The Best Place to Work, by Ron Friedman

Why I read it

I read Ron Friedman’s Decoding Greatness a couple of years ago, and found it compelling. I applied many of the principles to my leadership and teaching; for example, the concept of reverse engineering to break down the key components of something successful. Check out my blog for more. I subscribe to Ron’s newsletter, too, which I recommend. Therefore, I was hoping to read The Best Place to Work in 2022, and fortunately received it for my birthday in July – thanks to my bro!

In summary

In the early stages of the book, Friedman writes: ‘studies indicate that happy employees are more productive, more creative, and provide better client service. They’re less likely to quit or call in sick. They are brand ambassadors outside the office. Investing in workplace happiness doesn’t cost the company money, it ensures they stay on top.’

Essentially, Friedman applies an evidence-based approach to true happiness and fulfilment at work. The book is pitched at leaders who want to make a different – first by understanding what people need, and then by providing practical examples of how to make this happen. As with his other work, Ron parks his ego at the door and focuses on research, reflection, and great story telling!

Key Takeaways

  • What did you fail at today? Master performers don’t get to where they are by playing at the same level every day. They do so by risking failure and using the feedback to master new skills. Like Amy Edmondson’s work on Psychological Safety, Friedman proposes that it can’t just be individuals who are willing to grow through failure, but that it must be an organisation-wide ethos to decouple fear and failure. To normalise this, Friedman suggests that leaders ask staff ‘what did you fail at today?’, in an attempt to discuss how people overcame challenges or mistakes – to own and share them, to focus on the growth beyond them. ‘If you’re not failing, you’re not growing’.
  • Motivation and avoidance mindset: if we are motivated by fear of failing, or ‘avoidance mindset’, we will work hard to produce good results so that we don’t fail. The trouble is, this doesn’t tend to lead to creative or innovative thinking; if it does in the short term, the chances are we’ll be feeling stressed and unhappy. In short, when avoiding failure is the primary focus, work is more stressful, and is, studies show, harder. In the long run, that takes its toll. So leaders, don’t motivate or goal-set by what could go wrong – don’t have a deficit model for your work, but sow positivity and celebrate the bumps along the road. Reward the attempts, not just the outcomes.
  • Work friendships are effective – I’ve always been a critic of a work-based team-building activity. The bowling trip. Yoga in the gym. But mainly because some workplaces put those sort of events as their flagship wellbeing provision. Friedman quotes studies, though, that show that workplaces where colleagues are friendly, or friends, outperform the work of acquaintances. There is more on the line when working with friends, which means we tend to work harder for each other, while employees tend to stay in their workplace longer when they work with friends. He also highlights research into workplaces with a lack of friendships, and the negative impact that this ‘process loss’ can have. Friedman explores the science of making friends, specifically proximity, familiarity, similarity, and how workplaces can utilise this knowledge.
  • Superordinate goals: to achieve a sense of togetherness, teams should have superordinate goals – that is, goals that require multiple members to work on together. This goes back to previous blogs I have written: does your team have goals for the group to achieve together? If members only have individual goals to work towards, they have no incentive to be team players or support one another. During the pursuit of these superordinate goals, it’s important for teams to share moments of negativity, celebrate the wins, and to support each other relentlessly.
  • Mimicry and conforming: Friedman quotes many fascinating studies about how we mimic the actions and behaviours of others in an attempt to conform. We even tend to mimic and adopt the emotions of those around us. Mirror neurons are used to reflect what we see from others, meaning that our brain is always scanning for a chance to be safe by replicating what it sees. This is, in essence, how culture at work is formed. It’s why defining core values, and then living by them, is vital for a workplace. But it’s also why leaders have such responsibility for what goes on around them. Staff mimic leaders in particular – the way they respond to others, deal with a crisis, or overcome setbacks. The leader’s behaviour, and the behaviour they accept around the organisation, will become the norm.
  • Concluding ideas: Self Determination Theory: the pillars of Ryan & Deci’s psychological needs model, Self Determination Theory, are Competence, Relatedness, and Autonomy. If these primary needs are met, they argue, people will be fulfilled. This model has a lot of empirical research behind it, and I’ve been a proponent of it since I read (and blogged) about it in 2019. Friedman puts SDT at the heart of his concluding comments, urging leaders to reflect on the competence, relatedness and autonomy of their staff. Hear hear!

Favourite Moment

I haven’t quoted many of the studies in depth as the book reflection would be unreadably long. Trust me, though, there are so many fascinating pieces of research to uncover in The Best Place to Work, as well as a lot of anecdotal experiences.

My favourite, though, linked to the takeaway on mimicking and conforming. Friedman set up an experiment for two groups, who would complete a puzzle.

Group one, in the waiting area, would be exposed to someone talking loudly about how they’d done a similar puzzle to this before, and how it was boring, a waste of time, and that they were only doing it for the reward being offered. The other group overheard someone talking about how energised they had been doing tasks like this before, and how they’d overcome the challenges with enthusiasm.

Group one performed much less effectively than group two in the puzzles; interestingly, they couldn’t pinpoint the reason why, and had no recollection of the ‘bad apple’ they’d overheard in the waiting area.

This study really hit home for me. We are, unwittingly, a source of motivation or demotivation for those around us every day. The way we frame our work and our feelings can have a huge impact on how others approach their work or lives.

Read this if:

  • You want to improve workplace culture
  • You are a leader who wants to understand people and behaviour

Support bookshops and buy it here

Effective Coaching, by Myles Downey

Why I read it

Like teaching, it is important as a coach to keep topping up your knowledge and development. I’ve done coaching courses, but also like to read a few books a year to help me both reflect on my practice, and the experiences and wisdom of others. A few people recommended Myles Downey and his work on coaching, particularly non-directive coaching. The book is well reviewed and it’s not hard to see why!

In summary:

Myles Downey, an experienced coach in a variety of settings, wrote Effective Coaching to impart some of his key principles of coaching. There are a variety of chapters that define coaching, explore the key concepts of coaching, and finally a few chapters that apply it to the workplace and teams. Myles’ passion for unlocking the potential of colleagues shines through in how he discusses coaching. Every sentence in the book goes back to how we can help others minimise any interference in their development and performance.

