Archive | June 2016

Lessons From Google’s Group Dynamics

I might have given this example before, so please forgive me for repeating it. However, the lesson is worth repeating. Decades ago, someone did this experiment: He assembled a team of top engineers from across the globe, gave them the assignment of assembling the world’s best car, by taking best parts of the best automobiles. The result? The car didn’t even drive.

The same principle applies to team composition. Assigning the best people (by what criteria?) in an organization and putting them in a team almost guarantees a mediocre-performing team at best, or a losing team at worst. How to assemble a good-to-great team has bedeviled many practitioners as well as academics. I think one of the traps is our thinking that if we gather a bunch of talented people, they ought to work things out for the best…forgetting that team dynamics is not static. Ever. Hence, “dynamics.” Even the best-forming team can only hum along on a project for so long before something throws them off. And different projects evoke different emotional responses from members.

Sometimes it's fun to single out one cat for weird composition.

Sometimes it’s fun to single out one cat for weird composition.

It turned out Google also fell into the above erroneous assumption, “building the best teams by combining the best people.” However, being data-driven Google, they plunked down enough resources to learn about team, starting from researching the existing literature, consulting with internal and external experts, to gathering data on hundreds of teams among the 57,000 employees. The project was called “Project Aristotle” (PA).

As skilled in detecting patterns as Google is, the PA team didn’t see patterns emerging from the massive amount of data. It mattered little whether people shared similar values, similar professional backgrounds, or similar interests. The teammates of effective teams might socialize outside work, or they might not. Teams of almost identical make-up (“identical” on paper, in other words, in measurable features) would have very different levels of performance. The group comprising “smart” ones might work more efficiently than others, but the group of “average” employees seemed to know how to make the best out of everyone and create “sum larger than the parts” synergy.

Group dynamics have a way of messing with our heads…and emotions. And emotions play an important role.

When the Project Aristotle team dug deeper into the data, what they first tentatively grasped was that “norm” seemed to be the glue for group, regardless of the group performance. Norm is the unwritten, taken-for-granted rules that naturally emerge as a group coalesces around its identity. Another way of understanding norm is by breaking it, or imagining breaking it. The PA team leader wanted to push further and tried to understand what norms would guide a group toward a more synergistic whole and perform better than others, especially over time. The PA team finally hit the sweet spot of a good-performing team: When everyone in the team had a fairly equal opportunity to speak up, the team thrived. When someone, or a smaller subset of members, dominated the conversations – however brilliant their ideas might be – the group ultimately suffered.

An astute leader who could help the group navigate the conversation flow was a plus. And such leadership role didn’t have to reside with one person only. Situational leadership means that everyone can undertake the leadership role depending on the task at hand. For instance, during the task’s creation stage, someone who’s more comfortable with generating thoughts and ideas can take the lead role, and when the task moves into the execution stage, perhaps another person with better organization skills can step in.

All this hinges on the individual’s ability to “read” others’ emotions, mood, or temperament. This is the essence of emotional intelligence (EI) With little EI, group members might not feel comfortable stepping into the various leadership roles. To divvy up tasks for efficiency is relatively easier than to negotiate different roles without stepping into each others’ domains. Ultimately, though, a group’s manager needs to assume the emotional leader’s responsibility to know if the group is coherent, if it has a common goal, which group members might need more nurturing, and when to leave people alone.

Cats have their norms and group dynamics too.

Cats have their norms and group dynamics too.

One of the dramatic examples concerning Google’s search for creating the best team involved a team’s leader revealing his terminal cancer. When the group heard the news in a retreat, the members began to share with each other their own vulnerability. Obviously, everyone’s vulnerability is different. The point is that when a leader shows hers, she’s signaling that she’s willing to take the risk and trust her team. Not everyone is comfortable with such a tactic, but then, that’s how a leader demonstrates leadership qualities.

While Google’s efforts were admirable, most organizations don’t have the resources to expend on essentially experiential learning. On the other hand, experiential learning doesn’t need to be costly. On the fifth hand, not trying, not learning, not opening up would be costly…for individuals as well for organizations.

