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Lessons from Google in bringing your whole self to work

psychological safety - woman talking to colleagues

Can you keep your personal life separate from your work life?

Matt Sakaguchi was a middle level manager at Google. In the past he had been on a SWAT team and an electronic engineer. He had worked with many teams and was particularly effective at working with technical workers. Sakaguchi was appointed to manage a team of engineers. In his previous role, the team he had managed did not work well together.

At the time he began his new role, Google had instigated Project Aristotle, a research study designed to get a better understanding of the qualities that are present in the best performing teams. As Google is very metric driven, they devised numerous surveys to identify these characteristics. This appealed to Sakaguchi. He felt that he had a strong unit, yet its performance scores were average. There was some discontent on the team which was beneath the surface.

Sakaguchi volunteered his team to participate in the project. Members of his team, though sceptical, agreed to take part. He scheduled an off-site workshop to discuss the result of the survey.

At the workshop he told the team that he had stage 4 cancer that had spread to his spine. He was not going to get better but insisted on continuing his work. After he spoke, other members of the team described their own health issues. As a result of the information that Sakaguchi shared, it became much easier for members of the team to talk honestly about things that bothered them. Furthermore, they all agreed to try harder when someone was down or felt excluded. Sakaguchi believed that psychological safety* and emotional conversations were a necessary component of work. In fact psychological safety as a crucial component of the best teams was a key finding of the Google study.

What Project Aristotle had taught Google was that no one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home.

Psychological safety as a key factor in work performance

Of course one has to take great care in not allowing facilitation to turn into a therapy session. Yet in my own work facilitating personal growth workshops with managers, I have found that when appropriate, sharing personal histories can profoundly and positively affect work performance.

Furthermore, I believe that psychological safety is gaining greater recognition as a key factor in work performance (see definition below). In future articles, I will expand on this point.

Psychological Safety – A shared belief that the team is a safe place for impersonal risk taking. It is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes (based on the work of Amy Edmondson). See more about the Resilience and Wellbeing Network seminar on psychological safety at work.

The lessons of Matt Sakaguchi, based on the article, “What Google learned from the Quest to Build the Perfect Team” (NY Times 28/022016).

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