This is a book that defines coaching, explores its benefits, and then provides the reader with many layers of coaching skills.

Key takeaways:

  1. Coaching definitions are wide-ranging but always inspire! Here are a few from Downey: ‘the coach does not need to impart knowledge, advice or even wisdom. What he or she must do is speak, and act, in such a way that others learn and perform at their best.’ ‘Think of all the learning and creativity that has been lost because a manager imposed their own solution on a colleague, rather than asking a simple question such as ‘what could you do?’’ ‘Coaching is the art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another.’
  2. Watching a coaching conversation: when I did a coaching course with Growth Coaching International, each session we did began with watching a video of a coaching conversation. This was so insightful! Downey talks about showing people the power of coaching by modelling it infront of their eyes. Powerful stuff.
  3. Reduce interference to raise performance: Downey provides a list of factors that could be called ‘interference’, in other words something that holds you back from top performance. Coaching can be utilised to help the coachee (or player, as Downey calls them) to overcome the interference and take control. The mantra: potential minus interference is equal to performance
  4. Generating understanding and awareness: Downey defines skills linked to these as: listening to understand; repetition, paraphrasing, summarising; grouping (grouping together themes or ideas you’ve heard and playing them back to the coachee); silence; asking questions that follow interest; asking questions to clarify. He provides an explanation of each in a brilliant chapter about how a coach can use their listening to generate better awareness and understanding from their coachee, which the coach then acknowledges with certain cues to build trust and consolidate the clarity of the understanding of both parties.
  5. Coaching in the work place: The book discusses how coaching can be implemented in the workplace, primarily through line management, and as a manager or leader both in meetings and in day-to-day conversations. Downey urges more of a coaching approach to line management especially, so that there is room for learning and creativity for the person being managed. One area that was particularly interesting was to see how Downey advocates turning appraisals into self-reflection conversations, where the coachee can reflect and the manager can coach them through their own development plan.
  6. Getting started: Downey dedicates a chapter to how to begin, maintain, and review a coaching relationship. He breaks down what to do in the initial sessions, and how the relationship will evolve as sessions progress. This is a very practical, useful part of the book for new coaches.
  7. Teams: I had a keen interest in how coaches can work with teams. Downey discusses how a coach can help reduce interferences for the team, such as: issues with team hierarchy; how members listen to and understand each other; how they give each other feedback and have challenging conversations; how they set and pursue goals; and many other aspects of the team’s work. In simpler terms, a team coach can help the team discover and focus on the who, what, and how of the team’s work. This begins in a hypothetical sense, but by the end of the chapter Downey gives a tangible example of how a coach could facilitate a team meeting with a mock script.

Favourite moment:

Here a series of excerpts from the book that really inspired me as a coach, and reignited my coaching flame!

‘The goal of coaching is to established a firmer connection with an inner authority that can guide vision and urge excellence and discriminate wisdom without being subject to an ‘inner bully’, that has established its certification from external dictates and imposes them on you without your authority to do so.

Coaching has the capacity to bring humanity back into the workplace. We are perhaps on the brink of discovering the extraordinary benefits of letting humanity loose on the workplace and beyond.

People work better, more productively, more effectively, more creatively, when they are cared for. And caring means difficult conversations, too. Coaching can tap into the resources of the whole human being, for the benefit of the employee and the organisation.’

Favourite quote:

Coaching brings achievement, fulfilment and joy, Downey suggests. And I would agree.

‘Effective coaching in the workplace delivers achievement, fulfilment, and joy from which both the individual and the organisation benefit. By achievement I mean the delivery of extraordinary results, organisational and individual goals achieved, strategies, projects and plan executed. Effective coaching delivers sustainable achievement, because of the emphasis on learning and because the confidence of the individual is enhanced. The impact on performance is typically sustained for a longer period and will impact on areas not directly subject of the coaching.

In fulfilment I include learning and development. A business result is one thing, but to achieve it in a way that the individual learns and develops as part of the process has greater value – to the player, the line manager or coach and the organisation, as it is the capacity to learn that ensures an organisation’s survival. Work can be meaningful; individuals through coaching begin to identify goals that are more intrinsically rewarding. With fulfilment comes this increase in motivation.

And joy. When people are achieving their goals, when those goals have some meaning and when learning and development is part of the process, enjoyment ensues.’

Read this if…

You want to become a coach

You are a coach who wants to engage with the wisdom of another fantastic coach

You are a leader who wants to adopt more of a coaching approach

Buy it here

Thriving Teams #8: Team Diversity

In the build up to the 9/11 attack on New York City, the CIA missed countless clues that may have lead to the detection of the plans to destroy the World Trade Centre. The organisation suffered from perspective blindness, the way in which we can be ignorant to our own blind spots; the Agency had created homogenous teams of mainly white, middle class, similarly educated staff. They were intelligent, shrewd, and completely lacking in cultural or cognitive diversity to tackle wide-ranging problems. Put simply, a more diverse group would have had a richer understanding not just into the threat posed by al-Qaeda, but other dangers in the world. This is what Matthew Syed contests in Rebel Ideas when talking about the CIA and its staff: ‘each would have been assets in a more diverse team. As a group, however, they were flawed.’

Syed isn’t taking particular aim at the CIA, but rather the way that many organisations have, and continue to, staff their teams. Rebel Ideas, which I draw upon further in this post, contains many lessons about creating diverse teams that will improve team performance.

According to research from Forbes (2017), teams outperform individual decision makers 66% of the time, and decision making improves as team diversity increases. Compared to individual decision makers, all-male teams make better business decisions 58% of the time, while gender diverse teams do so 73% of the time. Teams that also include a wide range of ages and different geographic locations make better business decisions 87% of the time. This is only one piece of research, and, honestly, there are other studies that show that greater diversity can cause other barriers to thriving team work, but one thing is for sure, we have a lot to learn about team diversity.

What diverse teams are and why they matter:

Team diversity can encompass both inherent (e.g., race, gender) and acquired (experience, education, cultural background) differences among the team’s members.  Some of these differences are more obvious than others. For example, we can visually observe a team’s racial or gender diversity, and there are studies that show the reduced effectiveness of those groups who lack diversity in these areas. It can be more difficult to understand the team’s diversity in their acquired features; for example, two team members with similar inherent characteristics, may have a diverse breadth of experience between them that is only apparent upon further investigation. Conversely, two members who are inherently different (i.e., visually diverse), may share similar expertise, views and experiences. So there is a nuance about what kind of diversity will truly serve the team.

