[Source image: Eugene Mymrin/Getty Images]

For centuries, managers have been befuddled by team dynamics, particularly why some team members hit it off in a heartbeat while others simply don’t. Moving from anecdotes to data-based best practices took humankind all the way until 2012, when Google embarked on a two-year journey to find an answer to what drives effective teaming once and for all.

What they found laid the foundations for modern corporate team building as we know it today.  The results of Project Aristotle, as Google called the study, are simple: After hundreds of interviews and two years of data-crunching, the study found that the best performing teams share five particular features in common, namely psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact.

All of this sounds self-evident today, which is partially testament to how far and wide the findings have trickled down through MBA courses and leadership self-help books over the past decade. Some of Google’s findings were markedly more counterintuitive, including why consensus-driven decision making, co-location, individual performance, and extroversion seem to have little to no impact on their effectiveness.

Even though Project Aristotle wrapped up long before anyone had heard of the metaverse or quiet quitting, the study is well worth any manager’s time today. First, given everything we know of millennials and Gen Z, it’s clear that many of the five tenets that are driving performance have become only more important over time, particularly psychological safety, meaning, and impact.

It is equally clear that our workplaces have adopted practices that are failing employees miserably by over-managing for structure and clarity to the detriment of all other drivers of teaming success. Not knowing where employees are and what they are doing presents real discomfort. In response, many managers have doubled down on clarifying roles and processes in a way that would make Frederic Taylor look like a slouch.

Daily check-ins and check-outs, software assisted monitoring, and hourly production breakdowns have become increasingly prevalent ways for managers to regain a resemblance of control over their minions who might or might not be logging in from Aruba at any given moment.

At the same time, managers across disciplines have adopted Agile ways of working in hopes of replicating the successes the process has brought to the field of IT development in particular. There is much good to be said about Agile for good reason, but when applied with the wrong intentions, it can quickly turn into micromanaging on steroids.

The first casualty of over-compartmentalization and overmanagement of work is the ability of employees to self-actualize and find meaning and impact in their work.Omnipresent monitoring and hourly timesheets also wreak havoc on dependability, making it a matter of rote compliance instead of a carefully cultivated sense of trust and accountability.

Now to the good news: Hybrid, and full-remote workforces are absolutely compatible with effective teaming. Here are two ways to help you push the pendulum back toward a more balanced approach across the five drivers in case you find yourself having gone too deep on structure and clarity.

Trust

The first step is bringing trust back to the equation.The world didn’t collapse even though everyone worked from home, and your team will be just fine even if you don’t know exactly how many minutes your staff worked on any given task or how many keystrokes they produce per minute.

In fact, they’ll be far better for it. Leaning in on the flexibility and adaptability of modern ways of working will foster psychological safety and promote engagement and ownership in ways that will have far greater dividends than monitoring and oversight ever could.

People are fundamentally reciprocal, and the best way of building trust is to exhibit trust. One particularly effective method is for managers to focus on setting goals and milestones and giving the team the autonomy to seek out the best way to accomplish them. Tolerating failures and the occasional missteps is critical for making the autonomy feel real, and it goes a long way in making employees feel safe to explore their roles.

Another equally powerful method is to transform stands-ups and check-ins from reporting to supporting events. Recasting regularly scheduled meetings as opportunities for helping team members overcome blockers instead of simply checking on progress made is by far one of the most powerful moves a manager can do to breed trust and self-actualization.

Co-location is another practice that is ripe for transformation. Biting the bullet and going fully flexible might feel risky, but there is no reason to believe that any arbitrary pre-established mix of in-office and at-home days works better than allowing teams to find the norms that work best for them.

Trusting your teams to work effectively from wherever they are is the right choice in particular because of how it immediately casts dependability in terms availability and outputs instead of physical presence.

Instead of the default option, the office should be recast as an enticing alternative to which teams naturally gravitate to when they need to share physical spaces for collaboration and team building.

Brown bag seminars, in-office baristas, and a few Pelotons can go much further than you think, and putting the emphasis on tangible moments of collaboration is key.

Self-actualization

Second, you should ensure that the roles and processes set in place leave space for self-actualization and personalized ownership of one’s work. If you’re using Agile, be cognizant that a 100-meter dash doesn’t come anywhere close to the sense of meaning and impact that running a marathon brings.

Not everyone’s work will be foundational, but everyone’s contributions should feel necessary and acknowledged as contributing to goal deeper than wrapping up a two-week work package. The trick is to make sure that even when working on their own units each employee can visualize a clear pathway from their work to the grand “why” of it all.

This is where the importance of setting goals mentioned earlier becomes particularly clear. The best thing a manager can do when running multiple sprints is to maintain a cohesive narrative of how the work contributes to the larger organizational goal.

Often this means distilling vision statements, contractual milestones and even change requests into meaningful arguments about why the work we do today matters. This may not always be simple to pull off, but who said being a good manager was supposed to be easy?

Ultimately, what particular steps you end up taking matter far less than the sincerity of your commitment to making effective teaming a priority for your organization. As for now, it’s more than likely to be pushing back on the overemphasis on structure and clarity.Alexander Puutio is an adjunct professor at NYU Stern where he explores the interplay between business leadership and our society at large.

By Alexander Puutio