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By Charles Duhigg

Feb. 25, 2016


New research revealssurprising truths about why

some work groups thrive andothers falter.

What GoogleLearned From

Its Quest toBuild the

Perfect Team

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LFeb. 25, 2016

ike most 25-year-olds, Julia Rozovsky wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with

her life. She had worked at a consulting firm, but it wasn’t a good match.

Then she became a researcher for two professors at Harvard, which was

interesting but lonely. Maybe a big corporation would be a better fit. Or perhaps a

fast-growing start-up. All she knew for certain was that she wanted to find a job that

was more social. ‘‘I wanted to be part of a community, part of something people were

building together,’’ she told me. She thought about various opportunities — Internet

companies, a Ph.D. program — but nothing seemed exactly right. So in 2009, she

chose the path that allowed her to put off making a decision: She applied to business

schools and was accepted by the Yale School of Management.

When Rozovsky arrived on campus, she was assigned to a study group carefully

engineered by the school to foster tight bonds. Study groups have become a rite of

passage at M.B.A. programs, a way for students to practice working in teams and a

reflection of the increasing demand for employees who can adroitly navigate group

dynamics. A worker today might start the morning by collaborating with a team of

engineers, then send emails to colleagues marketing a new brand, then jump on a

conference call planning an entirely different product line, while also juggling team

meetings with accounting and the party-planning committee. To prepare students for

that complex world, business schools around the country have revised their

curriculums to emphasize team-focused learning.

Every day, between classes or after dinner, Rozovsky and her four teammates

gathered to discuss homework assignments, compare spreadsheets and strategize

for exams. Everyone was smart and curious, and they had a lot in common: They

had gone to similar colleges and had worked at analogous firms. These shared

experiences, Rozovsky hoped, would make it easy for them to work well together.

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But it didn’t turn out that way. ‘‘There are lots of people who say some of their best

business-school friends come from their study groups,’’ Rozovsky told me. ‘‘It wasn’t

like that for me.’’

Instead, Rozovsky’s study group was a source of stress. ‘‘I always felt like I had to

prove myself,’’ she said. The team’s dynamics could put her on edge. When the group

met, teammates sometimes jockeyed for the leadership position or criticized one

another’s ideas. There were conflicts over who was in charge and who got to

represent the group in class. ‘‘People would try to show authority by speaking louder

or talking over each other,’’ Rozovsky told me. ‘‘I always felt like I had to be careful

not to make mistakes around them.’’

So Rozovsky started looking for other groups she could join. A classmate mentioned

that some students were putting together teams for ‘‘case competitions,’’ contests in

which participants proposed solutions to real-world business problems that were

evaluated by judges, who awarded trophies and cash. The competitions were

voluntary, but the work wasn’t all that different from what Rozovsky did with her

study group: conducting lots of research and financial analyses, writing reports and

giving presentations. The members of her case-competition team had a variety of

professional experiences: Army officer, researcher at a think tank, director of a

health-education nonprofit organization and consultant to a refugee program.

Despite their disparate backgrounds, however, everyone clicked. They emailed one

another dumb jokes and usually spent the first 10 minutes of each meeting chatting.

When it came time to brainstorm, ‘‘we had lots of crazy ideas,’’ Rozovsky said.

One of her favorite competitions asked teams to come up with a new business to

replace a student-run snack store on Yale’s campus. Rozovsky proposed a nap room

and selling earplugs and eyeshades to make money. Someone else suggested filling

the space with old video games. There were ideas about clothing swaps. Most of the

proposals were impractical, but ‘‘we all felt like we could say anything to each other,’’

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Rozovsky told me. ‘‘No one worried that the rest of the team was judging them.’’

Eventually, the team settled on a plan for a micro ​gym with a handful of exercise

classes and a few weight machines. They won the competition. (The micro ​gym —

with two stationary bicycles and three treadmills — still exists.)

Rozovsky’s study group dissolved in her second semester (it was up to the students

whether they wanted to continue). Her case team, however, stuck together for the

two years she was at Yale.