Matthew Syed distinguishes diversity as cultural diversity (race, sex) and cognitive diversity (their experience, skills, ways of solving problems). He suggests in Rebel Ideas (Syed, 2019) that cognitive diversity is the most potent for teams, suggesting that it doesn’t matter where team members are from or what age they are, if they are all trained in the same discipline, they won’t naturally bring a wide array of viewpoints to a discussion.

Complex problems generally rely on multiple layers of perspectives. The more diverse the team, the larger range of potentially viable options there are. Whilst we all have our own ‘blind-spots’ which we cannot see, as noted in the CIA, we can lean onto others to help make us aware of them. As Syed writes, if you have 10 of the best minds who all think alike, then the ideas brought to the table are effectively just one person’s worth. However, if you have 10 minds all thinking differently, then there is no limit on the amount of creative and inventive ideas that will emerge.

While it is arguable that organisations are becoming more alert to the benefits of diversity, there is still a long way to go. In the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review (sign posted by D Clutterbuck), a study found, based on board meeting transcripts, that, while each white male spoke for an average of 11% of the time, women averaged only 8% and black directors a mere 4% (HBR, 2022).  This reveals that there is a long way to go in creating equity in organisational culture, and this post will highlight how team diversity isn’t just about initial recruitment, but rather a team’s culture and promotion of diverse views and thinking in its teams and boardrooms.

And, what are they waiting for? A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above (HBR, 2015). Many more studies come to the conclusion that non-homogenous teams are simply better at working together; diversity in teams challenges members to think beyond their own perspective, and to become more objective, interrogative, and innovative.

In a study by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and supported since by others, when juries were populated by diverse groups, they were less likely to make factual errors than homogenous groups. In a separate financial study, researchers found that individuals who were part of the diverse teams were 58% more likely to price stocks correctly, whereas those in homogenous groups were more prone to pricing errors.

Diverse teams are found to be more likely to re-examine information, to debate different points of view, to scrutinise each other’s actions, and most importantly, disrupt homogeneity and the groupthink mindset where we revel in the comfort that our team members are similar to us, and will likely agree with our line of thinking. Finally, studies also reveal that diverse teams are more likely to be innovative, and develop new products.

Before we look at challenges that diverse teams face, let me summarise that team diversity can allude to cultural or inherent characteristics, cognitive characteristics, and also the culture of the team to contribute new and diverse ideas. The post isn’t advocating for certain methods of recruitment or to make tokenistic gestures towards diversity, but rather aims to highlight the huge benefits that teams can enjoy when they have a group that brings differing experiences, skills, views, and culture.

Some challenges:

However, while there is plenty of research to laud the effects of team diversity, there are challenges to consider when staffing teams.

Teams can develop what are known as a ‘fault lines’ (Bell & Brown, 2015)– divisions that may compromise team cohesion, relationships, and effectiveness. In other words, the team may form subgroups, based on one or more attributes; these faultlines are their strongest (and worst) when they are across several attributes, e.g. profession, sex, education all at once. Teams with fault lines are more likely to split into subgroups or cliques, leading to increases in task and relationship conflict, and decreased team cohesion. Knowing that these faultlines exist is important, not from the perspective of recruitment (for many reasons!) but in terms of how we utilise team diversity as a benefit and not a hindrance. More on that later.  

Sticking with what you know, or creating an echo chamber, can feel pretty good. Regular affirmation regarding your approach feels pleasant. A sense of collegiality and everyone rowing in the same direction is enthusing. But these subjective feelings mask what is likely to be an inefficient team.  Our unconscious bias, studies show, means that we tend to think pessimistically about diverse teams and viewpoints, even when the benefits are occurring in front of us. We tend to revert to the comfort of homogeneity.

One study (HBR, 2016) involved participants solving a murder mystery; during the process, teams were joined by new members, with some groups adding a member from their existing network, and others receiving someone unknown to them – an outsider. Interestingly, the teams with new members who were known to them felt more confident about the process and their final decision; teams joined by an ‘outsider’ judged their interactions less effective, and were less confident about their outcome. And yet, those latter teams’ success rates were 60%, compared to the 29% of more homogenous teams. Research shows that this isn’t uncommon: so the onus is on the team and its leaders to normalise diversity, celebrate it, and acknowledge what the team needs to in order to successfully navigate a range of views and opinions.

Working on diverse teams with a variety of viewpoints and experiences can feel like hard work, because it is. It is more complex and nuanced to navigate a discussion of differing ideas, examining facts carefully and finding a path forward as a group. It feels harder, and yet it produces results. Psychologists call our desire for easier processes the fluency heuristic – just like re-reading material can seem like a simple, effective way to consolidate learning (warning, do not do this!), we may feel positively about a group discussion with low conflict and high agreement.

Interestingly, studies have shown that people overestimate how much conflict there is in diverse teams. This type of unconscious bias can clearly have a significant impact not only on hiring but also on the ways in which leaders create teams and encourage collaboration.  Without realising it, they may be reluctant to add diversity to a team or to assign colleagues with different backgrounds to work together, in response to fear of the tension and difficulty that could ensue.

Put simply, we like group think, which is the term attributed to the phenomenon of homogenous team thinking. Irving Janis stated (Yetiv, 2003) that striving for unanimity overrides motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. As Janis points out, when ‘groupthink dominates, suppression of deviant thoughts takes the form of each person’s deciding that his misgivings are not relevant, that the benefit of any doubt should be given to the group consensus.’ As a result, individuals hesitate to dissent, and conflict avoidance becomes a norm. Groupthink is most likely to occur in groups that are cohesive or, in other words, exhibit a high level of amiability among their members 

In task-oriented work teams, there is some evidence that team members have more social affinity toward one another when they are similar; however, social affinity does not necessarily indicate which team members will rely on one another for expertise or team efficacy (Joshi, 2015). In other words, superficial affinity can feel comforting, but it doesn’t have as much impact on team performance as the team’s ability to work together.

