Your negative emotions are hurting your team. Try empathy instead

In 2011, Google set out to engineer the perfect team, or at least understand it. In an internal analysis known as Project Aristotle, they surveyed hundreds of teams of engineers and managers, to isolate characteristics that made them efficient and effective. Before they even started, leaders at Google thought they knew the answer. They figured that talented individuals would sum together into successful teams, and that if you averaged the talent of each team member, you’d do a pretty good job predicting how the group would perform.

It turned out they had it almost entirely backwards. Individual talent mattered, but the most effective teams were characterized by features that went above and beyond the sum of their parts. These teams exhibited psychological safety. Conversations were not dominated by any one individual, and each person felt like they could voice their thoughts freely without being judged or punished. They also were characterized by clear communication, and a deep connection of team members to the meaning and value of their work. Psychological safety had already been studied in rigorous behavioral scientific work. Project Aristotle provided yet another clear example of how much it matters.

This surprised the designers of Project Aristotle, but fit perfectly with data being collected around the same time on “collective intelligence.” Researchers randomly grouped individuals into two- to five-person teams. Each team was given a set of diverse tasks—solving visual puzzles, finding as many creative uses for an object as possible, making ethical choices together—and scored on their performance. Each team member also took a standard IQ test.

Teams varied in their collective intelligence; some outperformed others across virtually every type of task. But collective intelligence was only weakly correlated with the average IQ of team members or the smartest member’s IQ. Instead, collectively intelligent teams had three features: individuals took relatively equal amounts of time speaking, they were high in cognitive empathy, and they were populated with a greater number of women.

Many elite workplaces fetishize the disagreeable genius, who might clash with everyone around him (and it is usually a him), but also produces dazzling, field-changing ideas. Feedback and compensation packages reward individual performers, as if companies thrive through the work of independent contractors who happen to share an office space.

They don’t. Success depends on collaboration, and agile, high-performing teams are not usually propelled by one or two hyper-skilled individuals. They depend on the whole group’s ability to share their perspectives and to see one another’s.

How empathy fuels effective teams

As we’ve seen, empathy is more than one thing, and each type of it can fuel team success in different ways. To understand how emotional empathy—taking on others’ feelings—can help, we first need to overturn yet another […]

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