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After Rozovsky gave one presentation, a trim, athletic man named Matt Sakaguchi approached the Project Aristotle researchers. Sakaguchi had an unusual background for a Google employee. Twenty years earlier, he was a member of a SWAT team in Walnut Creek, Calif., but left to become an electronics salesman and eventually landed at Google as a midlevel manager, where he has overseen teams of engineers who respond when the company's websites or servers go down.
''I might be the luckiest individual on earth,'' Sakaguchi told me. ''I'm not really an engineer. I didn't study computers in college. Everyone who works for me is much smarter than I am.'' But he is talented at managing technical workers, and as a result, Sakaguchi has thrived at Google.
Sakaguchi had recently become the manager of a new team, and he wanted to make sure things went better this time. So he asked researchers at Project Aristotle if they could help. They provided him with a survey to evaluate the group's norms.
When Sakaguchi asked his new team to participate, he was greeted with skepticism. ''It seemed like a total waste of time,'' said Sean Laurent, an engineer. ''But Matt was our new boss, and he was really into this questionnaire, and so we said, Sure, we'll do it, whatever.''
The team completed the survey, and a few weeks later, Sakaguchi received the results. He was surprised by what they revealed. He thought of the team as a strong unit. But the results indicated there were weaknesses: When asked to rate whether the role of the team was clearly understood and whether their work had impact, members of the team gave middling to poor scores. He decided to gather every off-site to discuss the survey results.
''I think one of the things most people don't know about me,'' he told the group, ''is that I have Stage 4 cancer.'' In 2001, he said, a doctor discovered a tumor in his kidney. By the time the cancer was detected, it had spread to his spine. For nearly half a decade, it had grown slowly as he underwent treatment while working at Google. Recently, however, doctors had found a new, worrisome spot on a scan of his liver. That was far more serious, he explained.
No one knew what to say. The team had been working with Sakaguchi for 10 months. They all liked him, just as they all liked one another. No one suspected that he was dealing with anything like this.
But then everyone shared something of their personal issues and problems. After that they talked about the survey in little detail.
There was nothing in the survey that instructed Sakaguchi to share his illness with the group. There was nothing in Project Aristotle's research that said that getting people to open up about their struggles was critical to discussing a group's norms. But to Sakaguchi, it made sense that psychological safety and emotional conversations were related. The behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond
. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.