Ways to boost team diversity and effectiveness:

So far, we’ve discussed both the proven benefits of team diversity, as well as exploring some challenges that diverse teams may face before they see the fruits of their labours. So, how can teams really harness the power of being different?

  1. Highlighting differences and group identity: there is a huge body of evidence that supports creating an agreed vision, purpose, and sense of belonging in a team. Unsurprisingly, research says the same about group differences. If the group’s identity is built on the acknowledgement and celebration of its diversity, the team are more likely to accept and benefit from these differences. In other words, fault lines can be reduced by positively framing the team; groups perform better when they believe in pro-diversity, and this needs to be narrated and verbalised by leaders.
  2. Goals: nothing unites a group and gives it compelling direction like a set of agreed goals. These should be specific, team goals, which will bind the team together and help them focus on the bigger picture, even if some of their differences do feel difficult at times.
  3. Improving team cohesion and helping behaviours:  Liang et al (2014) found that team diversity can lead to lower levels of helping behaviours among teams, and therefore it is important for teams and their leaders to devote time to developing a sense of team unity and cohesion, perhaps through a shared identity, or more practically through clearly defined roles and understanding of the team’s expertise and processes. If the team has role clarity, and understanding of different aspects of its expertise, they can appreciate each other’s contributions.
  4. Reject hierarchy: In Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed quotes a study from 1972 that discovered that teams lead by junior managers were more likely to succeed than those with a senior manager in charge. Confusingly, studies also show that teams with no managers at all don’t perform that well. Syed discusses the ‘prestigious’ leader. These are individuals who attain influence and command without engaging in displays of dominance. Individuals who exhibit prestige share wisdom and are willing to teach others. They recognize they don’t know everything, so they instead listen attentively to others when they need to.  It is this form of transformational leadership that is most likely to facilitate the benefits of a diverse team.
  5. Psychological Safety: if a team is diverse, inherently or cognitively, that may mean little to its chance of progress if there is no culture of psychological safety. Psychologically safe teams are open to discuss processes, successes and failures; there is a culture of healthy feedback and an absence of blame. Given that a diverse team may feel less naturally comfortable in this environment than a homogenous group, efforts should be expended to build belonging and psychological safety. The benefits of the diverse thinking of the team will be lost if individuals don’t feel confident in contributing to team discussions.
  6. Mix it up to innovate: For teams to achieve innovation in the workplace, diversity can be a key component. Syed points out that academic papers with the “most impact” were found to have “atypical subject combinations” whereby academics bridged traditional boundaries and married two topics together – like physics and computation or anthropology and network theory. By inviting, yes – actually seeking out, diverse opinions, views, and expertise, the team can look beyond its assumed positions, and see existing processes with fresh perspectives.

How can we apply these lessons to schools?

School teams present many challenges and opportunities. Most teams, let’s say tutor teams in a secondary setting, won’t have been put together deliberately based on an optimal combination of cultural or cognitive diversity. And yet, they will be diverse and teeming with experience and views.

School staff are often part of multiple teams, some of which they will have chosen, and others not. Some they will have been recruited deliberately for, and others not. This dynamic presents challenges in that we often cannot compose a team based on a variety of attributes. So, what can we do to maximise diversity?

School teams should be hives of psychological safety and belonging. Using some of the strategies from earlier in this blog post, leaders should normalise a team culture where members not only feel safe to share and learn together, but also build in time and opportunities for the culture to grow. Meetings and debriefs can be scheduled to discuss ideas and processes; members can be given ownership over leading team learning in meetings. Finally, leaders should verbalise the uniqueness and strength of the team’s diversity, and create a culture where every member understands the benefits of their differences.

It’s clear from research that, while diverse teams can be difficult to create and, in some cases, manage, the benefits are potentially fantastic. There are many layers, from an ethical principle of inclusion, equality, and diversity, to the sheer potential that diverse teams have to significantly outperform homogenous groups. I hope that this post has helped your own thinking about the creation and success of your teams.

Thank you for reading

Sam

References:

Bell, S.T. and Brown, S.G. (2015), “Selecting and Composing Cohesive Teams”, Team Cohesion: Advances in Psychological Theory, Methods and Practice (Research on Managing Groups and Teams, Vol. 17), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 181-209. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1534-085620150000017008

Forbes (2017) New Research: Diversity + Inclusion = Better Decision Making At Work. New Research: Diversity + Inclusion = Better Decision Making At Work (forbes.com)

Harvard Business Review (2015) Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter (hbr.org)

Harvard Business Review (2016) Diverse Teams Feel Less Comfortable — and That’s Why They Perform Better

Harvard Business Review (2022) A seat the table is not enough, pp21-25

Joshi, A., & Knight, A. P. (2015). Who defers to whom and why? Dual pathways linking demographic differences and dyadic deference to team effectiveness. Academy of Management Journal, 58, 59 – 84

Hsiao-Yun Liang, Hsi-An Shih, Yun-Haw Chiang (2014) Team diversity and team helping behavior: The mediating roles of team cooperation and team cohesion, European Management Journal,Volume 33, Issue 1,

Syed, M (2019) Rebel Ideas

Yetiv, S (2003) Group Think. British Journal of Political Science , Jul., 2003, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Jul., 2003), pp. 419-442

Coaching the Team at Work, by David Clutterbuck. Part One: Teams

This is a Pocket Wisdom first! I bought this book to learn more about coaching, and team coaching. These topics unite my two professional passions: high-performing teams, and coaching for development. However, the book is so densely packed with research, theory, practical ideas, and Clutterbuck’s wisdom, that I had to split the post in two. You see, what I didn’t anticipate was a huge literature review of teams and high-performance in teams.

This post concerns all of the book’s reflections on those topics; a future post will explore the team coaching element of the book. I hope the author will forgive me for ignoring the main basis of the book, to begin with at least.

In summary

The book’s aim is ultimately to improve team performance and effectiveness by applying team coaching processes. This is a fascinating area of which I have no experience, hence wanting to dedicate an entire future post to this component of the book.

However, as I mentioned, many chapters in the book explore a wealth of evidence regarding how teams form, perform, and succeed.