It always struck Rozovsky as odd that her experiences with the two groups were

dissimilar. Each was composed of people who were bright and outgoing. When she

talked one on one with members of her study group, the exchanges were friendly

and warm. It was only when they gathered as a team that things became fraught. By

contrast, her case-competition team was always fun and easygoing. In some ways,

the team’s members got along better as a group than as individual friends.

‘‘I couldn’t figure out why things had turned out so different,’’ Rozovsky told me. ‘‘It

didn’t seem like it had to happen that way.’’

ur data-saturated age enables us to examine our work habits and office

quirks with a scrutiny that our cubicle-bound forebears could only dream of.

Today, on corporate campuses and within university laboratories,

psychologists, sociologists and statisticians are devoting themselves to studying

everything from team composition to email patterns in order to figure out how to

make employees into faster, better and more productive versions of themselves.

‘‘We’re living through a golden age of understanding personal productivity,’’ says

Marshall Van Alstyne, a professor at Boston University who studies how people

share information. ‘‘All of a sudden, we can pick apart the small choices that all of us

make, decisions most of us don’t even notice, and figure out why some people are so

much more effective than everyone else.’’

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Yet many of today’s most valuable firms have come to realize that analyzing and

improving individual workers ​— a practice known as ‘‘employee performance

optimization’’ — isn’t enough. As commerce becomes increasingly global and

complex, the bulk of modern work is more and more team-based. One study,

published in The Harvard Business Review last month, found that ‘‘the time spent by

managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or

more’’ over the last two decades and that, at many companies, more than three-

quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.

In Silicon Valley, software engineers are encouraged to work together, in part

because studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly

and find better solutions to problems. Studies also show that people working in

teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction. In a 2015

study, executives said that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to

collaborate more. Within companies and conglomerates, as well as in government

agencies and schools, teams are now the fundamental unit of organization. If a

company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people

work but also how they work together.

Five years ago, Google — one of the most public proselytizers of how studying

workers can transform productivity — became focused on building the perfect team.

In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold millions of dollars measuring

nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. Google’s People Operations department

has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the

most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining

companions) to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good

communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical; more shocking, this was

news to many Google managers).

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The company’s top executives long believed that building the best teams meant

combining the best people. They embraced other bits of conventional wisdom as

well, like ‘‘It’s better to put introverts together,’’ said Abeer Dubey, a manager in

Google’s People Analytics division, or ‘‘Teams are more effective when everyone is

friends away from work.’’ But, Dubey went on, ‘‘it turned out no one had really

studied which of those were true.’’

In 2012, the company embarked on an initiative — code-named Project Aristotle — to

study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some stumbled while others

soared. Dubey, a leader of the project, gathered some of the company’s best

statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists and engineers. He also

needed researchers. Rozovsky, by then, had decided that what she wanted to do with

her life was study people’s habits and tendencies. After graduating from Yale, she

was hired by Google and was soon assigned to Project Aristotle.

roject Aristotle’s researchers began by reviewing a half-century of academic

studies looking at how teams worked. Were the best teams made up of

people with similar interests? Or did it matter more whether everyone was

motivated by the same kinds of rewards? Based on those studies, the researchers

scrutinized the composition of groups inside Google: How often did teammates

socialize outside the office? Did they have the same hobbies? Were their educational

backgrounds similar? Was it better for all teammates to be outgoing or for all of

them to be shy? They drew diagrams showing which teams had overlapping

memberships and which groups had exceeded their departments’ goals. They

studied how long teams stuck together and if gender balance seemed to have an

impact on a team’s success.

No matter how researchers arranged the data, though, it was almost impossible to

find patterns — or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference.

‘‘We looked at 180 teams from all over the company,’’ Dubey said. ‘‘We had lots of

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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


Some groups that were ranked among Google’s most effective teams, for instance,

were composed of friends who socialized outside work. Others were made up of

people who were basically strangers away from the conference room. Some groups

sought strong managers. Others preferred a less hierarchical structure. Most

confounding of all, two teams might have nearly identical makeups, with overlapping

memberships, but radically different levels of effectiveness. ‘‘At Google, we’re good

at finding patterns,’’ Dubey said. ‘‘There weren’t strong patterns here.’’

