The Case for Empathy: What Google Discovered about Effective Teamwork

“All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten,” Robert Fulghum famously wrote. Someday, our students might look back and say, “All I really needed to know about effective teamwork, I learned in middle school.”

The modern workplace is marked by creative collaboration.  In Silicon Valley, for example, “software engineers are encouraged to work together, in part because studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems.”

At Google, people work on teams – and some teams are more effective than others.  This reality led the company to conduct an ambitious study on what makes an effective team. They pulled together top statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists, and engineers and asked them to figure out why some teams worked better than others. They called it “Project Aristotle.”

Easy, right?

At first, the researchers struggled to find any consistent patterns. Teams with very different mixtures of personalities and work-task approaches could perform equally well –  or equally poorly.

So the researchers turned their attention to something less tangible: the team’s “culture” or “unwritten rules.”

And that’s when they found TWO behaviors that all good teams shared.

  1. Members “spoke in roughly the same proportion” –  and they took turns in the conversation.
  2. Members were “socially sensitive” –  they paid attention to tone of voice, facial expressions and non-verbal cues.

In other words, good teams were composed of empathetic individuals who communicated effectively.

It all boils down to how we treat one another: listening, showing care, and taking turns.

Why? On these teams, people felt safe –  safe to take risks or share ideas without fear of embarrassment or rejection. As one Harvard Business School professor wrote, empathy creates a climate where “people are comfortable being themselves.’’

A recent New York Times article on Google’s study offered this insight:

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations.

When we talk about preparing our middle school students for the “world of tomorrow,” we are not just talking about academic skills –  we are talking about nurturing habits that will allow our students to flourish in a collaborative workplace. Empathy for others will not only help our students thrive on future teams, it will lead them look for solutions that support the “greater good.” That’s why we do what we do:

  • That’s why we revitalized our assembly program to include more student sharing and celebration of our community.

And that’s why our teachers –  who are deeply empathetic professionals –  are always looking for ways to share lessons on service, collaboration, courage and respect  with our students. Google may have provided the quantitative data, but none of us here at TVS are surprised by the findings.

To read the full New York Times Magazine article on Google’s research, click here.

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