Key Takeaways

  1. What is a team? – Clutterbuck explores various theories about the difference between a team and a group, looking at definitions from Katzenbach, Hackman and Thompson in particular. Some characteristics of a team are: complementary skills, commitment to a common purpose, commitment to the same performance goals, commitment to a common approach, mutual accountability. Another model adds: members depending on each other, the team having clear boundaries, being stable over time, and that members have the authority to manage their own work and internal processes. This should be a point of reflection for us – are we in a group or a team? If we want a team, how can we follow this advice to make it more cohesive and authentic?
  2. Teamwork Quality measure – working in a team is not the same as working as a team; one measure from Hoegl and Gemeunden is the Team Quality model, which explores six components: communication, coordination, balance of member contributions, mutual support, effort, and cohesion. This model is worth exploring in more depth.
  3. What is high performance? I’ve spent a year researching high-performing teams, and it was refreshing for Clutterbuck to challenge the concept of performance in a chapter of this book. A possible definition is ‘a team that consistently maintains and evolves a climate that encourages and achieves a level of effective collaboration that meets or exceeds stakeholder expectations’. But it isn’t perfect. Further questions include: is performance measured collectively? Who judges performance and how? Over what time period is performance measured? So, again the question is: how do you measure your team’s performance? What does high-performance look like for your particular team?
  4. Characteristics of high-performing teams – Hackman found five key criteria: 1) is it a team, with clear boundaries? 2) Does the team have compelling direction and purpose? 3) Does the team’s structure enable rather than impede teamwork? 4) Does it have the resources and external support to deliver? 5) Is competent coaching available to help members? Champoux et al share six of their own characteristics: high level of trust, high level of respect, commitment to a clear and common purpose, willingness and ability to manage conflict, focus on results, alignment of authority and accountability. Clutterbuck discusses other excellent team models, including examples from The Culture Code, and Five Dysfunctions of a Team, in a fascinating chapter that both supported, challenged, and inspired my thinking on what makes a team high performing.

Favourite moment

Clutterbuck supplies questionnaires throughout the book that could be given to team members in order to evaluate an area of the team’s work or performance.

Notable examples include the ‘Is this a real team?’ and the ‘Team Player’ questionnaires.

Favourite quote

This is a brilliant quote. Please excuse the length!

“Teams provide the bridges between individuals and the organisation; and between the need to make localised decisions and customise the requirement to adhere to large-scale plans and strategies. Teams also provide the focus of activity that meets people’s needs for socialisation. They establish the environment where people can share effort, reward and risk. They provide a sense of common identity, rooted in shared ideas, purpose, stories and attitudes. And they provide an opportunity for conversation, support, recognitions and other activities that make people feel motivated and raise self esteem.

Unfortunately, teams don’t always live up to their promise. The depressing evidence is that many, if not most, teams in the modern workplace do not harness their collective capability to anything like the extent that they could. Failures of structure and process, lack of purpose or commitment, internal conflict, and poor leadership sap the team’s potential to work at its optimal level. Some of this loss of performance is inevitable – a simple dynamic of team size, for example – but most is readily manageable, if team members and leaders are minded to reflect intelligently on how they operate and have the skills to do so.”

Reflect

The first part of the book, focusing on teams, gave me many chances to reflect on the teams research I’ve engaged with so far. Here are some questions you may find useful:

  • Would you class your team as a group or a team?
  • In your team, how would you define high performance?
  • If you could survey your team about their work, what would you include?

Read this if

You are a team leader

You are a coach

Support bookshops and buy it here

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni

Why I read it

I really enjoyed Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage, and have since read some of his other works, and listened to interviews and podcasts featuring his words of wisdom. Since beginning my research project on teams, I had to check out The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – a unique take on teamwork which begins with what usually goes wrong.

In summary

Lencioni is known for writing leadership fables – fictionalised accounts of workplaces that have a narrative and a moral and intellectual purpose to them. In this case, he creates the fable of Kathryn Petersen, a new CEO drafted in to rescue a failing company; throughout her time with DecisionTech, Kathryn employs the five key principles of the Dysfunctions model. I was initially skeptical about the fictionalised case study, and yet I found it insightful and fascinating, as the other characters reacted to Kathryn’s ideas – a range of employees both accepted and rejected her work – we see the best and worst of teams and human choices in the fable. At the end of the book, Lencioni outlines the model in a more objective, theoretical way – the combination of the two creates a tangible, easy-to-interpret team model.

Here is the model for the five dysfunctions of teams:

The book outlines the issues, how they stem from the foundational base of absence of trust, and then shows how Kathryn (who I feel like I know, now!) over comes each in turn with a set of practical strategies and conversations.

Key Takeaways

For this book reflection, I’ll go through each of the 5 dysfunctions in turn, outlining the trap, and then how to get free!

1.       Absence of trust: teams who lack trust tend to hide how they feel, mistakes, failures, and do not participate in debate. This can lead to holding back information, unproductive meetings, and not seeing the best in each other.

2.      Fear of conflict: a lack of trust leads to fear of conflict. Without a healthy culture of conflict, difficult issues are often avoided, and staff try to minimise any risk to their reputation or performance. This often leads to a lack of innovation, creativity, and collaboration. Meetings are dull, safe, and not worth having.

3.       Lack of commitment: when teams become conflict-avoidant, they begin to fear potential mistakes or failure. There are a couple of issues with this, beginning with a lack of desire to commit to ideas or project through the fear that it may not work out. Secondly, if an idea is put forward by a leader, if the team is low in trust and conflict, they might not commit simply because they didn’t get the chance to discuss or contribute towards it from the outset.

4.       Avoidance of accountability: If you were unable or unwilling to commit to an idea, the chances are you won’t give it your all. This could lead to lower standards. Secondly, if people still fear conflict and don’t trust one another, they are less likely to hold each other to account.

5.       Inattention to results: finally, if you haven’t been fully invested in something, and haven’t developed it as a group during its life cycle, it’s difficult to analyse the results in a meaningful way. Team members are much more likely to focus on their own, individual goals and results, rather than those of the wider team.

As the book sets out, there is a way to combat these dysfunctions and it all starts with trust. Leaders must model vulnerability, invite feedback, create a dynamic of psychological safety, decouple fear and failure, and change feedback culture. Staff must be encouraged to engage in conflict regarding tasks, processes, successes and failures. Meetings should be a compelling environment to debate, share, and engage with each other. Only then will the team be able to progress up the pyramid, and commit to ideas, hold each other accountable, and scrutinise how they can improve results as a team.

