We need to talk about Trust in Teams

You probably heard about Google's research done a few years ago that was aimed at finding what makes a perfect team. The 2012 Aristotle project run by the Google's People Operations department measured a lot of data related to its employees' work life and habits, as well as scrutinized its teams compositions in order to find a perfect recipe.

The findings of the research (read more here or in the New York Times article) challenged a quite common belief that the best teams were created by combining the best people.


The research data showed that the mix of different backgrounds, experience or types of personality made no difference. The next thing that the research team looked at was the group norms that bound the various teams that they analysed. While no patterns appeared there either, they made an important observation about the norms: they usually overrule any individual predispositions – in short, the rules of the group, and most importantly how team members treat each other, largely affect whether the team becomes successful or it hobbles. Interestingly enough, two equally successful teams can have sometimes quite the opposite rules.

The Google research team in the meantime came across a concept of a »psychological safety«, developed in 2008 by a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College. In short, two particular behavioural features differentiate successful teams from others: 1. an amount of contribution to conversation from each team member 2. the level of social sensitivity to team members or emotional intelligence. This particular concept helped the Google team see their vast collection of data make sense. When the two features complement each other in a way that a so-called »psychological safety« is created, a group of people does become a well-functioning team. In simpler terms, there is trust among the members of the team, and each individual feels confident to be himself/herself and most importantly being heard. When this happens, all the rest follows: innovation and productivity of such a team rockets.

According to the figures of another research, from the HBR, the amount of time that employees spend working in various groups in recent years increased 50% 1 and a typical person nowadays spends only about 25% of his/her time alone.

So, how can we make sure that a group work time is spent efficiently? How can we establish a culture where trust and psychological safety are an essential block of teams and an organisation itself?

The person who coined the term of a psychological safety, professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard, outlines three possible ways:

  • Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility.
  • Model curiosity and ask lots of questions. 2

So, we bet on you reflecting now how many great teams you’ve been on and what really helped it work?

1 https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload

2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8

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Prof. Drikus Kriek
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