Small Groups Lesson From Google

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There is new research by Google that reveals profound discoveries about why some work groups thrive and others falter. The findings are fascinating because they provide empirical data from the business world that is relevant for the church, especially those of us serving in small group ministry.

You can check out the New York Times article by Charles Duhigg entitled, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” There is a detailed account of Google’s initiative code-named Project Aristotle. Not only did they study the productivity of hundreds of Google’s work groups, but they also reviewed a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams collaborated. In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives.*

Here are eight takeaways from Google’s Group Journey.

1. Groups have a unique value that individuals or crowds do not possess.

In Silicon Valley, software engineers are encouraged to work together, in part because studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems.*

Smaller groups have the potential to overcome obstacles and make progress together… Jesus knew this, the 1st-century church knew this and the business world now has the statistics to know this too. If we’re not careful, we can miss the treasure of this insight by detracting from the formality of small group ministry.

2. The Group Norm outweighs the people and personalities.

‘‘We looked at 180 teams from all over the company,’’ Dubey said. ‘‘We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.’’

… As they struggled to figure out what made a team successful, Rozovsky and her colleagues kept coming across research by psychologists and sociologists that focused on what are known as ‘‘group norms.’’ Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather …

Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound …

After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving Google’s teams.*

Individuals won’t determine the potential of a community of people, the group norm will. The way a group is encouraged or allowed to interact with each other will be a blessing or a lid to it’s spiritual vitality. We must keep our finger on the pulse of the group norm while guiding it towards health.

3. Food is still spiritual.

Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized … how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions).*

Eating together has always been a powerful tool for creating a stronger bond. God has instructed us with this simple resource from His Word for thousands of years (see Acts 2:42-46).

4. Conversational turn-taking is a healthy Group Norm.

… On the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small(er) group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’*

Each small group must be cultivating a culture that stimulates participation from everyone in an organic manner. This is more of an art than a science because forcing someone to participate is just as damaging as neglecting or diminishing a person’s participation.

5. Being acutely tuned into each other is a healthy Group Norm.

… The good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.*

If people come to our groups only looking to receive for themselves we will miss the bull’s-eye of biblical community. We must constantly be looking for opportunities to model for and coach our group how to care for one another. Our groups should be filled with moments where one person asks the other person, “Are you ok?”, or “Can I pray for you?” This will only happen if we are regularly sensitive and aware of how people in our group are doing in their life.

6. Achieving Psychological Safety in your small group.

Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. 

… There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

Over time, if a group maintains healthy group norms on a consistent basis, it can produce a tipping point of safety and trust. This will only result in your group being more attractive and irresistible to new people because …

7. No one wants to put on a church face.

“What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations.”

No one wants to put on a church face when they get to their small group.

8. The unintended benefit . . .

Studies also show that people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction. In a 2015 study, executives said that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more …

… business schools around the country have revised their curriculums to emphasize team-focused learning.

… Study groups have become a rite of passage at M.B.A. programs, a way for students to practice working in teams and a reflection of the increasing demand for employees who can adroitly navigate group dynamics.*

The unintended benefit of being in a small group is that you may become better prepared for a role in the modern workforce.

All of this amazing data reinforces the theory that small groups, when done right, are one of the greatest, biblical ways to position the church for spiritual growth and kingdom-mobilization.

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