Favourite moment

Throughout the fable, Kathryn tries out something to enhance her team’s work. At almost every step, there is a combination of progress and pitfalls. The case study is wonderfully realistic – no leader can turn everyone’s mind around. Some will instantly buy into a way of working, others will take more time, and some never will. Lencioni isn’t promising a silver bullet, here. Kathryn is diligent, emotionally intelligent, and shrewd, yet she faces both success and failure along the journey.

Favourite quote

‘Kathryn paused for effect before delivering her next line. “Let me assure you that from now on, every meeting we have will be loaded with conflict. And they won’t be boring. And if there is nothing worth debating, then we won’t have a meeting.”’

Reflect

Here are some questions for you to reflect on regarding your own teams:

  • Do team members openly and readily disclose their opinions?
  • Are team meetings compelling and productive?
  • Does the team come to decisions quickly and avoid getting bogged down by consensus?
  • Do team members confront one another about their shortcomings?
  • Do team members sacrifice their own interests for the good of the team?

Read this if:

You are a team leader

You want to create effective team culture

Support bookshops and buy it here

Thriving Teams #7: Team Conflict

A study from the University of South Wales, quoted in Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code, revealed the startling impact that a ‘bad apple’ can have on a group. In a team activity, someone was planted, unknown to the rest of the group, with the mission of disrupting the team. The plant would undermine people’s ideas, look disinterested, or disrupt the work process. Compared with other groups who did not have this mole, the bad apple groups performed 30-40% less effectively. Even the teams that looked the best on paper were disrupted by this behaviour.

While ‘bad apples’ are hopefully rare, being perceived as a trouble maker is something most of us fear. We worry that if we challenge others or contradict an idea, that we will be seen as someone who finds problems instead of solutions; we worry that we will be associated with those who are like the bad apple described above. In my post on psychological safety, we discovered that one of the key pillars of a safe team is being able to voice views without fear of reprimand – it is essential for team members to feel safe to contribute, even if it conflicts with the views of others. And that is fundamentally different to being a bad apple who undermines the team and its goals.

This post explores what team conflict is, how it can be managed, and finishes with top tips for leaders to best utilise team conflict. And, if you associate the word conflict with something antagonistic, try to reframe that connotation; team conflict can range from mild disagreements of views about a task, to more personal disputes, with the latter being less frequent.

Put simply, team conflict is necessary, healthy, and your team’s secret weapon to improve processes, culture, and, in turn, results.

What is team conflict?

Team conflict is often categorised as either being task-based or relationship-based. Task-based conflict might involve disagreements over ideas and opinions related to the task, or how to complete the task, while relationship-based conflicts are more interpersonal, and may pertain to personality clashes or traits.

Although task conflict is widely believed to be beneficial, and relationship conflict  destructive, evidence does not always support this conclusion. One study develops the idea that the emotion regulation abilities of team members affect how they manage task and relationship conflict, both as individuals and as a team. Findings from a field study involving 39 teams (Zhang, et al 2012) support the argument that individuals skilled in emotion regulation can take advantage of task conflict to perform effectively and limit the negative impact of relationship conflict.

The question is, then, how do we facilitate our teams in developing their emotional regulation, and approach to managing team conflict?

Behfar et al. (2008) found that poorly performing teams tended to take an ad hoc approach to managing conflict, rarely correcting the root causes of conflict, whereas highly performing teams tended to develop conflict management strategies that promoted understanding, provided equitable treatment of all parties, and emphasised the concern with managing both task accomplishment and the interests of individual team members.

Sooner or later, all teams run into conflict. That is an inevitability, and teams should anticipate and prepare for how they will utilise this conflict. Teams who do not experience conflict, or say they do not, merely operate under an illusion, one in which individuals are likely to be holding back, perhaps to preserve a misplaced sense of harmony. These teams are  often amicable and friendly, but are unlikely to live up to their true potential.

Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a fascinating book that firstly creates a fable of a CEO taking over a company which is low on trust and high on dysfunction. Over the course of the fable, we find out the five dysfunctions of teams, which Lencioni then explains in depth at the end. The five dysfunctions, as highlighted in the graphic below, are: absence of trust, which leads to fear of conflict, which leads to lack of commitment, which leads to avoidance of accountability, and finally inattention to results. Put simply, if the team doesn’t have a culture of trust and open discussion at the outset, then collaboration and buy in is less likely to occur, leading to reduced commitment and effectiveness.

Have a look at the graphic, and reflect on your own teams. Is it possible that your team don’t feel confident enough to discuss and exchange ideas? Can you relate to the escalation of the pyramid? Having recently surveyed teams in both the education and corporate sectors, I can assure you that questions such as ‘We take time to find new ways to improve our team’s work processes’ or ‘it is easy to discuss difficult issues in this team’ often receive low agreement, and therefore every team should explore this area.

Source: Lencioni and Strategypunk,com

As a 2020 NASA (yes, NASA!) podcast discusses, ‘the goal is not to reduce conflict. The goal is to manage conflict. You nurture the kind of conflict that is going to lead to constructive criticism, and then you work towards minimizing the conflict that is going to create interpersonal issues amongst people.’

Suzanne Bell, a teams expert also contributing to the podcast, goes on to explain that team members need to be highly agreeable in nature, but qualifies that by discussing that agreeability is more about warmth, friendliness, tact, etc. which means that when conflicts do arise, they have the traits to ensure that the conflict does not become personal. So we use our agreeability not to avoid conflict, but to manage conflict successfully.

The role of a leader in managing conflict is vital. This can start by a team leader inviting feedback of their own performance, or inviting conflict and objective feedback to an idea they have presented. Modelling how to deal with conflict will help create team norms. Beyond this, managers and trainers may be able to help team members strengthen their emotion regulation skills so that they can deploy attention, reappraise the situation, and suppress the expression of negative feelings (Kanfer & Kantrowitz, 2002). In addition, managers and team leaders can encourage groups to collaborate, expressing their ideas openly and working to integrate them into viable solutions teams are apt to be well prepared to make use of task conflict to gather information, create alternative resolutions to issues, and implement solutions, thereby promoting group performance (Jiang, et al, 2012)

To resolve conflict, teammates need to participate in open and honest communication. This can occur only if they do not feel worried about being judged or ridiculed by others on the team, and can engage in difficult conversations about a problem. This is why psychological safety is a must in teamwork and why we keep coming back to this vital area of team life.

