A Lesson On the Psychology of Meetings from SNL and Google, with Charles Duhigg


About five years ago Google started this interesting
experiment. They wanted to figure out how to build the perfect team. And so what they
did is they started collecting huge amounts of data about all the teams within Google.
And their initial hypothesis was you can make teams better by putting the right people together,
right. If you have some introverts and some extraverts or maybe you have people who are
friends away from the conference room or maybe you need strong leaders and followers. But
who you put together they figured is the way to build the perfect team. That’s the thing
you want to control. So they collected all their data. They spent millions of dollars
and years looking at this stuff and they couldn’t find any correlation between who was on a
team and whether that team was effective or not. So they decided to start looking at this
question in a completely different way. They started focusing instead of who was on the
team they started looking at how the team interacts. We’ve all felt this before that
maybe away from a team setting we’re really outgoing. But then when we sit down we kind
of are more sedate because that’s how the team behaves.
Or maybe there’s a group norm that it’s okay for people to interrupt each other. Or
maybe it’s the alternative that the group norm is that everyone takes turns talking
or you stay on the agenda or you start the meeting by gossiping. Groups develop these
unwritten rules and that’s how they function. And it turns out those group norms that was
the thing that determined whether a team was successful or not. In particular there were
two norms that seemed to have a huge influence on whether a team could work together and
really become productive. The first was what’s known as a quality and conversational turn
taking. What this basically means is does everyone at the table get a chance to speak
up. We’ve all been in team meetings where half the table is quiet, right. Maybe some
expert is in the room and when a question comes up they just talk for 10 or 15 minutes
and they tell everyone what they ought to do. That might be really efficient but that’s
terrible for a team. The best teams it turns out are ones where everyone at the table regardless
of whether they know what they’re talking about or not feels like they have an opportunity
to make their voice heard. The second norm, the second behavior that makes groups more
effective is what’s known as high social sensitivity. Essentially can I pick up on
how you’re thinking and feeling based on nonverbal cues. If you’ve got your arms
crossed do I say to you hey Jim, it looks like you’re kind of like not super into
this idea. Can you tell us about that? Or if you look super enthusiastic do I say Susan,
you look really like you like this idea. Like tell me what you think we should do next. Teams in which people all speak up and where
there’s high social sensitivity where people pick up on each other’s nonverbal cues,
those according to the data are the most effective teams. What’s really interesting about this
though is that if you were an outside observer and you got to look at effective teams at
a glance they might not look like the most productive groups. The way that we encourage
equality in conversational turn take and high social sensitivity is sometimes by doing these
things like gossiping with each other or allowing someone to talk even if maybe they’re not
an expert on a topic. Or getting to know each other in a way that if someone takes the conversation
off agenda we say hey, I understand this is important to you, go with it for a little
while. In other words the teams that at a glance look most productive oftentimes aren’t.
But if you can create this conversational turn taking, equality of voices, if you can
convince people to really listen to each other and be sensitive to the nonverbal cues we’re
giving off then you create psychological safety. And psychological safety is the single greatest
determinant in whether a team comes together or whether it falls apart.
One of my favorite examples of psychological safety and a team really coming together is
the early days of Saturday Night Live. So when you think about it Saturday Night Live
never should have worked, right. You have a bunch of comedians who are kind of misanthropes
to begin with. And they’re all kind of egomaniacs. And yet for some reason when Loren Michaels
put them in a room together everyone was willing to kind of get along. They were willing to
put aside their ego and create this amazing show together. Not only an amazing show but
a show that was put together under these incredible time pressures, right. They have a week to
put together a live show. Now when I talked to the early writers and performers on Saturday
Night Live and I asked them why happened all of them said the same thing. Because of Loren
Michaels. So Loren Michaels has this very unique way of running meetings. He sits down
and the meeting starts. And what he’ll do is he’ll make everyone go around the table
and say something. And if someone hasn’t spoken up in a little while Loren Michaels
will actually stop the meeting and he’ll say Susie, I notice that you haven’t chimed
in. Like what are you thinking about right now? And if somebody looks upset, if an actor
looks like he’s having a bad day or a writer sort of sees like they’re pissed off Loren
Michaels will again stop the meeting and he’ll actually take that person out of the room
and he’ll say look, it looks like something’s going on that’s bugging you. Like let’s
talk about it. What’s happening in your life?
Now what’s crazy about this is that this actually makes meetings kind of go on forever.
And Loren Michaels is like known for being productive, right. He’s known for this person
who creates these amazing shows and is doing like 12 things at any given time. But the
way he runs meetings is that he makes sure everyone in the room has something to say
and if you look like you’re thinking something and not verbalizing it he makes you verbalize
it or he takes you aside and he says what’s going on with you. Like why are you upset
or are you happy. What Loren Michaels does is he creates psychological safety. He’s
like a master of creating psychological safety. And as a result he’s able to take all these
huge outsize egos and all these actors and writers who are comedians and so almost by
their very nature they hate other people. And he’s able to bring them all together
into this cauldron of pressure, of creating a live television show in a week, then it
all works out. But it’s because he creates an environment that feels safe where everyone
feels like they can speak up and they feel like everyone else is genuinely listening
to them because they’re sensitive to all the cues that they’re sending.