This article was first published in Law360

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As Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 approached Miami International Airport on Dec. 29, 1972, its pilots extended the landing gear. Two green lights lit up in the cockpit, indicating the left and right landing gear had extended. A third light, however, remained dark: while the nose gear had also extended, the bulb confirming this had burned out. Ten minutes later, Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades, killing 101 people. Its crew had fixated on the burned-out bulb and lost track of the plane’s altitude.

Seven years later, United Airlines Flight 173 suffered a similar landing gear indicator failure. While the flight crew tried to resolve the issue, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed in suburban Portland.

While burned out light bulbs should not down a commercial airliner, uncontained engine failure — in which components explode out of an engine in random directions — like that experienced by Qantas Flight 32 on Nov. 4, 2010, certainly can. Yet despite an engine explosion ripping holes in the wing and fuselage of their Airbus A-380, the crew of Qantas 32 brought the plane down safely in Singapore.

All three flights had qualified and experienced crew members. So why did minor mechanical issues bring down two planes, but a catastrophic engine explosion did not bring down the third? The answers lie, in part, in how the teams piloting those planes functioned, and in research conducted by NASA in the wake of those crashes, and, more recently, by Google. And those answers can help firms and organizations build better teams to meet today’s legal industry challenges.

Building a Better Team: The Research

The expanding size, scope and complexity of litigation and transactional matters has put a premium on handling these matters with collaborative "teams." This phenomenon is not limited to the legal industry: data collected by the Harvard Business Review suggests that the time spent by employees in collaborative activities has increased by 50 percent or more over the past two decades, and that at many companies, roughly 80 percent of an individual employee’s time is spent communicating with colleagues.[1] At the same time, clients insist on efficient and productive legal teams. Because these teams are a necessity to serve clients in today’s business environment, it is increasingly important for firms to consider how they build and operate these teams.

Google may not have "clients" in the legal sense, but it does have an abundance of teams, a plethora of employee data, and the technological and institutional capability to analyze that data to optimize its project teams.

That is what Google did with "Project Aristotle."[2] Launched in 2012, Project Aristotle aimed to determine how to build the perfect team. Google wanted to know why certain teams succeeded or failed, what successful teams had in common, and how to build more successful teams. Google’s researchers started with a premise that might be familiar to many law firms: to get the best team, combine the right people.

So researchers compiled data, crunched numbers, analyzed relationships, and found … nothing. Or, rather, they found all sorts of things. Conflicting things. Some teams performed better than others, but no mix of personalities, skills or backgrounds seemed to matter much. Some teams had strong hierarchies. Others were more flexible. Different management styles seemingly had little impact.

Academic research provided some clues. For example, in 2008, researchers from Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Union College sought to measure the collective intelligence of a group (distinct from the individual intelligence of group members).[3] After observing different teams performing various tasks, the researchers noticed that teams that performed well on one task often performed well on other tasks, while less successful teams on any given task were less successful across the board. The research suggested that certain groups had a "collective" intelligence that could (1) exceed the average or maximum intelligence of group members and (2) predict how that group would perform on a wide range of tasks.

Between 2005 and 2012, MIT researchers attached sociometric badges (wearable electronic devices that measure social interactions in detail) to over 2,500 people in 21 organizations. These researchers wanted to study, on a granular level, when, why and how individuals communicated with their colleagues, and how communication patterns affected performance. "Productive teams have certain data signatures, and they’re so consistent that we can predict a team’s success simply by looking at the data — without ever meeting its members," the researchers wrote.[4] "Individual reasoning and talent contribute far less to team success than one might expect," they continued. "The best way to build a great team is not to select individuals for their smarts or accomplishments but to learn how they communicate and to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns."

The conclusions both teams reached had a central theme. The first team found two factors significantly correlated with group performance: first, groups with a more equal distribution of speaking time performed better than those in which one or a few members dominated the conversation. Second, high-performing teams had high "average social sensitivity," i.e., an acute awareness of other group members’ emotional state.[5] The other research team identified certain defining communication characteristics of successful teams: on these teams, members (1) spoke in roughly even measures; (2) made eye contact while communicating; (3) connected on an individual basis, and not just with or through a leader; (4) routinely brought outside ideas and information back to the group.

In light of this research, Google’s data began to make sense: of the many factors coursing throughout the mass of data, conversational parity and social sensitivity predicted group success more than any other factors. Put another way, Google found that group performance depended on "psychological safety," which Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defined in 1999 as "as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking."[6]

Psychological Safety Improves Group Performance

The term “psychological safety” or the thought of a psychological “safe space” may be anathema in the legal industry, which values a sort of emotional stoicism. But what exactly does the concept mean? What are the effects of promoting it? And what are the “interpersonal risks” Professor Edmondson described?