As they struggled to figure out what made a team successful, Rozovsky and her

colleagues kept coming across research by psychologists and sociologists that

focused on what are known as ‘‘group norms.’’ Norms are the traditions, behavioral

standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather: One

team may come to a consensus that avoiding disagreement is more valuable than

debate; another team might develop a culture that encourages vigorous arguments

and spurns groupthink. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their

influence is often profound. Team members may behave in certain ways as

individuals — they may chafe against authority or prefer working independently —

but when they gather, the group’s norms typically override individual proclivities

and encourage deference to the team.

Project Aristotle’s researchers began searching through the data they had collected,

looking for norms. They looked for instances when team members described a

particular behavior as an ‘‘unwritten rule’’ or when they explained certain things as

part of the ‘‘team’s culture.’’ Some groups said that teammates interrupted one

another constantly and that team leaders reinforced that behavior by interrupting

others themselves. On other teams, leaders enforced conversational order, and when

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someone cut off a teammate, group members would politely ask everyone to wait his

or her turn. Some teams celebrated birthdays and began each meeting with informal

chitchat about weekend plans. Other groups got right to business and discouraged

gossip. There were teams that contained outsize personalities who hewed to their

group’s sedate norms, and others in which introverts came out of their shells as soon

as meetings began.

Illustration by James Graham

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After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Project Aristotle

researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the

keys to improving Google’s teams. But Rozovsky, now a lead researcher, needed to

figure out which norms mattered most. Google’s research had identified dozens of

behaviors that seemed important, except that sometimes the norms of one effective

team contrasted sharply with those of another equally successful group. Was it

better to let everyone speak as much as they wanted, or should strong leaders end

meandering debates? Was it more effective for people to openly disagree with one

another, or should conflicts be played down? The data didn’t offer clear verdicts. In

fact, the data sometimes pointed in opposite directions. The only thing worse than

not finding a pattern is finding too many of them. Which norms, Rozovsky and her

colleagues wondered, were the ones that successful teams shared?

magine you have been invited to join one of two groups.

Team A is composed of people who are all exceptionally smart and successful.

When you watch a video of this group working, you see professionals who wait until

a topic arises in which they are expert, and then they speak at length, explaining

what the group ought to do. When someone makes a side comment, the speaker

stops, reminds everyone of the agenda and pushes the meeting back on track. This

team is efficient. There is no idle chitchat or long debates. The meeting ends as

scheduled and disbands so everyone can get back to their desks.

Team B is different. It’s evenly divided between successful executives and middle

managers with few professional accomplishments. Teammates jump in and out of

discussions. People interject and complete one another’s thoughts. When a team

member abruptly changes the topic, the rest of the group follows him off the agenda.

At the end of the meeting, the meeting doesn’t actually end: Everyone sits around to

gossip and talk about their lives.

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Which group would you rather join?

In 2008, a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College

began to try to answer a question very much like this one. ‘‘Over the past century,

psychologists made considerable progress in defining and systematically measuring

intelligence in individuals,’’ the researchers wrote in the journal Science in 2010. ‘‘We

have used the statistical approach they developed for individual intelligence to

systematically measure the intelligence of groups.’’ Put differently, the researchers

wanted to know if there is a collective I. Q. that emerges within a team that is distinct

from the smarts of any single member.

To accomplish this, the researchers recruited 699 people, divided them into small

groups and gave each a series of assignments that required different kinds of

cooperation. One assignment, for instance, asked participants to brainstorm possible

uses for a brick. Some teams came up with dozens of clever uses; others kept

describing the same ideas in different words. Another had the groups plan a

shopping trip and gave each teammate a different list of groceries. The only way to

maximize the group’s score was for each person to sacrifice an item they really

wanted for something the team needed. Some groups easily divvied up the buying;

others couldn’t fill their shopping carts because no one was willing to compromise.

What interested the researchers most, however, was that teams that did well on one

assignment usually did well on all the others. Conversely, teams that failed at one

thing seemed to fail at everything. The researchers eventually concluded that what

distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates

treated one another. The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective

intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all

the members were exceptionally bright.

