Thriving Teams #1: What is a team?

Each of us belongs to a number of teams, depending on your definition. A family. A sports team. A volunteer group. And, at work, you could be a member of several teams. Each team has its own purpose, dynamic, and tasks; each team’s success may be measured differently. Some of our teams may be healthy, focused, and successful. Others flounder or fail to gel. But why? Do we know enough about what makes a team thrive? This is a question I will attempt to answer over a series of blogs that examine the research behind healthy, thriving teams at work.

As a Deputy Headteacher, I lead some teams, and am a member of others. Each time I sit down with a group I can’t help but wonder: just what is it that is creating these conditions, or this atmosphere? But it is not enough to stumble upon accidental team success, or to fail without knowing why; we must understand evidence-informed approaches to teams, and then apply our own experience and values to that understanding.  My hunch is that, while we are enjoying a period of extensive deliberation on pedagogy and curriculum, we spend less time actually composing and improving the teams and genuine teamwork in our schools.

Being part of a thriving, purposeful team is a thrilling experience. Our innate desires to belong and socialise are met; serotonin and oxytocin pump around our bodies as we revel in shared understanding, psychological safety, and work towards clear goals. We look forward to finishing our teaching load for the day so that we can grab a coffee and collaborate with our colleagues in the pursuit of excellence. We walk into the room, not burdened by our fatigue or the anticipatory dread of having our precious time eked away by another meeting, but rather enthused and eager to make things happen.

This is blog post number one of a series that I have been researching and thinking about for months. The premise is simple: an evidence-informed exploration of how teams thrive and succeed, applied through my own experience to school-based scenarios.

What is a team and teamwork? A short literature review

Driskell and Salas (2018) define teams and their work in a couple of ways: ‘the enactment of team processes that support effective team performance’ or, alternatively, the ‘integration of individuals’ efforts toward the accomplishment of a shared goal’. Katzenbach and Smith (1993) suggest that there are 5 key areas of teams: a meaningful common purpose that the team has helped shape; specific performance goals that flow from common purpose; mix of complementary skills; a strong commitment to how the work gets done; mutual accountability.

Katzenbach and Smith also discuss a distinction between a working group and a team:

‘To understand how teams deliver extra performance, we must distinguish between teams and other forms of working groups. A working group’s performance is a function of what its members do as individuals. A team’s performance includes both individuals results and what we call ‘collective work products’. A collective work product is what two or more members must work together, such as interviews, surveys, or experiments.

Teams differ fundamentally from working groups because they require both individual and mutual accountability. Teams produce discrete work products through the joint contributions of their members. This is what makes possible performance levels greater than the sum of all the individuals’.

We don’t necessarily need to pick apart which of our teams fall into the working group category, but it’s safe to say that our team work may fluctuate between the two. What the distinction does allow us to consider is how much our teams are truly working together to combine experience and expertise to achieve things that are greater than the sum of their parts. In essence, that is what I’d like all readers of this research project to consider: are we getting the best out of our teams?

Andy Buck discusses teams and leadership at length in his excellent book Honk (2019), as he uses the model of geese in flight to understand the benefits of individuals working together to improve a whole. This model of team work covers: the importance of achieving goals, importance of working together,  sharing, empathy and understanding, and the importance of encouragement. Like Katzenbach and Smith, Buck examines the role of genuinely working together and sacrificing your own personal tasks to aid the team itself. This reminds me of Ryan Hawk’s Leading Learner podcast, recently featuring John Amaechi (2021), who said ‘teaming is a perpetual state of calculated selflessness.’ Again, as leaders we are committed to the development of our staff – but I for one have not spent enough time growing and improving the teamwork within my teams, but rather the individuals.

J. Richard Hackman (2004), an expert in organisational behaviour, conducted studies that found that certain enabling conditions exist to help a team thrive: compelling direction; strong structure; supportive context; shared mindset; the right mix of individuals, considering knowledge, experience, abilities and other characteristics. Bear in mind that this does not merely apply to a whole-staff body, but the teams within the team – all teams within your school need to create these enabling conditions. Each team is unique and needs to thrive in its own right, to contribute to the wider goals and success of the school as a whole. My tutor team won’t thrive just because the school culture and goals are thriving: as a team leader, I must carve my own path for the team.