Attorneys are perception managers. As much as we may believe we do not care what others think of us, we do, and to a certain degree, we should. We strive to cultivate a particular image — smart, reliable, capable, pick-your-pleasant-adjective. And we project that image to others — to colleagues and clients alike.

That image, though, faces dozens of potential "risks" every day. If I ask a question or seek more information, will I be seen as ignorant? If I admit or notice a mistake, will others think I’m incompetent or arrogant? Am I comfortable soliciting or providing feedback? If I delegate this task, am I confident that my colleague will solicit input from others and come to me as needed? If I disagree with a strategy or argument, can I voice that opinion without being seen as insubordinate? Can I handle others disagreeing with or challenging my own ideas? Am I comfortable suggesting an unconventional solution to the client’s problem? If an individual perceives the "risk" of taking a particular action as too high, he or she will simply avoid it.

In a group setting, psychological safety acts as a lubricant that facilitates (and improves the outcomes of) these hundreds of micro-decisions. In a psychologically safe group, each individual can transfer energy and focus from the individual goal of image preservation to the collective goal of the team or unit. Psychological safety "captures the degree to which people perceive their work environment as conducive to taking these interpersonal risks," Professor Edmondson wrote in 2002.[7] "It increases the chances of effortful, interpersonally risky, learning behavior, such as help seeking, experimentation, and discussion of error," all of which promote team learning, performance and satisfaction.

Individual Steps Toward a Collective Goal

"Psychological safety" is best understood as a state or conditions under which a group’s performance can flourish. "That’s super," you say. "And how exactly do I bring about this 'state of being?'" Good news: because productive groups depend on the right norms, and not on personnel or taking the right steps in the right order, managers and organizations can take different paths to the same goal.

And these paths do exist. For example, leaders should be accessible and involved, but not micromanagers. Moreover, because psychological safety allows individual members to focus on a collective goal (as opposed to self-preservation), effective teams need both a clear goal and an understanding as to how their work contributes to that goal. In short, team members need to know that their work matters. Encouraging reserved team members to speak up during a meeting can improve conversational equity; actively delegating tasks or defining specific roles for individuals is even better. And the first few minutes of a meeting spent discussing things other than work — or better yet, a personal conversation outside the office — strengthen the emotional bonds that improve team performance. In short, every unit of energy team members don’t spend putting on "work faces" or worrying about self-preservation is energy that can be put toward a more productive collective goal.

Psychological Safety in the Cockpit and Conference Room

Eastern Flight 401 and United 173 crashed because their flight crews did not function well as teams. The crew of Flight 401 became preoccupied with a burned out light bulb and failed to delegate the critical task of keeping the plane airborne. And despite fuel gauges easily visible in the cockpit, the members of the United 173 flight crew failed to fully grasp or communicate their deteriorating fuel situation.

In the wake of these accidents, NASA — no stranger to assembling and managing flight crews — set out to determine how to improve airline flight crew performance. NASA focused not on individual pilot proficiency, but on cockpit dynamics — how crews handled their workload and communicated on the flight deck. Like Google researchers did decades later, NASA researchers wanted to find out whether group dynamics could enhance or degrade the performance of otherwise capable pilots, and if so, how.

The result of their efforts was a concept called Crew Resource Management (“CRM”), designed to promote a "less authoritarian cockpit culture — one that included a command hierarchy but encouraged a collaborative approach to flying, in which co-pilots … routinely handled the airplanes and were expected to express their opinions and question their captains if they saw mistakes being made."[8] Captains were asked to "admit to fallibility, seek advice, delegate roles, and fully communicate their plans and thoughts."

These concepts were a tough a sell to pilots steeped in 1970s cockpit culture. But within a decade, CRM flight training became a global standard, and its concepts had begun to migrate into other industries. Its application was no more apparent than on Qantas Flight 32 in 2010. "Everyone has a responsibility to tell me if you disagree with my decisions or think I’m missing something," Captain Richard de Crespigny told his crew.[9] So when an engine on de Crespigny’s A-380 disintegrated, severing hydraulic lines and puncturing a fuel tank, his team sprang into action. The pilot handled the controls and monitored instruments. His first officer resolved a barrage of fault messages on the flight computer. Two other pilots in the cockpit devised a landing strategy and visually inspected the damaged wing. Together, the crew made critical decisions and even skipped steps in the emergency checklist that, had they been taken in that particular emergency, could have proved catastrophic. Qantas 32 landed safely; its passengers suffered no injuries.

Attorneys are not piloting planes, and our errors are typically not fatal. But the same concepts apply in the conference room as well as in the cockpit. No matter the group, focusing on the right norms and team dynamics — and taking the steps needed to promote these norms and dynamics — will make any legal team greater than the sum of its parts.