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But what was confusing was that not all the good teams appeared to behave in the

same ways. ‘‘Some teams had a bunch of smart people who figured out how to break

up work evenly,’’ said Anita Woolley, the study’s lead author. ‘‘Other groups had

pretty average members, but they came up with ways to take advantage of

everyone’s relative strengths. Some groups had one strong leader. Others were more

fluid, and everyone took a leadership role.’’

As the researchers studied the groups, however, they noticed two behaviors that all

the good teams generally shared. First, on the good teams, members spoke in

roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality

in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke

during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment

to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly

the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’

Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the

collective intelligence declined.’’

Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of

saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their

expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social

sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe

what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in

the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored

above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when

someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast,

scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their


What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect T…

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In other words, if you are given a choice between the serious-minded Team A or the

free-flowing Team B, you should probably opt for Team B. Team A may be filled with

smart people, all optimized for peak individual efficiency. But the group’s norms

discourage equal speaking; there are few exchanges of the kind of personal

information that lets teammates pick up on what people are feeling or leaving

unsaid. There’s a good chance the members of Team A will continue to act like

individuals once they come together, and there’s little to suggest that, as a group,

they will become more collectively intelligent.

In contrast, on Team B, people may speak over one another, go on tangents and

socialize instead of remaining focused on the agenda. The team may seem inefficient

to a casual observer. But all the team members speak as much as they need to. They

are sensitive to one another’s moods and share personal stories and emotions. While

Team B might not contain as many individual stars, the sum will be greater than its


Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like

‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s

known as psychological safety — a group culture that the Harvard Business School

professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team

that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense

of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for

speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team

climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are

comfortable being themselves.’’

When Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of psychological

safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place. One

engineer, for instance, had told researchers that his team leader was ‘‘direct and

straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.’’ That team,

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researchers estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups. By contrast,

another engineer had told the researchers that his ‘‘team leader has poor emotional

control.’’ He added: ‘‘He panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I

would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat, because he would

keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car.’’ That team, researchers

presumed, did not perform well.

Most of all, employees had talked about how various teams felt. ‘‘And that made a lot

of sense to me, maybe because of my experiences at Yale,’’ Rozovsky said. ‘‘I’d been

on some teams that left me feeling totally exhausted and others where I got so much

energy from the group.’’ Rozovsky’s study group at Yale was draining because the

norms — the fights over leadership, the tendency to critique — put her on guard.

Whereas the norms of her case-competition team — enthusiasm for one another’s

ideas, joking around and having fun — allowed everyone to feel relaxed and


For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms

that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well

— like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability.

But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was

critical to making a team work.

‘‘We had to get people to establish psychologically safe environments,’’ Rozovsky

told me. But it wasn’t clear how to do that. ‘‘People here are really busy,’’ she said.

‘‘We needed clear guidelines.’’

However, establishing psychological safety is, by its very nature, somewhat messy

and difficult to implement. You can tell people to take turns during a conversation

and to listen to one another more. You can instruct employees to be sensitive to how

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their colleagues feel and to notice when someone seems upset. But the kinds of

people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers

because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

Rozovsky and her colleagues had figured out which norms were most critical. Now

they had to find a way to make communication and empathy — the building blocks of

forging real connections — into an algorithm they could easily scale.

n late 2014, Rozovsky and her fellow Project Aristotle number-crunchers

began sharing their findings with select groups of Google’s 51,000 employees.

By then, they had been collecting surveys, conducting interviews and

analyzing statistics for almost three years. They hadn’t yet figured out how to make

psychological safety easy, but they hoped that publicizing their research within

Google would prompt employees to come up with some ideas of their own.

After Rozovsky gave one presentation, a trim, athletic man named Matt Sakaguchi

approached the Project Aristotle researchers. Sakaguchi had an unusual background

for a Google employee. Twenty years earlier, he was a member of a SWAT team in

Walnut Creek, Calif., but left to become an electronics salesman and eventually

landed at Google as a midlevel manager, where he has overseen teams of engineers

who respond when the company’s websites or servers go down.

