Aristotle Strikes Again

by Ron Potter


As reported in the New York Times recently, Google embarked on an effort to build the perfect team. And as Google would be prone to do, they began to collect data in search of a pattern. As one participant stated, if anyone is good at recognizing patterns it’s Google. I don’t think there’s any argument about that.

However, after collecting data on hundreds of teams the first problem they ran into is that they couldn’t find a pattern. Or more accurately they found too many patterns which is just as much of a problem as finding none at all. So the search continued.

In the end they did find two very interesting correlations that seemed to be present on every good team. Not surprisingly those two elements were trust and respect. The two of them together formed an environment that has been labeled ‘psychological safety.’ If the team members feel psychologically safe because trust and respect has been built, the team will become a high performing team. (Tweet this)

Another pattern that began to emerge however was the productivity of these teams over multiple problems and projects. Teams that fell short on psychological safety didn’t seem to perform well at any kind of problem. Conversely, teams that exhibited psychological safety seemed to perform well no matter the nature of the problem. So the one element that people most often assume to be a needed ingredient, subject matter experts, didn’t seem to make any difference if there was no trust or respect.

Now, here’s the part I enjoyed. The internal name for the effort was called the Aristotle Project. One of the foundational structures that I always introduce to the teams I work with is Aristotle’s Levels of Happiness. The fourth and highest level describes the five things needed for great team work. In Aristotle’s word they include: Truth, Love, Purpose, Beauty and Unity. Every team needs a purpose but to accomplish that purpose they must be able to share and speak the truth, do it in a loving respectful way, in the most beautiful and elegant form possible and finally reaching a commitment of unity. Without those elements a psychologically safe environment doesn’t exist.

Although I’m glad they actually made the effort, had they simply started with what Aristotle knew they could have saved a lot of effort in figuring out what makes great teams.

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