For an industry that prides itself on its analytical ability and abstract mental processing, we often don't do a great job applying that mental skill to the most important element of the programmer's tool chest - that is, ourselves.

Have you ever been part of one of those teams where everything just seems to be awesome?

Seriously. Somehow, the team gels. Everybody doesn't actually like each other, or at least that's what they say, but somehow, everybody feels connected. There's little to no tension, and any tension that does emerge seems like it gets handled without management getting involved (and certainly without getting HR into the picture). The team is productive, innovative, responsive to changing criteria, you name it.

Having been a part of that team before, you're reluctant to leave work for the day, loathe to actually leave the company, and you spend the rest of your career trying to recreate that experience.

You're not the only one.

Effective Teams

Various management consultants and “Zen masters” have long sought the key to these kinds of teams and for obvious reasons: if managers can discover how to move through the “storm” and into the “norm” and “perform” parts of the agile-inspired “forming/storming/norming/performing” cycle, then high team productivity (and management promotions) can be had that much more quickly. In fact, universities and graduate schools, from the smallest no-name community college to prestigious schools like Harvard Business School, have their students form into groups for particular projects (or sometimes, for the entirety of their schooling), so that students can get used to the idea of working in teams, rather than as individuals, as is the case for most of our school careers.

But it's not just a measure of experience with being part of a group - it's quite common for people who've been part of one of these exemplary groups to turn around and find themselves in groups that are entirely less so, even under similar or near-identical conditions. In fact, sometimes the group can consist of some of the same people as the previously exemplary group, but now “the magic” is gone for some reason. And it certainly doesn't rest with qualities like intelligence or motivation; groups can be made up of the smartest and most highly-motivated participants and still fail to come to any kind of cohesiveness.

Should there be any real doubt as to the veracity of these claims, one need only tune in to any season of television's “The Apprentice,” where two teams are formed out of the participants randomly and compete against each other under particular business conditions only to see that coming to a highly effective team state isn't easy.

What's worse, this is not just some academic exercise; The days of the “developer in the dark room” have long since ended, and a recent study by the Harvard Business Review ( has discovered that “the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more” over the last two decades. In fact, some firms find that more than three-quarters of an employee's day is spent communicating with colleagues.

To paraphrase the American patriot, “If we cannot figure out how to work together, we shall surely hang together.”


Google, as it turns out, has been spending a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to discover what causes some teams to be successful in bonding while others don't. Originally, Google's belief - echoed by many experts who were asked this question - held that the best teams were made up of the best people. And that it was better to put like-styled people together (like introverts with introverts) or create groups that were made up of people who were friends both inside and outside of work. But, as is common with many of these common knowledge kinds of beliefs, nobody had ever actually studied the effects of doing so under any kind of scientific conditions.

In 2012, Google began Project Aristotle to do exactly that and the results are fascinating.

In the earliest stages of the project, they sought (as Google does) patterns in the data. They examined interests, backgrounds, friendships, and other interpersonal dynamics, personality styles (introvert, extrovert, etc.), motivational goals and/or styles, and pretty much any personal attribute that came to mind. But the harder they looked, the more any sort of pattern eluded them. According to Abeer Dubey, one of the Googlers involved with the study, "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."

So if it's not “who,” then what?

Group Norms

It turns out that in any group, there's an unwritten set of rules that the group comes to embrace collectively, often without discussing it outright. Psychologists and sociologists call these group norms: behavioral standards, traditions if you will, that the group follows when interacting with one another. They vary from group to group. One group may seek to avoid dissent while another heartily encourages it. One group may deliberately seek to allow each person to say their piece during a meeting, while another simply allows meetings to devolve into chaos. One group may enforce a high degree of politeness and deference during their discussions, where another one embraces argument and even name-calling. Conflicts may be sought or downplayed. These norms are often completely different from one group to another, but they're always there.

And whether explicit or implicit, these group norms often trump our individual styles of work. An employee deeply distrustful of authority may find herself quite enthusiastically going along with the ideas of the team's leader. Another one who is habitually early to meetings will embrace the group's more casual grip on time. And so on.

So how do these group norms come to be?

Talk Time and Social Sensitivity

In 2008, psychologists from Carnegie Mellon and MIT started a two-year examination of 699 people split out into various groups over and over again. They gave each group relatively trivial tasks - grocery shopping, for example - and examined how well each group was able to accomplish its task, and how the group collectively interacted. What they discovered was that regardless of the successful groups' individual attributes, the successful groups did two things well:

They more-or-less-evenly split up the talk time. Quite literally, the researchers referred to it as “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” So long as each member got a chance to talk, the group as a whole did well. If only one person, or a small subset of the group did all the talking, the group performed far less well.

They had high "average social sensitivity." Or, put another way, the good groups were skilled in intuiting how others felt based on all the non-verbal cues like tone of voice and facial expressions. If a group could tune in when one of their members was feeling upset or left out, they had a much better chance of keeping all the members collectively feeling connected.

These qualities both contribute to what psychologists call “psychological safety” - a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.

Interestingly enough, some of the practices of an agile team - the daily standup, for example - accidentally contribute to this kind of environment. But at the same time, it's not simply sufficient to just enforce a strict talk timer. Psychological safety suggests that the other members of the team trust each other, professionally and (to a degree) emotionally, and there's nothing in the Agile Manifesto that describes how to build that.


How best, then, to create this kind of environment?

Alas, not all answers are easily forthcoming. What might work for one team may horribly backfire for another.

However, in general, it begins somewhere, and often it begins with the group's nominal leader - that's you, the team lead or the manager - offering up some degree of vulnerability to them. Ensure that the others talk; give them room and time to make their opinions known, and respect those opinions even if you disagree. (And in no way can you shoot them down publicly when seeking to building this "safe zone.") But it can require more than that; sometimes, you have to open up and talk about things yourself, which, if the group desires, could be hurtful if they react badly to it. Talk about your concerns, your goals, your secret fears. Talk about things that make you human and not just a body in a suit.

Make no mistake: This can be a terrifying moment, particularly as you are now wagering with that most valuable commodity of all, the human ego. But if the goal is to create a safe place, the only way to demonstrate that it is safe is to show some faith and trust in the people around you by offering that very same valuable commodity up to the group for embarrassment, rejection, or punishment, and allowing them to see that such reactions are not forthcoming. In other words, as Bren? Brown has pointed out in her TED talk entitled “The power of vulnerability,” sometimes the best things can only happen when you deliberately open yourself up to other people.

Give it a shot.

(This was inspired by a column from the New York Times: “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”, available at Those interested in more about the power of vulnerability should see Brown's TED talk of that name, or check out her book “Daring Greatly”.)