Five practical tips for managing conflict in your team

1.Conflict is part of the narrative and vision

Part of a team’s norms and behaviours should be the idea that conflict is part of what makes us a good team. ‘We will disagree on things, we will work together to iron out differences of opinion, and ultimately we will use our collective diversity as a strength. It’s important that when we disagree, we remember that it is not personal, that we are a team, and that we are working together for the best possible outcome’. This narrative should be ever present, especially when a team is working on a project or about to start a discussion.

2. Create the right team conditions

As mentioned earlier, a team that has high trust and psychological safety, will find it much easier to engage in task-related conflict. Establishing this team culture takes time and effort, but means that you will be able to work as a group to feel united by your differences. In other words, create the best possible team conditions before introducing and encouraging conflict.

3. Conflict framework and radical candour

An effective way to introduce healthy conflict into your team is to create an agreed framework for how this might work. Firstly, using the famous quadrant from best-selling book Radical Candor can help the team understand how we can care personally and challenge directly, along with avoiding the traps of the other less effective feedback methods. Building on this, the team could agree and anticipate a way to deal with conflict in meetings; this could be a script, some key phrases, or agreeing how we will behave and speak to each other during task-conflict. For example, ‘when we do disagree on something during a task we will…’ – this then becomes a shared agreement that can be referred back to.

4. Addressing conflict when it arises

When conflict does arrive, the team leader may need to facilitate it within the group, for example by allowing everyone an equal chance to give their views, by focusing on the task and its processes, exploring the rationale and vision for the tasks, and finally in helping team members to avoid blame or interpersonal conflict. Once the team sees that conflict is handled in a constructive, safe manner, they will be more willing to exchange views and openly debate and discuss their work.

5. Celebrate the conflict gains

Many of us don’t relish the thought of conflict with our colleagues; therefore, if a team does have some healthy, constructive discussions in a meeting, it’s important to celebrate that. We should embrace both the way that the team worked through a problem as a group, but also the benefits of doing that – for example, the improved process or idea that has arisen from the conflict. This frames conflict as something positive to experience together – the group becomes more united, and the results improve.

The bad apple experiment actually discovered something just as, if not more important. One team had a member who had the perfect counterbalance to the mole’s disruptive tactics. Each time they tried to disturb the group, the other team member, let’s call them the good apple, would defuse this with warmth, humour, and steering the group back on track. This team performed as well as the non-mole teams, thanks to the good apple’s healthy way of managing potential conflict.

The challenge for us as team members and leaders is how we can reframe team conflict and utilise it to unlock the team’s best thinking. By understanding conflict, and managing it constructively, we can increase our good apples and thrive together.

If you’d like to talk further about how I have applied surveys, psychological safety, or other methods to improve team conflict, please get in touch.

Thanks for reading

Sam

References

Behfar, K. J., Peterson, R. S., Mannix, E. A., & Trochim, W. M. (2008). The critical role of conflict resolution in teams: A close look at the links between conflict type, conflict management strategies, and team outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 170 –188. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.170

Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: The secrets of highly successful groups. London

Jiang, J, Zhang X, Tjosvold, D (2012) Emotion regulation as a boundary condition of the relationship between team conflict and performance: A multi-level examination. Journal of Organizational Behavior, J. Organiz. Behav. 34, 714–734 (2013)

Kanfer, R., &Kantrowitz, T. M. (2002). Emotion regulation command and control of emotion in work life. In R. G. Lord, R. J Klimoski, & R. Kanfer (Eds.), Emotions in the workplace: Understanding the structure and role of emotions in organizationalbehavior (pp. 433–72). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Lacerenza, C. N., Marlow, S. L., Tannenbaum, S. I., & Salas, E. (2018). Team development interventions: Evidence-based approaches for improving teamwork. American Psychologist, 73(4), 517–531. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000295

Nasa (2020) Ep 175: The Science of Teams | NASA

Belonging, by Owen Eastwood

Why I read it: I recently connected with Rebecca Levett, a brilliant sports psychologist who also happens to be a distant relative, as we put together some thoughts for an event. During the conversation, Rebecca recommended Belonging; 3 minutes later, it was in my basket, and 48 hours later, it was perched atop my reading pile. Throughout my reading and thinking about teams, I’m most drawn to the sense of belonging, trust, and unity that can be galvanised in a group or workplace. I often wonder if it’s being adopted that sharpens that knife for me, or whether it’s just a natural curiosity; but what could be more important when establishing a team, than making sure it is a safe place that welcomes and looks after all in its care?

In Summary:

Owen Eastwood considers our ancestors throughout the book, reflecting upon how they understood our primal need to belong – to work together, to thrive in groups. Over the course of Belonging, he poignantly considers his own childhood, one in which his Maori heritage helped him to understand the past, and shape his identity. This book, then, provides reflections, research, traditions, anecdotes, and plenty of thoughtful musings, as Eastwood explores why we need to belong, and how we can achieve it. He asks thought-provoking questions of us, such as what is the optimal environment for this group to perform to their best? And it soon becomes apparent that the group will only thrive when they feel a sense of belonging.

Some books about culture and workplaces feel cynical. Belonging seemed heartfelt. Authentic. Eastwood has found deep connection with his past, present, and future, and uses this sense of perspective to aid others in doing the same. It’s a quotable book, but also stacked with practical ideas and a huge range of examples. One that will stay with me.