Finally (for now!), Ryan and Deci’s (2000) model of psychological need, named Self Determination Theory (SDT), can help us understand how a healthy team could fulfil our needs at work. SDT purports that three conditions must be met so that we can thrive: autonomy: feeling that you have some control over your work and behaviour; competence: feeling that you are learning, mastering, and achieving in relation to your work goals, experiences, knowledge; relatedness (also called connection): people need to have a sense of belonging and connectedness with others. We’ll look at this model in more detail in the future.

We can already appreciate the wealth of a literature at our disposal regarding the way that teams and organisations can flourish. So the question is, how do we become more deliberate and purposeful in the way we lead and work within teams in our organisations and schools?

Team Composition – creating and shaping our teams

Put simply, some combinations of people work better together than others. There is a wealth of research, though, that can help us understand how team composition can influence teamwork. Future posts may discuss the detail behind some of the ABCs (as coined by Salas et al) of team composition, but for now we’ll explore a few headline ideas behind how to create an effective team.

It may sound obvious, but there are numerous studies (collected by Bell et al, 2018) that reveal the benefits of creating a team with certain characteristics in mind. Teams with members who value teamwork are more confident and cooperative than other teams; teams with conscientious members are more likely to evaluate when the team needs support and will step in to assist others in their work; teams with agreeable and pro-social members are also likely to share information, workload and have higher collective emotional stability. This isn’t to say that we must scour the market to fill your team with those who have these characteristics exclusively – but certainly we could be more deliberate about the range of skills, values, and traits we place into our teams.

Bell and Brown (2005) have conducted research into composing a team which has high team cohesion, by addressing their knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics (KSAOs). However, if an operational limitation exists whereby it is not possible to compose a team with these characteristics in mind, being aware of the team’s KSAOs mean that interventions and communications can be designed to complement these, and therefore help to improve cohesion. With this in mind, team leaders could consider auditing their team’s KSAOs to better understand what to address when either staffing the team in the future, or for the team’s future development opportunities.

Staffing a truly functional and thriving team involves examining individual-level issues, such as the ability of a team member to execute technical aspects of their role, while also considering team-level issues, such as the team’s KSAOs, and how the team contributes to organisation-wide success. Often, staffing strategies rely on individual-based composition models, for example looking at a candidate’s role-related technical skills and experiences, while possibly applying some generic teamwork skills and tendencies  (Bell and Brown 2005). Research suggests that composing a team with both individual and team member KSAOs in mind will affect team-level outcomes such as cooperation, shared cognition, information sharing, team performance, and team cohesion. A challenge for us as leaders, is how far do we explore the existing KSAOs of our team when hiring, promoting, or moving someone into a position?

Research has shown that a typically preferable number in a team is between 6-10, which is why organisations create many ‘teams within the team’. This number both allows the leader to manage the team effectively within their ‘span of control’, but is also an optimal number to build relationships, trust, and team cohesion between the group (Karlgaard and Malone 2015). The upper limit of effective teams within a larger organisation has been suggested as around 150. Both numbers ring true with approximately how many staff we might expect in a school (150), and the sub teams within the school (6-10). Going back to our friend Hackman from earlier on, ‘big teams just usually wind up wasting everybody’s time’.

Teams in schools

In schools, if the staff body makes up one team whose purpose and objectives align to drive the school forward together, then there are multiple teams within the team. And, unlike many organisations, a staff member may belong to several teams. For example, if I was an MFL Head of Department, I might belong to: my departmental team, a tutor team, the Heads of Department team, and perhaps an additional group or team, such as a Teaching and Learning group. Beyond this example, there are various other teams within schools: Heads of Year teams, support staff teams, the leadership team, ITT / ECT teams, and many others besides.

These teams are often thrown together, built either at random or out of the team leader’s control as individuals are added or removed because of circumstance, at different points. Creating optimal team composition is a difficult prospect at times. Often, the members of the team didn’t ask to be a member at all: we can’t guarantee that a member of our Year 8 tutor team wants to be involved, nor that the members were handpicked based on their complementary skillsets and experiences.

Secondly, without a leader to guide the rudder of a team, the focus can become task-orientated, with meetings being an opportunity to rattle through a to do list of admin, logistics, events, deadlines, etc. It’s not difficult to see how this happens, with teams often being allocated a modest amount of time to meet together, leaving a list of ‘to dos’ on the first slide.

