Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

A few years ago, Google went on a quest to build the perfect team.

The goal was to figure out why some teams perform well while other teams stumble. Researchers code-named the study Project Aristotle, a tribute to the philosopher’s famous quote: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” 

First, researchers identified 180 teams to study, including both high- and low-performing teams. They then pored through the data and interviewed hundreds of executives, team leads, and team members. 

And here’s where it gets interesting:

Executives and team members differed vastly as to how to measure effectiveness. Executives cared much more about results (e.g., sales numbers or product launches), while individual team members said that “team culture was the most important measure of team effectiveness.”

On the surface, this may not seem surprising. But it actually reveals a major insight:

To build a successful team, you must find the balance between results and culture.

Why is this so important?

Think about it: You could have the highest performing team in the world, but if the individual team members don’t feel comfortable, that team won’t last very long. Individuals will seek out a better environment; so, any success the team enjoys will be short-lived.

What if team members feel they enjoy a great culture but produce subpar results? Obviously, this isn’t sustainable either. The company will lose money, and the team will eventually break up.

But what if the company finds a way to make individual team members feel safe and trusted while motivating them to achieve the best possible results? Ah, now you’ve got the best of both worlds.

And that’s what makes Google’s research so helpful: To define “effectiveness,” researchers decided on assessment criteria that measured both qualitative and quantitative data. They analyzed dozens of teams and interviewed hundreds of executives, team leads, and team members, to get as accurate a picture as possible, from multiple perspectives.

The researchers then evaluated team effectiveness in four ways:

  • Executive evaluation of the team
  • Team leader evaluation of the team
  • Team member evaluation of the team 
  • Sales performance against quarterly quota

So, what did they find?

“What really mattered was less about who was on the team, and more about how the team worked together,” stated the researchers.

Here are the five factors that mattered most.

1. Psychological safety

“In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members,” wrote the researchers. “They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.” 

Simply put, great teams thrive on trust. (Here’s a sample of nine habits and behaviors you can practice to build trust between yourself and others.)

2. Dependability

“On dependable teams,” wrote the researchers, “members reliably complete quality work on time (versus the opposite–shirking responsibilities).”

It’s common nowadays for people to break an agreement or commitment when they feel like it. When team members consistently deliver work past deadline, not only does it affect the work of other team members, it also creates a trickle-down effect, slowly but surely reducing motivation and engagement in others.

In contrast, high standards are contagious. When leaders, managers, and team members prove dependable, others are motivated to follow suit.

3. Structure and clarity

“An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness,” the researchers stated. “Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging, and attainable.”

This is easier said than done. Just think back to your work over the years: Have you ever received an assignment where you thought, “Oh, yeah, that’ll be easy,” only to find out there was much more involved than you anticipated?

In contrast, teams can improve results simply by teaching proper scope–making clear exactly how much time and effort are needed to achieve a great result.

4. Meaning

“Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness,” said Google. The researchers went on to explain that the meaning of work varies by individual. It can include factors such as financial security or self-expression.

The key is to identify what the work means to individuals on the team, and find ways to deliver the tools and freedom team members need to achieve that meaning.

5. Impact

“The results of one’s work, the subjective judgment that your work is making a difference, is important for teams,” the researchers wrote. “Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact.”

Far too often, teams have no idea how their work affects other teams in the organization, or even customers and clients. 

But communicating impact is necessary, and can be done in various ways, including:

  • Taking time to demonstrate how a team’s role fits into the end product or service
  • Sharing positive customer feedback
  • Inspiring your team to express appreciation to other teams for their work and support

By taking the lead in showing appreciation to their own teams and keeping the big picture in view, company leaders help their teams see that they are accomplishing much more than they might realize. 

So, remember, great teams:

  • Make members feel psychologically safe
  • Promote dependability
  • Provide structure and clarity
  • Create meaning
  • Communicate impact

Accomplish this, and you’ll achieve remarkable results–by building a whole that’s far greater than the sum of its parts.

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on