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Rand Fishkin’s 3 ingredients for more healthy team dynamics

June 11, 2019

Written by Lucy Fuggle

“You often hear that the best teams are made up of the smartest people. They work hard and consistently meet deadlines. They have vast knowledge and deep experience. They’re relentless in their pursuit of perfection… This is bullshit.”

During his Turing Fest keynote in 2018, Rand Fishkin wanted to dispel one toxic workplace myth: that smart, hard-working teams perform best. 

“It sounds insane,” says Rand. “How could it be that smarter people don’t make for better outcomes than less smart people?” But intelligence, hard work, and experience are not correlated with, let alone causal of high-quality outcomes.

Rand Fishkin is founder of SparkToro, the search engine for audience intelligence that surfaces the websites, blogs, podcasts, social accounts, and other channels that reach your audience. Rand is also founder and former CEO of Moz, the all-in-one SEO toolkit with a huge following around its content platform, including its blog and Whiteboard Fridays.

Rand is a keen observer of what makes successful marketing launches work – and knows that 99% of the time it’s about having a great team at the foundation of every single thing you do.

Here’s Rand’s take on the careful mix of potent ingredients that combine for strong team dynamics. It’s not always simple to get right, but every launch, campaign, and action of your business will be accelerated or hindered by it.

Got a bit more time? Watch Rand’s keynote on what to mix with healthy team dynamics to make your launches a success.

1. Nurture psychological safety, change perceptions of weakness

Project Aristotle, code-named as a tribute to Aristotle’s “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, was Google’s research project to answer what makes their highest-performing teams so effective. 

Looking at the data, they found that the strongest teams at Google had certain commonalities. The people in these teams:

  • Felt comfortable crying in front of each other

  • Knew they wouldn’t be judged harshly or unfairly by their fellow teammates

  • Bolstered each other’s weaknesses and compound strengths

  • Were made up of diverse people who shared core values

These ideas are reflected in Kim Scott’s managerial must-read Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanitywhich Rand recommends you grab a copy of.

In Kim Scott’s model, the best managers achieve a delicate balance between caring personally and challenging directly:


“I bet most of you have been in work environments where you say: I’m scared to make a mistake,” says Rand. In those places, we suffer – and so does the company. In unhealthy team environments, we think:

  • If something goes wrong, I’m going to need someone to blame, otherwise the blame will fall on me.

  • I better stay quiet or else they’ll think I’m not a team player.

  • No one except the highest paid person in the room believes the project is going to work.

“These environments suck. They suck our morale. Even if we’re very smart and talented, we’re not doing our best work,” says Rand.


Alternatively, in healthy team environments, we think:

  • People here get rewarded for openly admitting weaknesses.

  • If I mess up, my team will help me learn how to improve.

  • I should speak up so my concerns can be addressed.

  • We all believe in this product, and in the team, and each other.

These are awesome places to work. These are places where even if you’re not the person with the best code, or the highest IQ, or whatever metric you like, you and your team can do extraordinary work.

Psychological safety is the best correlated factor in teams that outperform other teams, emphasises Rand. Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson calls psychological safety a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It’s a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. 


2. Don’t hire or reward wangrods*

*An obscure Dungeons & Dragons term, which our research suggests to be a player who makes everyone miserable and won’t get on with the group. Please enlighten us if you have more information.

You might have someone on your team who is a good culture fit, but not a great performer on the team. They have trouble doing their work and need to be trained up. “Unfortunately, most teams let these people go,” says Rand.

“But what do we do with people who are a terrible culture fit, dragging down the rest of the team with them, but their individual work is high quality and they get the things done they say they’ll get done? We keep those people and try to work on them. We work on their soft skills.”

“I like having empathy for all kinds of people, and working on hard and soft skills. But one of those is way easier to train up. Think of yourself five years ago. The skills you had in the hard skills department are a fraction of what you have today. Your skills in the soft skills department have probably not increased nearly as dramatically. We are all really good at getting better at our hard skills. It’s really hard to get someone to upgrade their soft skills (or so-called soft skills).

If we can flip this model and keep and train people who are great culture fits and let people go who aren’t, we might have more winning teams.” 


3. Have diverse people and shared values

Diversity is undeniably correlated with performance, says Rand, in every type of company. Diversity can feel uncomfortable, but this is why it works. We upgrade our thinking. We all do better work.


Get more advice: How to build a diverse company from day 0 — a toolkit from Diversity VC’s Check Warner

“There’s one type of diversity I don’t mean: a diversity of values,” says Rand.

A company culture isn’t made up of a love for a good IPA or a hockey team. It’s made of our shared core values. What ideals, in people and practices, do we aspire to, hire for, and reward? What would we refuse to do, even if it brought us far greater financial success?

It’s also made up of our shared beliefs. Who should we hire/promote? What qualities or actions would cause us to not hire (or fire) someone? What kind of workplace do we want to create?

Bring together diversity of people and shared culture for the foundations of an amazing team. Add psychological safety, radically candid management styles, and a desire to hire for soft skills and build hard skills – then you’ll be well on your way.

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