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Building “Perfect” Teams with Collaborative Leadership

The New York Times recently published an article by Charles Duhigg (2016) entitled, What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.  What is important about the article is not the conclusions that were reached, which I believe will make sense to you as someone who has already been paying attention to the expanded leadership and team skills needed for the 21st century.  What is notable is that Google spent over 10 years and millions of dollars to closely examine how employees, and teams, actually behave, and how that behavior translates to successful teams.  Google has brought data analysis to the complex and notoriously difficult-to-measure realm of team development, and leadership.  Their discoveries consistently validate the collaborative norms and leadership that can help teams take fuller advantage of the talent around the table.  Their conclusions affirm how we have been thinking about leadership at Saint Mary’s College for over 15 years, as one of the first stand-alone MA in Leadership degrees in the country.

In 2012, Google started a specific initiative with the code name “Project Aristotle,” asking what makes a team successful?  As Google studied teams, they had trouble finding any common patterns about what made teams effective.  Human beings are complex on their own, and when you collect them together on a team, the complexity expands exponentially!  With their extensive research, Google ran across the idea of group norms, and the crucial role that norms play in the most effective teams.  They discovered “two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared:”

  1. First, on the most successful teams, they noticed that participants spoke in relatively the same proportion.  For example, in a team of five people, each spoke roughly 20% of the time.  The researchers called this, “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.”  The percentages could vary from moment to moment, but at the end of the day, everyone spoke close to the same amount.  “As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,” one researcher commented, and “if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.”
  2. The most successful teams had “above average social sensitivity” — meaning that team members were good at understanding the emotions and feelings expressed by others, through intuition and a variety of non-verbal cues.  Team members seemed to know when someone felt bad, excluded, excited, etc.  Yes, it sounds like emotional intelligence plays a big role here.  

We appreciate this research as being aligned with the work of many authors and thought-leaders, ranging from Brian Hall’s (2006) pioneering work with Values to Heifetz and Linsky’s (2002) articulation of Adaptive Leadership.  These authors make a compelling point about how the crux for expanding our leadership range involves building the capacities of emotional intelligence and collaboration, and brings our attention squarely to how we work on teams with others.  As we become clearer on the skills and capacities needed to foster leadership in the 21st century, the huge question that remains is “how do we get there?”  We hope that Google will now turn its considerable attention and budget to the topic of how to move from the research to practice.  

In our explorations of 21st century leadership with hundreds of people from all economic sectors, we have described the mindset needed to create the “perfect team” that Google describes.  My colleague Suzanne Van Stralen and I have called this mindset Collaborative and Innovative Leadership (CIL).  We have identified 11 essential elements that contribute to the creation of a CIL mindset:  

  1. Acute Need for Innovation
  2. Capacity to Build Mutual Trust and Respect
  3. Willingness to Promote Learning and Change
  4. Commitment to Navigating Chaos and Discomfort
  5. Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging
  6. Invite Volunteerism
  7. Foster Participative Dialogue and Democratic Practices
  8. Openness to Tap Other Ways of Knowing
  9. Being Authentic
  10. Belief in Wholeness and Relationship
  11. Be Positive and Assume Good Intentions

Creating these organizational conditions is tantamount to culture change, and we offer some ideas for how we can create and support teams with this expanded leadership mindset using forms of action research that bring practical action to our learning and leadership.  Please feel free to read more about this in our recent article entitled, “Developing Collaborative and Innovative Leadership:  Practices for Fostering a New Mindset.”  As Google’s research suggests, It is time for all of us to put our attention to practicing our way into the future of leadership!  What experiences of participating in excellent teams have you had, and what qualities were present that helped the team(s) thrive?  What practices would you suggest that can help us build better teams?



Duhigg, Charles (2016).  What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, The New York Times, February 25.  Retrieved on March 3, 2016 at

Hall, B. P. (2006). Values shift: A guide to personal and organizational transformation. Eugene, OR: WIPF & Stock Publishers.

Heifetz, R. and Linsky, M. (2002).  Leadership on the line: staying alive through

the dangers of leading.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Paxton, D. & Van Stralen, S. (2015). Developing Collaborative and Innovative Leadership: Practices for Fostering a New Mindset. In Journal of Leadership Education, Volume 14, Issue 4.  Retrieved January 28, 2016 from:

About Doug Paxton, Ph.D.

Doug Paxton, Ph.D.
Doug Paxton is a learner, educator, writer, and artist who is passionate about what humanity has to learn from reconnecting to our values and the natural world. Doug is Co-Director of the Leadership Center at Saint Mary’s College and faculty in the MA in Leadership program, currently focusing his teaching in the area of Values in Action, Leadership and Sustainable Organizational Change.

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  • John Coleman

    Doug Paxton great article. As someone who’s attained both a MA in Leadership and a MBA I can say that both are important and serve a purpose. The MA in Leadership provided a foundation for me to continue my graduate studies in a more thoughtful and substantive way. Upon matriculation to Duke’s Fuqua School of Business I found myself totally prepared to attack multi faceted business cases in a way different from my classmates that was directly influenced by the MA in Leadership. This led to my learning teams allowing me wide discretion when discussing and highlighting how leadership plays a larger role in the handling of business on a daily basis. Now that I have finished my formal education and am a practicing all that I learned in both programs I recognize that the MA in Leadership provided the foundation for my grasp of complex business problems and solutions both quantitative and qualitative.

  • Stephen Dynako

    I have found there is great power and fulfillment in the classic notion of leading by example. In my experience, the more I am emotionally attuned to others and present to them, first, as a human being, the safer they feel to express themselves and support each other. When this happens, I rarely have to concern myself with a team’s performance. Most everyone is inspired to do their best, because they know that I and each other have their backs.