What makes teams work? Ask Google


Google has spent 1000s of hours trying to figure out how to make people work better in teams.

The answer? Teams are most effective when there is “psychological safety” — in other words, everyone feels safe contributing ideas, questioning others (even the boss), and sharing problems.

In the best teams, people feel free to offer the most outlandish, ambitious ideas — and they are not shot down. Also, everyone contributes more or less equally.

The same holds true in our classrooms. If we create “psychological safety” for our students, they are more likely to contribute to discussions, more likely to ask questions and more likely to seek help — and they will be more effective learners.

How can we do it? Many students have a natural adversity to speaking up. They don’t want to be wrong. They don’t want to be laughed at. They don’t want to be the center of attention. And often, they lack confidence that they have anything meaningful to say.

And we teachers have a natural reluctance to embrace teams — because we assume students learn best alone, like we did back in the day.

We can overcome these barriers, but we have to start early each semester, and we have to be consistent. Here’s how:

1 – Involve every student right away. Call on every student by name as often as possible — the ones you don’t call on will automatically feel less valued and engaged.

2 – If students are shy about answering, let them discuss questions with a partner or in a small group first. Then, when they answer, they know someone has their back.

3 – Seat students in small teams of 2, 3 or 4. Individual seats all pointing forward does not create a collaborative environment.

4 – Encourage divergent thinking. Ask questions that have multiple answers, rather than one right answer. Start class with a question each day — not something irrelevant like “what’s your favorite TV show” but something related to your content, like “what’s the worst survey question you can think of?”

5 – Create a playful environment, where it’s OK to laugh at and even celebrate mistakes. It’s actually more fun and more productive to be in a workplace where people are comfortable enough together to laugh, but that means everyone has to be vulnerable — starting with us.

By the way, Google also found that an effective team of medium-skilled employees will outperform a dysfunctional team filled with superstars.

Our students don’t learn in isolation; they learn in a social setting. We need to create the setting that lets them shine together.