[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

Years ago, Google became determined to create the perfect team. Executives believed building the best team meant putting the best people together. In 2012, they launched the Aristotle Project, which was an attempt to study teams in order to determine the ingredients for the perfect group. When all was said and done, they examined 180 teams within the company.

At first, there were no patterns to distinguish a high performing team from a lower performing team. Soon, the importance of established “group norms” came into view. This NYT article explains it well:

“Project Aristotle’s researchers began searching through the data they had collected, looking for norms. They looked for instances when team members described a particular behavior as an ‘unwritten rule’ or when they explained certain things as part of the ‘team’s culture.’ Some groups said that teammates interrupted one another constantly and that team leaders reinforced that behavior by interrupting others themselves. On other teams, leaders enforced conversational order, and when someone cut off a teammate, group members would politely ask everyone to wait his or her turn. Some teams celebrated birthdays and began each meeting with informal chitchat about weekend plans. Other groups got right to business and discouraged gossip. There were teams that contained outsize personalities who hewed to their group’s sedate norms, and others in which introverts came out of their shells as soon as meetings began.”

The researchers soon found good teams had two traits: talking was evenly distributed among everyone, and members were sensitive to how teammates were feeling. In other words, they had empathy for one another.

The researchers found it didn’t matter how smart or average the people were–if you had a group full of brilliant people who didn’t have norms in which everyone spoke and empathy was established, they were consistently outshined by a group of average workers who did have these components established. This more cohesive group felt “psychologically safe” because members believed they could share their feelings, have difficult conversations in a productive manner, and participate in any number of emotional conversations.

In a nutshell, the best teams listen to each other and tend to each other’s emotional needs.

We’ve been talking about norms for years within the field of education. Oftentimes, norms conjure the memory of sitting in a group, trying to think of as many ways as possible to be nice to each other during PLC time–and then revisiting this list before each meeting. By thinking of norms in this perfunctory way, we lose sight of the importance of norms that occur naturally–as if they were like breathing. Many consultants harp on organizations to make lists of norms because in reality it’s easier to codify norms on paper and then read them before each meeting than the alternative, which is having each member take stock of his or her own ability to listen and possess empathy.

Think of the most dysfunctional group you’ve ever seen. They’re nasty to each other. They talk behind each other’s backs. They don’t meet unless they have to, and then when they do meet it’s a cold war between all members. Writing down norms before a meeting will accomplish nothing to help this team. In fact, the practice will just exacerbate the problem because members will mock the idea of norms altogether.

In this situation, it’s better to travel the more difficult route, which is working on listening and empathy skills. Of course, there are many books written on both of these topics, and you can search online for “increasing empathy” and “improving listening skills” to find helpful articles and videos. In my personal experience of being a part of teams and visiting scores of school sites, there are strategies that can help the dysfunctional team.

  • Spend time with teams that possess empathy and good listening skills.
  • Read a helpful article together and use the EAA model to both analyze the text and produce actionable steps for becoming better as a team.
  • Set up a few “one-foot bars” that can be easily cleared as a team. This will create Dave Ramsey’s “snowball effect,” which will make the team eager to accomplish more. Stay far, far away from seven-foot bars. Expecting a team to successfully accomplish a difficult objective will make matters much worse. We differentiate and scaffold for children–the same has to be done for dysfunctional groups. You can’t expect a team of four teachers who hate each other to garner the same results as four teachers who work well together because they’re BFFs.
  • The leader of the organization must regularly sit in during the team’s meetings. The leader should praise the group for growth as a team, and he or she should also point out areas that can be improved. It would be helpful for the leader to go through the EAA process with them every time they meet.
  • WORST CASE SCENARIO: The team needs to be split up. It’s the job of a leader to assemble a team whose members can exemplify the positive traits found by researchers of the Aristotle Project. People may have to be moved to different grade levels so teams can thrive and students can learn.

2 thoughts on “ARISTOTLE PROJECT

  1. Great synthesis, Steve! And further, you offer practical suggestions. The Aristotle Project summarized their findings of effective teams in one word – TRUST! Effective teams TRUST one another. Relational trust is essential and without that, no protocol in the world is going to make them an effective team. That is why we start with a trust survey, that is, taking the temperer of the degree of trust in a team, when we begin to establish a learning network.
    It is also why we start with ONE TEAM at a time – so the principal can help build relational trust.

    And of course healthy teams accelerate teacher learning which in turn has a direct impact on accelerating student learning (‘evaluating impact’ = .93 effect size). Yes!

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