," Dubey said in an interview with The New York Times.

Instead, the researchers found that there were five key characteristics of enhanced teams:

  1. Psychological safety: Everyone feels safe in taking risks around their team members, and that they won't be embarrassed or punished for doing so.
  2. Dependability: Everyone completes quality work on time.
  3. Structure and clarity: Everyone knows what their specific expectations are. These expectations must be challenging yet attainable.
  4. Meaning: Everyone has a sense of purpose in their work (i.e., financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, etc.).
  5. Impact: Everyone sees that the result of their work actually contributes to the organization's overall goals.

Not all researchers agree

While Google's findings may be true to some extent, a large number of scientific studies have caused researchers (outside of Google's lab) to shockingly disagree. They claim the exact opposite — that personality, not just skills, is indeed a significant factor in what makes a team successful.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at Columbia University and author of the book "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and How to Fix It)," and psychologist Dave Winsborough, former VP at Hogan Assessment Systems, argue personality, in particular, heavily affects the role of an individual within a team.

Researchers found that the poorest-performing teams were 100 percent 'pragmatic' and had 0 percent 'relationship-building' traits.
Gary Burnison

"Too often, organizations focus merely on the functional role and hope that good team performance somehow follows," Chamorro-Premuzic and Winsborough co-wrote in a Harvard Business Review article. "This is why even the most expensive professional sports teams often fail to perform according to the individual talents of each player: There is no psychological synergy. A more effective approach focuses as much on people's personalities as on their skills."

One study, conducted at Hogan X, adds an alternative lens to Google's findings. Researchers found that individuals within poor-performing teams are generally 100 percent "pragmatic" and have 0 percent "relationship-building" traits.

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Left brained vs. right brained personalities

A simple way to look at this is through the "left brain vs. right brain" theory, which goes that everyone has a dominant side of the brain (the right or the left), and it determines their personality, thoughts and behavior.

Right brained people are said to be more intuitive, creative, free-thinking and have the ability to collaborate and connect. They are the relationship-builders, and they are vital to a team's success.

Left brained people, by contrast, are more logical, analytical and objective. Unlike right brained people, who tend to think in visuals, left brains are detail- and fact-oriented, and they prefer to think in words and numbers. They are more pragmatic. While left brain skills and traits may distinguish individual contributors, they are only table stakes (literally, as they can mostly earn you a seat at a team's table).

Why pragmatism is a rarely desired trait

Employees in the medical field might not need a strong degree of creativity (a.k.a. those right brained personalities). But across the board in every business and industry, when teams come together, EQ (emotional intelligence) matters much more than IQ (intelligence quotient).

EQ, which reflects and strengthens a person's right-brain skills, enhances self-awareness and increases humility. It is far more beneficial for the team — regardless of their skill set.

Keep in mind that pragmatism isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead to linear thinking. Technical skills are important early on in one's career, but the higher you go, technical expertise is assumed, and you need more right-brain skills to help build meaningful and motivating relationships with others.

Put another way, while the left brain is what gets people hired, the right brain is what helps them advance.

Here's the good news

You don't have to be one or the other. Having both pragmatic and strong relationship-building traits can increase the value you bring to a team. So whether you're left brained or right brained, it's possible to adopt both traits. Here's how:

If you're right brained:

  • Develop a strategic mindset. Know and understand what drives company to success.
  • Be known for something. Do you have deep expertise in relevant areas? (i.e., financial acumen, scientific expertise or even highly specialized knowledge such as tax law or M&A accounting). Be proactive in mastering them.
  • Practice tackling complex problems. This is especially helpful with those tricky interview questions that Google is famous for. Use those linear thinking skills to your advantage by diving deeply into issues.
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If you're left brained:

  • Develop learning agility. Instead of defaulting to the "tried and true" (which pragmatists tend to do), be open to trying varied approaches and new ideas.
  • Find joy in ambiguity. Practice coping with uncertainty and making decisions without having all the information beforehand.
  • Put your social leadership skills to the test. When was the last time you motivated influenced others or deeply connected with your teammates? You might come to find that you actually enjoy it.

Teams don't just happen by bringing people together in the same room or connecting them via Skype. When you understand yourself by taking a "good look in the mirror," you can be the change you want to see in both your team and your company.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry, a global consulting firm that helps companies select and hire the best talent. His latest book, a New York Times best-seller, "Lose the Resume, Land the Job," shares the kind of straight talk that no one – not a spouse, partner, mentor or anyone else – will tell you. Follow him on LinkedIn here.

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Correction: This story was revised to correct that David Winsborough is a former VP at Hogan Assessment Systems. Winsborough is no longer with the company.

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