Years ago I worked with an individual who was difficult to bear. I felt great relief when we parted ways. Throughout my 35 years in non-profit ministry I was fortunate to have effective work teams. That one exception reminded me how blessed I was. I loved being with my coworkers. We brought out the best in each other. Most of those good souls are no longer a part of my life, and I miss them.
The New York Times Magazine recently published an article by Charles Duhigg explaining how Google learned to identify well-functioning work teams. The author wrote about Julia Rozovsky’s experience as a graduate student at Yale. She was placed in a working group designed to enhance the educational experience of the students, but found herself dreading the days she was required to meet with the group. As her education continued, however, she and other students created their own unofficial group, a work team that became highly productive. The second group made her feel relaxed and energized. The first group had put her on guard. What was the difference?
Later, as an employee at Google, Ms. Rozovsky was part of a group charged with determining the factors that made for high functioning work teams. As her work progressed, the elements she expected to be important turned out to be almost irrelevant. Good individual workers did not necessarily make good team members. Groups of more creative and intelligent workers were no more effective than groups of workers with average intelligence. Groups of high achievers did not stand out from other teams. It took much research, but finally they determined what differentiated effective teams from ineffective teams.
First, the best functioning teams had equal input from each member. While any one person might dominate conversation during any one part of the collaborative process, by the end of each day there had been no one dominant talker. All team members had spoken roughly equivalent amounts during the workday.
Second, the best functioning teams shared personal stories and were emotionally vulnerable with one another. They might go off track for long periods of time before returning to the meeting agenda, but when they did return they acted quickly and effectively.
By the time the study was concluded the group had identified two words that defined the highest functioning work teams – Psychological Safety. If the workers felt valued, safe and understood, they freely gave of themselves. If they did not, the group’s effectiveness was limited.
It is my very good fortune to currently be a part of four work teams. Three of the four were well established before I arrived. All four are made up of mature individuals with a high relational intelligence. All create environments of psychological safety. In some groups it is second half of life people who set the tone. In others it is younger leaders. In all there is a collaborative energy born of good formation, shared values, open emotions, and equal representation.
When I worked with megachurches I served with some amazing lead pastors. On occasion, however, I watched an interesting phenomenon unfold. A lead pastor would create a senior leadership team in which there was psychological safety and genuine openness. As the church grew, however, the lead pastor became isolated. As the pastor’s star rose within the congregation and the broader Evangelical world, he (they were all male) became less inclined to hear “bad news” from his coworkers. The senior pastor was not to be challenged. Psychology safety vanished.
These lead pastors had consciously or subconsciously surrounded themselves with coworkers and elders who would not challenge them. It was painful to watch the churches begin the long slow slide toward irrelevance, with not a soul willing to tell the emperor he had no clothes.
The Google study did not consider gender. I wonder what they might have discovered had they chosen to do so. My personal experience is that women are more collaborative than men. They seem more naturally inclined to create environments of psychological safety. There is less posturing, more recognition we rise or fall together. Of course that is not a universal experience. You do occasionally encounter a female work environment reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada. But my experience is those people are the exception that proves the rule.
Since reading the Times Magazine article I have been fondly remembering the many work teams I have known throughout my long career. The majority were teams I created when I was a CEO. I suppose I must have intuitively understood the importance of psychological safety. I am glad I did. Because all those folks made our ministry very successful. For that I am grateful.
I no longer feel much interest in leading a team. But I do want to serve on effective teams. There is great joy in sitting down with a group of open, talented, hard-working souls, and tackling problems together. We were created to find meaning and pleasure in work. I am pleased I am able to serve with good people, for a lot of work remains in this great ministry of reconciling the creation to the creator.