When a team is working well, it’s one of the best things in the world. I’ve seen this a handful of times in my life – where a small group of people has deep respect and trust for each other. When I’ve been on teams like that, I’ve felt like we could take on anything – it didn’t matter how big or hard the goal was, because we all knew we’d give it our best and that we had each others’ backs.
But the reverse is also true: When a team is struggling, it’s one of the most miserable things in the world. I’ve experienced this too – the malaise of knowing that we’re stagnating as we lose time fighting each other, the exasperation from knowing that we could be accomplishing so much more. That’s at a minimum too – sometimes it’s even worse, with individual team members being targeted or under-estimated, which then breeds mistrust, defensive behaviors, and a lack of motivation. No one stays in that environment for long if they can help it.
I’ve long wondered about this – what makes some groups of people work so well when you put them together, while others fall apart?
Google’s Project Aristotle research is one of my favorites because it offers a clue into what’s going on. In brief, the People Operations team at Google noticed an interesting trend: Even though every individual they hired had to meet the same hiring criteria, when they grouped those individuals into teams, they performed at vastly different levels. Google researchers spent 2 years looking at almost 200 teams to figure out why that was.
What was the key difference between teams that performed well and those that didn’t? Ultimately, it came down to something intangible but oh-so-real: psychological safety.
Psychological safety is a concept coined by Amy Edmondson – it’s the “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”
The Project Aristotle research put into words something I’d felt but hadn’t been able to name – it’s not parties or free food or foosball tables that matter for a great work environment; it’s about how we treat each other and the challenges we face together.
For psychological safety to really exist, teams need to be equitable. The Stanford Social Innovation Review defines equity as “each of us getting what we need to survive or succeed—access to opportunity, networks, resources, and support—based on where we are and where we want to go”.
If one person is being held to a different standard, or if they’re not given the same support and opportunities to grow, then they won’t feel psychologically safe – they’ll know that their team isn’t looking out for them in the same way it looks out for other people, and they won’t feel comfortable speaking up with their ideas and concerns.
To put equity into practice, we need to recognize that we still live in an unfair world, where privilege and oppression continue to exist – and then take action to create systems and processes that counter oppression. This is work that I was doing in my last business, where I ran a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultancy focusing on tech companies and startups. We taught people how to recognise oppression and how to take action to shift the structures around them to be more equitable – because when we do that, we’ll not only have a better world, we’ll also have better teams.
Multitudes was born out of my DEI work: We wanted better feedback loops on how teams were doing. After we did a consulting project or ran a workshop, we wanted to be able to measure whether things had actually improved for the teams we worked with – had they become better teams?
None of the existing tools did what we needed. Surveys were interesting, but their accuracy depended on how many people chose to respond, and the data could be unreliable. Talking to people gave us a good sense of how they were doing and we got great anecdotes about the impact of our work, but those conversations were too time-intensive to scale across all the teams we worked with.
What we were looking for was an easy, low-effort way to understand a team’s dynamics – how much support people were getting, how their wellbeing was tracking, and how well they collaborated to get work done.
That’s when I realized that there was a much easier data source we could be looking at: behavioral data. We could integrate with the tools people already use at work and then pull out insights about people and processes.
This is similar to the methods we already follow in product development – not only do we conduct user research (where we get detailed stories from a few individuals), we also survey our customers (e.g., by running satisfaction or Net Promoter Score surveys), and we look at the behavioral data from how they use our products.
Multitudes is bringing the same approach to team development – we use passive, real-time behavioral data to show a more holistic view of how teams are collaborating. It fills the missing piece of how teams work in reality, alongside what employees feel comfortable sharing in 1:1s or surveys.
Ultimately, we want to make equity the default at work – and we support that by giving team members easy and regular feedback loops about how things are going. That means that individuals can set goals and track progress, and they have data for retros and 1:1’s to guide better conversations with their peers. It means that each team member has the tools they need to build their capability as individuals and as a team.
We want to live in a world where equity is the default at work – where everyone is valued, and where people get enough support and step-up opportunities to contribute their best work. Equity as the default means that we’ll have more amazing teams, and we’ll be able to accomplish bigger, more meaningful goals. Life is too short to be miserable at work.