News organizations can learn from Google on team building, too

Understanding the psychological underpinnings of how we work together helps us adapt to change

There are some key lessons for news leaders in the “What Google Learned from Its Quest To Build the Perfect Team” piece in The New York Times Magazine that remained on the “most-emailed” and“most popular on Facebook” lists for over a week; many of them match up with what we have learned in our research on newsroom culture and change.  

We all hate meetings and awkward workplace interactions — try assigning group work to students, and you’ll hear all of the groans in the room — but like it or not, the modern workplace is one in which collaboration is increasingly necessary.

As my CUNY-J colleague Jeff Jarvis would say, it’s never a terrible idea to ask, “What would Google do?” And even if you are skeptical of this tech behemoth, its massive budget and ability to parse data means that more often than not it can find a way to get things right.

My student Pedro Burgos and I on a trip to Google's NYC office
My student Pedro Burgos and I on a trip to Google’s NYC office

Not surprisingly to us, Google found that it’s not who is in a group that matters so much as the group norms — and the sense of psychological safety or lack thereof that the group fosters for its members — that determines its effectiveness.

‘‘We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference,” Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google’s People Analytics division, told the NYT.

What are group norms? The story articulates the common definition: “the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather.” Often, these rules are informal and haven’t even been formally articulated until asked.

So what kinds of group norms are best? Here again, the Google researchers found a mixed bag; there was not one right answer.


(They) 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.

These group norms become even more important when an organization is facing tumultuous change, and people are already anxious about job security and new responsibilities. People can easily become paralyzed and distracted at work when they are worried about their careers.

Often, newsroom leaders think “the answer” to dealing with digital transformation is all about finding the right people and marginalizing or getting rid of the curmudgeons. Sometimes this is necessary, but we have found that interviews with even the most recalcitrant often led to some great ideas if people felt like they being heard and not being summarily dismissed if they raised a concern.

Google’s own research found that good teams allowed everyone to speak equally, and had high “average social sensitivity” or the ability to understand what each other were feeling, often based on nonverbal cues.

In other words, feelings matter, much as we might like to think that they have no place at work. The best teams need a sense of psychological safety so that they can take risks and bring up ideas that at first glance might not seem wise. Quoted in the story, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson says that psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.’’

But creating this kind of safety in teams isn’t something you can just order people to do. One technique Google employees found was effective was sharing personal stories, even about the kinds of intimate things people don’t normally find appropriate to speak about at work.

In times of change like those news organizations face, people have an even stronger need to build trust with co-workers, and the proverbial “outside-the-box” ideas that may seem silly at first may be especially valuable.

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.