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Illustration by James Graham

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‘‘I might be the luckiest individual on earth,’’ Sakaguchi told me. ‘‘I’m not really an

engineer. I didn’t study computers in college. Everyone who works for me is much

smarter than I am.’’ But he is talented at managing technical workers, and as a

result, Sakaguchi has thrived at Google. He and his wife, a teacher, have a home in

San Francisco and a weekend house in the Sonoma Valley wine country. ‘‘Most days,

I feel like I’ve won the lottery,’’ he said.

Sakaguchi was particularly interested in Project Aristotle because the team he

previously oversaw at Google hadn’t jelled particularly well. ‘‘There was one senior

engineer who would just talk and talk, and everyone was scared to disagree with

him,’’ Sakaguchi said. ‘‘The hardest part was that everyone liked this guy outside the

group setting, but whenever they got together as a team, something happened that

made the culture go wrong.’’

Sakaguchi had recently become the manager of a new team, and he wanted to make

sure things went better this time. So he asked researchers at Project Aristotle if they

could help. They provided him with a survey to gauge the group’s norms.

When Sakaguchi asked his new team to participate, he was greeted with skepticism.

‘‘It seemed like a total waste of time,’’ said Sean Laurent, an engineer. ‘‘But Matt was

our new boss, and he was really into this questionnaire, and so we said, Sure, we’ll do

it, whatever.’’

The team completed the survey, and a few weeks later, Sakaguchi received the

results. He was surprised by what they revealed. He thought of the team as a strong

unit. But the results indicated there were weaknesses: When asked to rate whether

the role of the team was clearly understood and whether their work had impact,

members of the team gave middling to poor scores. These responses troubled

Sakaguchi, because he hadn’t picked up on this discontent. He wanted everyone to

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feel fulfilled by their work. He asked the team to gather, off site, to discuss the

survey’s results. He began by asking everyone to share something personal about

themselves. He went first.

‘‘I think one of the things most people don’t know about me,’’ he told the group, ‘‘is

that I have Stage 4 cancer.’’ In 2001, he said, a doctor discovered a tumor in his

kidney. By the time the cancer was detected, it had spread to his spine. For nearly

half a decade, it had grown slowly as he underwent treatment while working at

Google. Recently, however, doctors had found a new, worrisome spot on a scan of his

liver. That was far more serious, he explained.

No one knew what to say. The team had been working with Sakaguchi for 10 months.

They all liked him, just as they all liked one another. No one suspected that he was

dealing with anything like this.

‘‘To have Matt stand there and tell us that he’s sick and he’s not going to get better

and, you know, what that means,’’ Laurent said. ‘‘It was a really hard, really special


After Sakaguchi spoke, another teammate stood and described some health issues of

her own. Then another discussed a difficult breakup. Eventually, the team shifted its

focus to the survey. They found it easier to speak honestly about the things that had

been bothering them, their small frictions and everyday annoyances. They agreed to

adopt some new norms: From now on, Sakaguchi would make an extra effort to let

the team members know how their work fit into Google’s larger mission; they agreed

to try harder to notice when someone on the team was feeling excluded or down.

There was nothing in the survey that instructed Sakaguchi to share his illness with

the group. There was nothing in Project Aristotle’s research that said that getting

people to open up about their struggles was critical to discussing a group’s norms.

But to Sakaguchi, it made sense that psychological safety and emotional

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conversations were related. The behaviors that create psychological safety —

conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we

often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human

bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter


‘‘I think, until the off-site, I had separated things in my head into work life and life

life,’’ Laurent told me. ‘‘But the thing is, my work is my life. I spend the majority of

my time working. Most of my friends I know through work. If I can’t be open and

honest at work, then I’m not really living, am I?’’

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on

a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their

personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel

‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to

share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk

about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are

driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the

morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our

marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that

those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.

Which isn’t to say that a team needs an ailing manager to come together. Any group

can become Team B. Sakaguchi’s experiences underscore a core lesson of Google’s

research into teamwork: By adopting the data-driven approach of Silicon Valley,

Project Aristotle has encouraged emotional conversations and discussions of norms

among people who might otherwise be uncomfortable talking about how they feel.