Enjoy your July 4th weekend. And be safe. I will resume after July 10th. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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A Random Walk …to relieve some stress

Years ago, feeling like a lifetime ago, during one day of a salary negotiation, I could feel the churn in my stomach, literally and physically. By the end of the day, I got the salary I wanted. And really, at no point during the negotiation was I in disadvantaged position. I was proud of myself for standing firm, but the bile accumulated during the day almost made me throw up. That began my long journey of stomach issues. Undoubtedly, the root cause of my stomach ailment might have been dormant for years and this stressful event just provided the right stimulus for the problem to manifest. My point is that stress affects our physical well-being, and both temporary and prolonged stress hurts us in manners that we can’t usually predict.

Of course what stresses me might be an easy task for another person, and we each have our breaking point, as I presented in my article, “Stress is both Subjective and Objective.”  Often, when people are so accustomed to living in a constantly stressful situation they take their stress for granted and don’t notice it mentally…except their bodies do. By now, most of us are fairly familiar with the theory of body-mind connection. When the mind is over stressed, the resulting consequences range from a weakened immune system to a heart attack or stroke or other serious physical ailment.

After writing the above paragraphs, I stalled. I thought about getting into the science of body-mind connection and tying it to organizational issues, but it’s complicated. Facing a possible, yet another, three-post series on neurons, hormones, memories…just stressed me out. I ended up veering into writing on other types of writing for a couple of weeks. I even got into left-handed painting (I am usually right handed) and discovered that I probably would have been a left-handed person if not “corrected” when I was young. It was both exciting and stressful (what have I missed?). I cleaned the house, a definitive sign of stress for me.   Made desserts; fortunately, I don’t care for eating much of them…still… Basically, I’d do anything but continue writing on this topic.

ducks under tiger

A right-handed painting in my fusion series (watercolor)

I could drop the topic and move on. Yet, I like a challenge. Eventually, I decided to do a random walk to get around this “stress.”

During this period, I found some commiseration with others’ stories of stress.

Story 1: Tom had a long and not terribly good day. Arriving home late that evening, seeing his son by the table with a birthday cake on it, Tom said dejectedly, “Oh, son, I am so sorry; I forgot it’s your birthday. I didn’t even get you a gift.” His son said, “Dad, it’s your birthday!”

Story 2: A friend forgot her twin’s birthday one year.

Story 3…well, it’s more like a saying: A male friend’s comment, “’Suck it up’ at work ultimately gets you a hernia.” Oy!

An organization can be over-stressed too. I think this election cycle has really put our country under a lot of stress. What would be the tangible manifestations of prolonged organizational, or societal, stress?

While I find the scientific body-mind connection fascinating, I think how to manage stress is the million-dollar challenge. If you can manage/relieve stress bit by bit over a period, how would you know that you have prevented any bad physical symptoms? To be able to prevent — the absence of negative – doesn’t naturally or automatically bring comfort. It’s not as if one day you wake up and realize, “Yay, I kicked the habit of stressing myself out.” While there are plenty of stories about heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, etc., resulting from stress, we don’t usually know when to separate ourselves from those little stressors…till strokes or heart attacks take place. While one can celebrate a successful recovery from a heart attack or stroke, how do you celebrate not having them in the first place? I know a few people who get stressed over preparing for vacation, or over the disagreements with their mates on the vacation, and over the post-vacation bills.

A dear friend who is as sweet as he can be, nevertheless blows up at people, including his loved ones because he would not let any external disagreement, or whatever he deems unreasonable, stress him. I wish I could do even 5% of that! Yet his relief often is the cause for others’ stress.


I don’t know the answer. We each have to define and locate our stress points, and we each have to monitor our own environments and our own physical signs for stress. Recently, I found myself worrying myself sick about and fuming over an event that I dread attending. Eventually I filled myself with venomous energy that made me even more unhappy with myself. Happily I stopped; worrying about it would get me nowhere and fuming about it makes me an ugly person. Self-awareness helped. How do you develop that? Methodically, with practice, and with loved ones who can remind you and nudge you toward finding relief…but you need to listen to their suggestions.

Probably equally often, we find ourselves in situations where we can only choose the lesser of evils. So, we are still stressed, just not as much? Is that supposed to be comforting? Yet, I am afraid that least-stressful choices dominate modern life in our organizations and in our society. In the end, I think all we can do is to be aware, to find relief however we can, whenever, and wherever.

Well, I do feel much better now. I hope you have better ways to deal with stress than I do… please share. Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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