Google’s 5 Key Team Dynamics: Just Another Way to Define Engagement?

Back at the turn of the century when Google was just a startup bucking for excellence, they had a strict policy of hiring only Ivy League grads at the top of the SAT spectrum.

They quickly found out that this was unsustainable, as it takes more than just stacked resumes to build successful teams.

“We were pretty confident that we’d find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team,” recalls Julia Rozovsky, an analyst for Google’s People Operations (read: HR) department. “[But] we were dead wrong. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.”

Now flash forward over a decade to present day, where Google is one of the biggest and most successful organizations on Earth with a strong reputation for creating, examining, and analyzing winning work cultures.

What started as a deceptively simple question – “What makes a successful team?” – became a company obsession that evolved into something called re:Work, a think-tank arm of the company whose sole focus is to measure success within Google, and exploit the resulting data to help make work more fulfilling, inspiring, and satisfying for everyone.

Share and share alike

Google has always been more than willing to share their engagement strategies with other companies, even publishing a book, Work Rules!, that recounts in detail the management decisions that led them to the culture they enjoy today.

Part of defining that culture came from defining as exactly as possible how successful teams operate, a project they undertook with relish. After over 200 internal employee interviews that spanned two years they presented their “Five Key Team Dynamics” — 

  1. Psychological safety – Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
  2. Dependability – Team members get things done on time and meet Google’s high bar for excellence.
  3. Structure & Clarity – Team members have clear roles, plans, and goals.
  4. Meaning – Work is personally important to team members.
  5. Impact – Team members think their work matters and creates change.

What Google learned early on is that the types of personalities that create these dynamics within a team most likely would not be apparent on a resume or during an interview. A resume can say a lot of things, but as Rozovsky says, the true test is how they interact and play with others, when they’re not using all their efforts to impress.

Hiring strategy

That said, they updated their hiring strategy to focus on the personalities that in their view were most conducive to team dynamics. According to Work Rules! author Lazlo Bock, Google’s top HR chief, the focus was shifted to bright hardworking individuals who have demonstrated “resilience and an ability to overcome hardship,” and less importance was put on pedigrees and resumes.

This hiring approach also cleverly addresses something Google and several other Silicon Valley companies have struggled with — diversity.

With an employee population of over 60,000 that is still 70 percent male and 60 percent white, much of that disparity can be credited to their early elitist hiring policies of only accepting Ivy-Leaguers, a group that is disproportionately white and male.

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By focusing on the individual instead of the resume, you better separate the person from the trappings of societal norms.

Another way to define engagement?

Google’s Five Key Team Dynamics are (unsurprisingly) similar to the tenets of employee engagement.

At the end of the day you want every employee to operate with clear expectations, and the work they do should have some personal meaning or a sense of doing the right thing. This cultivates an environment where people feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable, and that is where your best work comes from. Indeed, some of Google’s most iconic products like Gmail were created as side projects by employees during their downtime.

When Google talks about what employees want, we would all do good to listen.

Perhaps no other company has devoted so many resources and working hours to figuring out what makes employees tick, and their Five Key Team Dynamics hit the nail on the head as to what constitutes a successful team, and for that matter, a successful employee.

That means more success for everyone.

Cord Himelstein has helped HALO Recognition become one of the leading providers of employee rewards, recognition and incentive solutions. Since 2007, he has been responsible for leading the company’s strategic marketing initiatives and communications efforts. Cord works closely with customers to help them develop measurable workforce recognition strategies and create memorable experiences for their employees.

Cord is also a recognized thought leader in the human resources community, and is a regular contributor to the company's corporate blog, where his articles have enjoyed national exposure through major HR publications including SHRM, Workspan, TLNT, Smartbrief, and Entrepreneur. Prior to joining HALO Recognition, Cord worked in the entertainment industry for more than 15 years, where he held senior positions with Elektra Entertainment and EMI Music Group.