‘‘Googlers love data,’’ Sakaguchi told me. But it’s not only Google that loves numbers,

or Silicon Valley that shies away from emotional conversations. Most work ​places do.

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‘‘By putting things like empathy and sensitivity into charts and data reports, it

makes them easier to talk about,’’ Sakaguchi told me. ‘‘It’s easier to talk about our

feelings when we can point to a number.’’

Sakaguchi knows that the spread of his cancer means he may not have much time

left. His wife has asked him why he doesn’t quit Google. At some point, he probably

will. But right now, helping his team succeed ‘‘is the most meaningful work I’ve ever

done,’’ he told me. He encourages the group to think about the way work and life

mesh. Part of that, he says, is recognizing how fulfilling work can be. Project

Aristotle ‘‘proves how much a great team matters,’’ he said. ‘‘Why would I walk away

from that? Why wouldn’t I spend time with people who care about me?’’

he technology industry is not just one of the fastest growing parts of our

economy; it is also increasingly the world’s dominant commercial culture.

And at the core of Silicon Valley are certain self-mythologies and dictums:

Everything is different now, data reigns supreme, today’s winners deserve to

triumph because they are cleareyed enough to discard yesterday’s conventional

wisdoms and search out the disruptive and the new.

The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number

crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always

known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to

feelings and needs.

The fact that these insights aren’t wholly original doesn’t mean Google’s

contributions aren’t valuable. In fact, in some ways, the ‘‘employee performance

optimization’’ movement has given us a method for talking about our insecurities,

fears and aspirations in more constructive ways. It also has given us the tools to

quickly teach lessons that once took managers decades to absorb. Google, in other

words, in its race to build the perfect team, has perhaps unintentionally

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demonstrated the usefulness of imperfection and done what Silicon Valley does best:

figure out how to create psychological safety faster, better and in more productive


‘‘Just having data that proves to people that these things are worth paying attention

to sometimes is the most important step in getting them to actually pay attention,’’

Rozovsky told me. ‘‘Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common

platform and operating language.’’

Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s

sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional

interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be

and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized. Rozovsky

herself was reminded of this midway through her work with the Project Aristotle

team. ‘‘We were in a meeting where I made a mistake,’’ Rozovsky told me. She sent

out a note afterward explaining how she was going to remedy the problem. ‘‘I got an

email back from a team member that said, ‘Ouch,’ ’’ she recalled. ‘‘It was like a punch

to the gut. I was already upset about making this mistake, and this note totally

played on my insecurities.’’

If this had happened earlier in Rozovsky’s life — if it had occurred while she was at

Yale, for instance, in her study group — she probably wouldn’t have known how to

deal with those feelings. The email wasn’t a big enough affront to justify a response.

But all the same, it really bothered her. It was something she felt she needed to


And thanks to Project Aristotle, she now had a vocabulary for explaining to herself

what she was feeling and why it was important. She had graphs and charts telling

her that she shouldn’t just let it go. And so she typed a quick response: ‘‘Nothing like

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a good ‘Ouch!’ to destroy psych safety in the morning.’’ Her teammate replied: ‘‘Just

testing your resilience.’’

‘‘That could have been the wrong thing to say to someone else, but he knew it was

exactly what I needed to hear,’’ Rozovsky said. ‘‘With one 30-second interaction, we

defused the tension.’’ She wanted to be listened to. She wanted her teammate to be

sensitive to what she was feeling. ‘‘And I had research telling me that it was O.K. to

follow my gut,’’ she said. ‘‘So that’s what I did. The data helped me feel safe enough

to do what I thought was right.’’

Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times and the paper’s senior editor of live

journalism. He is the author of ‘‘The Power of Habit’’ and the forthcoming book ‘‘Smarter Faster Better: The

Secrets of Productivity in Life and Business,’’ from which this article is adapted.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The New York Times Magazine delivered to your inbox every week.

A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 27, 2016, on Page 20 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Group Study


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