Smells Like (Dream) Team Spirit

The first Summer Olympics I remember being fully invested in were the ’88 games in […]

David Zahl / 6.30.16


The first Summer Olympics I remember being fully invested in were the ’88 games in Seoul. Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith Joyner dominated the track, while Matt Biondi and Janet Evans ruled the pool. It was an exciting time to be an American, especially a pint-sized one. My nine year old self looked at these people and saw honest-to-God superheroes. I resolved that when Barcelona rolled around in ’92, I wouldn’t miss a moment.

In the weeks and months leading up to the opening ceremonies that year, one story overshadowed all others: the advent of the Dream Team, AKA the USA Olympic Men’s Basketball team. For the first time ever, professional athletes were eligible to compete, and nowhere was that prospect more exciting than the basketball court. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley – talk about larger than life! I bought a baseball cap with the official logo and wore it that entire next year.

The philosophy behind that team was a simple, and very American, one: get the 10-15 best players in the NBA and put them in the same uniform. The most talented players, working together, would achieve the top result. And in this case, boy did they ever. Their supremacy was borderline embarrassing. I think they won the Gold Medal game by 40 or so points. They looked like they were having a blast too.

What brought the Dream Team back to mind, other than the US Swimming Trials that are happening right now, was an article in The NY Times Magazine by Charles Duhigg that we missed back in February, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”, ht CE. The article profiles something called Project Aristotle, an attempt by the Almighty Google to further “the golden age of understanding personal productivity”. The focus of Project Aristotle is the study of groups in the workplace, how they function, how they fall apart, how they can be optimized (that word!).


Let’s backtrack a moment. If you have someone in your life who is currently studying (or has recently studied) business at the graduate or undergraduate level, you know that “group projects” are the name of the game. “Team-focused learning” is the formal term here, and the idea is 1. groups are often more efficient/effective than individuals and 2. most companies (financial, consulting, engineering, etc) are now organized according teams, so how better to prepare our students for success? [As an aside, I hear more bellyaching about group projects from the students with whom I work than any other area of their academic life. (It is not a friendly model to church attendance)].

So like it or not, group dynamics are an enormous part of the contemporary workplace. Church too, for what its worth – we just call them committees. Or small groups.

The article opens by recounting the experience of Julia Rozovsky, one of the Project Aristotle researchers. During her graduate studies, Rozovsky noticed that some teams she was a part of were terrific and others not so much. The first team she describes sounds like it was set up along Dream Team lines. But the results were not what she expected:

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. 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 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… Most of the proposals were impractical, but ‘‘we all felt like we could say anything to each other,’’ Rozovsky told me. “No one worried that the rest of the team was judging them.’’ Eventually, the team settled on a plan for a micro­gym with a handful of exercise classes and a few weight machines. They won the competition.

The grace and law overtones should be fairly self-evident. Similarities foster comparison, and competition (law) is threatening, even/especially when you’re supposed to be pulling in the same direction. Moreover, disparate backgrounds often buffer the measuring and allow for more active collaboration. But that was in an academic environment. What about in a professional context? Duhigg mentions that Google’s “top executives long believed that building the best teams meant combining the best people” a la the Dream Team, and now they had the chance to examine vast swaths of data to see if there was empirical evidence for that belief. Their findings only half-confirmed Rozovsky’s past experience:

‘‘We looked at 180 teams from all over the company,’’ [one researcher] said. ‘‘We had lots of 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 matter.’’... 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.

There was no discernible pattern when it came to the roster itself. As they report, the “who” didn’t seem to matter that much. What mattered was the emotional atmosphere of the group–what they refer to as “unwrtten rules” and “internal culture”. (This is especially remarkable when you consider how often Duhigg reminds us that techies are not known for their emotional fluency.) To what extent did the team members feel afraid/ discouraged/ self-conscious and to what extent did they feel safe/ supported/ heard? That is, were they operating in a culture of law or a culture of grace? The euphemism Google stumbled upon for grace in the group context is “psychological safety”:

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 1999… When Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place.

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….

Of course, these findings are not actually groundbreaking. Managers have known this for ages (to say nothing of clergy and parents and teachers, etc). Duhigg even suggests that the lack of novelty here has been a stumbling block to “psychological safety” being accepted in Silicon Valley, where ‘new’ is privileged above all else. And yet, the data doesn’t lie. A couple of paragraphs toward the end almost sound like they were cribbed from Grace in Practice:

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.

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.

Ouch. Take that, Cult of Productivity!

Of course, the subtext of the whole Project is that they’re hoping to leverage findings about the essential inefficiency of little-g grace for the sake of more efficiency. To use ‘promise’ as a management tool so that the United States of Workaholism can annex yet another area of repose. Then again maybe it’s just the logical expression of something we all already take for granted: that more and more of us look to our job not just for a paycheck, but for love and value, to meet not just our material needs but our relational and spiritual ones as well.

Alas, while I’d much rather work in an office (or worship at a church!) where people are flexible and forgiving rather than critical and competitive, it strikes me as a fool’s errand to expect psychological safety in the workplace. At least not if making money is the end goal, which it is and should be. Because the threat, however remote, of losing one’s job ensures that whatever safety can be cultivated will ultimately evaporate. Assurance cannot be conditional and still be assurance.

Fortunately, assurance is not ours to establish, try as we might. It is the gift of God to shameless optimizers and hapless deadbeats alike, sealed in you-know-what, announcing that the most urgent work has already been done–and done well.

So, deep breath. You made the team. There’s nothing left to do now but… play.

Just please, for the love of God, don’t pass the ball to Christian Laettner.

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