Friday, March 1, 2019

Google on Work Teams

At Google everything is a group project, and most of their teams don't have formal managers. So they are very concerned about getting people to work together effectively. They commissioned their own study of team effectiveness and found that so far as they can tell, the personalities of the individual team members don't matter. What does matter is, first of all, that all the people on the team are good at their jobs. This reminds me of an interview I heard with a member of the Cleveland Quartet when they were at the top of the classical music world. The interviewer asked, "where does your marvelous chemistry come from?" and the musician answered, "The key is that we always know our own parts perfectly before we sit down to play together."

The second thing is the importance and clarity of the team's overall mission. They express their findings in five points: 

  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 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.

This goes against a lot of what other business experts say; there is a whole industry devoted to identifying the particular personality traits that make for effective team members so companies can hire those people and avoid grumblers, prima donas and what have you. Some of these experts have vociferously criticized Google's work.

I suspect that Google's approach is closer to the truth because it fits with what I consider to be the central finding of modern psychology: circumstances have as much impact on how people act as anything internal. The notion that people have a core personality that manifests in the same way in every circumstance (honest or crooked, for example) has not been verified by research.

Personally I have found that how archaeologists get along is mostly determined by the circumstances of the project: if it's an interesting dig in decent weather with adequate time and money, everybody gets along, but if you ask people to dig a lot of empty holes at 100 degrees or 20 degrees and harass them to meet implausible deadlines, people fight. Now, when you get to *who* starts complaining and squabbling and taking extra breaks, personality seems to come into the picture in a big way; some people deal with lousy circumstances much better than others. But the best way to fix the problem is to improve conditions.

So if you want to get people to work well together, give them the right circumstances: pay them well, give them a clearly defined job, make that job something worth doing, and reward them for getting good results. Don't waste a lot of time searching for perfect team members and then throw them into a bad mission.


David said...

While research may not have demonstrated the existence of a core personality that shapes one's reactions the same way in all circumstances (and "the same way in all circumstances" is an important caveat), my tendency would be to conclude that psychology has simply not yet figured out what role personality plays (and probably useful to take out the word "core") or how to demonstrate it, not that the existence of something so central to our experience of ourselves and others is an illusion. Of course, you're not saying it's an illusion . . . but I feel compelled to point out that, just because research has not (yet) demonstrated the existence of something humans believe to be true, doesn't mean humans are wrong. Here I'm arguing, I suppose, against how such a claim would be made in the media. (I can see the NYT headline now: "You Think You Have a Personality. You're Wrong.")

As you allow, personality does help determine how people react to less-than-ideal circumstances. I would say that circumstances are less than ideal most of the time.

Anecdotally, students complain that group work brings out personality--the diligent one who does all the work, the slacker, the bully--in school group work all the time. Then again, school group work seems often to include at best only one of the six ideal factors you list (occasionally, structure and expectations are clear).

David said...

FWIW, I think the most important development in experimental/theoretical psychology is the demonstration of the primacy in human decision-making of psychological factors, fallacies, and the like, over homo economicus, game-theory-style rationality.

John said...

I'm thinking about things like, say, whether people are violent. Many people who are entirely non-violent most of the time will kill as soldiers in a war. The circumstances of war vs. peace are more important than whether you are a violent or non-violent person. This can happen without the panoply of armies and battlefields. I'm reading an excellent book about the Irish uprising of 1919-1923 and it shows the steps by which most people in Ireland abandoned their non-violence and began to support the violence of one side or the other. Many men who had considered themselves non-violent ended up as cold-blooded killers.

Several studies that seem convincing to me show that in a workplace where everybody else pilfers or pads their timesheets, most people will do the same.

Or consider the ancient wisdom that rough young men will settle down and get serious once they have a wife and child.

Or think about Governor Ralph Northam. Many people look at him and say, "he once wore blackface and thought it was funny, he must be a racist." I say, Northam is strongly motivated to be a popular leader, and when he was in a fraternity the route to popularity was to be bolder and badder than anyone else, hence, blackface. Now that he is governor he is presumably motivated by different circumstances. In fact "racism" and "sexism" are really good examples of what I am talking about. Most people, I submit, are racist or sexist in some circumstances but not in others.

I'm not saying that people have no personalities; they do. I am saying that how people act depends on circumstances just as much as it does on their inner natures, whatever those are.

Incidentally this is also ancient wisdom; you might say that Confucianism is a very extended riff on the idea that how people act depends more on things like what role they will and what music is playing than who they are.

John said...

What role they *fill*

David said...

I would agree, though surely "strongly motivated to be a popular leader" is also a personality trait.

Clearly circumstances matter. Surely we would agree that both personality and circumstances matter, in varying degrees depending on the circumstances and the personality and their interaction.

To a certain extent, we're both arguing against straw men. As I tried to imply, "the same way in all circumstances" is way too rigorous and extreme a claim for the role of personality, one that I don't think many serious people would now make. Likewise, you're not making some sort of Skinneresque claim that people have nothing inside and we're just fancy stimulous-response mechanisms.

Arguing against straw men is a temptation and trap. I for one fall into it a lot. Occasionally, you find someone who really acts like a straw man. Apparently, Skinner actually tried to raise a child based on his theories. The result was a disaster, of course.

If we can both agree that many folks who are not otherwise particularly violent are like to become violent in wartime (or if, say, they are subjected to much abuse and insult), surely we can both agree that there are others who will gravitate toward opportunities for violence event when society at large is not engaged in a war--and not because they were abused as children or suchlike, but because, well, that's the way they are.

David said...

Boy, I used the world "surely" a lot in that post. Kind of like your "fill," not "will." Frustrating that Blogger has no feature that allows one to edit their own posts.

David said...

"word," not "world." It never ends.