But teams can be so much more; they can be pockets of unity, energy, and purpose. They can be that part of the day that unlocks a member’s autonomy, sense of relatedness, and foster a sense of a communal sharpening of the tools. Ultimately, a well-managed team who has clear aims and goals will have a positive impact on staff and students alike.

Our role, and the role of this blog series, is to question and unpick how we take the wonderful and dedicated individuals in our schools, and help utilise them in thriving teams which are greater than the sum of their parts.

Conclusions from blog one:

We all want to work in an environment in which teachers and school staff can thrive with good working conditions. The Teacher Development Trust’s working paper on School Culture and Working Conditions (2021) found that many of the best bets to ensure these conditions, also go hand in hand with thriving teams. Some of their findings suggested ‘creating opportunities for effective teacher collaboration; involving teachers in whole school planning, decision-making and improvement; creating a culture of mutual trust, respect, enthusiasm in which communication is open and honest; building a sense of shared mission, with shared goals, clear priorities and high expectations of professional behaviours and of students’ learning.’

This fascinating paper is pertinent food for thought for school leaders, who could use it help adapt their workload policy, wellbeing ideas, CPD curriculum, and general school culture. But I would argue that this paper also provokes us to engage with how well we lead and manage our teams within the team. Every team leader in the school could be engaged with this sort of working paper, to establish how effective their team is, both in terms of its outputs, but also how staff enjoy and engage as team members.

It is up to us to create and shape teams that are given time to work together, and to have clear goals whilst still providing autonomy and room for teams to grow and learn together. Above all, the sense of shared purpose, trust, and psychological safety from being part of a thriving team will ensure that staff feel a sense of positivity about their work, and ultimately this will lead to productive team outcomes.

So, what have we explored so far about thriving teams?

  1. Some understanding of the literature regarding the potential power of teams
  2. Team composition and how we can begin to think about the whole team when we are both staffing and developing our teams
  3. The difference between working groups, individual success, and creating a team that is genuinely greater than the sum of its parts
  4. How we can begin to reflect on the specific challenges and opportunities of teams within a school

Key reflections for both the author and the reader:

  • How can we ensure we do more teamwork and less task work?
  • Put some time aside to reflect on the core purpose and values of each team you work within or lead. Do these ever get diminished by day-to-day workload? Are we harnessing the potential of genuine teamwork?
  • How have we organised and created our teams? Do we compose our teams with deliberate thought about complementary team members?

This has been an introductory exploration of the project to come. An initial dip of the foot into water. As I continue, the posts will be more specific, detailed, and focused upon how we can turn research into tangible solutions and ideas for schools.

This is what you can expect to read over the next couple of months, all rooted in research papers, books, and my own experiences:

Key research and concepts covered in future blog posts:

1.            Key features of healthy, thriving teams

2.            Team norms, roles, and behaviours

3.            Unhealthy teams and characteristics

4.            Team processes and task types

5.            Team development and interventions

6.            Debriefs, conflict, communication, and candour

7.           Being a learning team.

I’m still very much researching this on a daily basis. Please let me know if you’d like me to cover something in particular over the course of the series.

Thank you for reading

Sam

References:

Amaechi, J., Hawk, R. (2021) The Leading Learner Podcast. Link: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/449-john-amaechi-the-traits-of-effective/id985396258?i=1000544034835

Bell, S., Brown, S. (2005) Team Cohesion: Advances in Psychological Theory, Methods and Practice Research on Managing Groups and Teams, Volume 17, 181209

Bell, S. T., Brown, S. G., Colaneri, A., & Outland, N. (2018). Team composition and the ABCs of teamwork. American Psychologist, 73(4), 349–362. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000305

Buck, A. (2019) Honk. John Catt, London

Driskell, J. E., Salas, E., & Driskell, T. (2018). Foundations of teamwork and collaboration. American Psychologist, 73(4), 334–348. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000241

Hackman, J. R. (2004). What makes for a great team? Psychological Science Agenda. http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2004/06/hackman

Karlgaard, R. and Malone, M. (2015) Team Genius. Harper, London.

Katzenbach JR., Smith DK. (1993) The discipline of teams. Harv Bus Rev. Mar-Apr;71(2):111-20. PMID: 10124632.

Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci (2002) Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being. American Psychologist, vol. 55, no. 1, 2000, pp. 68–78.

Weston, D., Hindley, B., & Cunningham, M. (2021). A culture of improvement: reviewing the research on teacher working conditions. Working paper version 1.1, February 2021. Teacher Development Trust.

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