Key takeaways:

  1. Us Story: Eastwood spends significant time explaining the importance of storytelling, and particularly in creating an ‘Us story’. In other words, exploring who the group is, why they exist, and what their history is. Eastwood helps organisations and teams look at their past (ancestors, origins, legacies), then the future (where are we going, what do we need to do this) and finally the present (do we have a sense of identity that flows into everything we do). There are many examples in the book of how groups have created their own ‘us story’, but something of note is that we resonate more with everyday traits, actions, moments of synergy – ordinary people working hard to achieve excellence, rather than ‘superhero’ stories of individual brilliance.
  2. Belonging is not a fixed state: we constantly evaluate whether or not we belong. Environment, and behaviour of those around us, are key factors, and we require consistency to feel safe. Therefore we must make sure that we establish behavioural norms and values that are lived; gestures, speeches, or meetings won’t cut it to build belonging. If our people are constantly evaluating this, we must be consistent. ‘Once a strong culture is set, it’s essential that its foundations and relevance are regularly revisited by the team’.
  3. Belonging before performance: in our high-accountability working culture, sometimes workplaces don’t accept people until they have proved themselves. But this is a false economy: people will only thrive when they feel accepted and safe from the outset; we must offer true belonging before we have ‘proof’ of someone’s work or output.
  4. Extrinsic motivation weakens a team: while extrinsic motivation can help motivate individuals (usually in the short term) with things like money and status, this emphasis on the individual weakens the team. The team needs to have a strong sense of collective intrinsic motivation: a shared story and set of goals that everyone is striving to reach.
  5. A visual, shared vision: Eastwood proposes that visualisation can be a powerful tool; imaginging a successful future and believing in it. This can also become a literal vision, with displays, videos, and other visuals being utilised to constantly remind the team of how they belong, and the story they are part of. It’s vital to get input from others so that the vision is genuinely shared. This culminates in his description of a beautiful project he worked on with Ford as part of their desire to galvanise their Le Mans 24 team.
  6. Trust: the Seattle Seahawks motto is used to good effect: ‘years of building a relationship can be ended in seconds’. Eastwood discusses how trusting others reduces stress and gives us a sense of peace and belonging. But it’s a calculated risk: how do we know we can trust someone or a group? As well as warning of how delicate trust is, he outlines some ways to build trust: authenticity in what we say and do being the same; loyalty; competence; consistency in our behaviours and performance over time; adaptability; emotional availability.
  7. Control and Autonomy: Eastwood refers two of his own ancestral concepts: tapu and noa. Tapu describes aspects of life that are sacred, prescribed or non-negotiable – in a workplace, these could be values, or even protocols that everyone must abide by. By contrast, noa are areas of life that do not share these rules and allow more self expression. The idea is that to create true belonging, we should clearly understand what in our lives is tapu, and what is noa – the balance is important, as too far one way could be demotivating, controlling, or chaotic.

Favourite moment: sharing pain

We often share the good moments and results with our teams. We nailed this. We succeeded in that. So and so is doing great work in this. But do we discuss the bad? Do we share pain and learn from it?

Social Anthropologist, Harvey Whitehouse, says that sharing difficulties or pain can create ‘identify fusion’, and have two tangible benefits for the group. Firstly, the group creates more intense togetherness through the sharing or a mistake or a difficult moment; secondly, reflecting on the painful moments often creates practical lessons for the future.

A maori spiritual adviser adds that a healthy culture would take a moment of pain, and then ‘carve the story into our walls’, so that the current group, and future descendants, can learn from our experiences.

Favourite quote: ‘we lived it together’

I’ve written before about communication, candour, and conflict, and we know that it is vital for a group to disagree, or give each other feedback, in order to develop and grow. The question is always: how do we do this constructively, so that people give and receive feedback well, and can therefore act upon it?

Eastwood talks about being explicit that, within the team, feedback is part of what we do, how we help each other. It should be included in the ‘us story’ of the team so that there are tangible links to how those before us gave each other feedback.

He gives an example of how a sports team created a safe framework for how players could give eachother feedback with a type of script that might help begin the conversation. For example:

‘Hey, can we chat? Today I think I saw something out there (name it) which looked below the line we’ve set. I could be wrong, so just tell me if I am – we are just trying to grow together’.

The sentiment above says: we are a team, we have high expectations of each other, how can we improve together?

How does this link to my favourite quote?

One of the players from this team spoke about the benefits of being open with each other and how their culture began to change. He mentioned the importance of targeted, specific feedback and only focusing on the things that would ‘make the boat go faster’.

But the quote I liked most was his reflection on how the team grew. ‘What was important was that we lived it together’.

Key questions and reflections:

Do you feel you belong at your workplace?

How do you help others to feel a sense of belonging?

What is your workplace’s ‘Us story’ and how could you improve this?

How do you review the sense of belonging and trust at your workplace?

Read this if:

You lead teams

You want some ideas about how to create groups or teams where belonging, trust, and aligned vision are the core of what you do

Support bookshops and buy it here

Thriving Teams #6: The FA/UEFA Pro Licence and High-Performing Teams

‘Andy, I’m a big palace fan, well done mate’. I’d just arrived at St George’s Park, and got out of my small Hyundai alongside the Range Rover of Andy Johnson, a Crystal Palace legend and one of my all-time favourite players. He politely said ‘Thanks, mate’ in return, got in the car, and left my life as quickly as he entered it. Not my finest moment.  A quick message with a friend informed me that he’d just scored the winner in a legends competition called the Generations Cup, at which point I saw other Palace favourites Mile Jedinak and Jobi McAnuff leave, too. Fortunately, they were too distant for further self-induced humiliation.

And so, I arrived at St George’s Park feeling even more humble than when I’d been making the three-hour journey, earnestly listening to the High Performance book on Audible at 1.5x speed (you can’t tell the difference) to ensure I finished it by the time I returned to Surrey two days later.

I had been invited to the FA and England football HQ to observe the FA and UEFA’s Pro Licence course, the most elite football coaching qualification. Previous learners to have completed the course include Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and this year’s cohort features similarly household names, who I won’t mention while they complete their studies.

During the course, learners are invited periodically to St George’s Park to complete various modules, while FA tutors also do workplace visits to track progress and offer guidance along the way. The Pro Licence is a hugely complex course which has been developed and honed expertly over the last ten years; rather than attempt to explore how the course runs, this post will outline the experience I had over two days with the team. The module that I’d been invited to was on ‘High-Performing Teams’, with my contact being a mentor of mine, Alistair Smith, who has worked in Education, Elite Sports, and with many other high-performing organisations as a consultant, speaker, and advisor.

Here are some of my key takeaways from two days of listening and discussing what football, and many other industries, can teach us about high-performing teams.

Clear vison and narrative at every turn

When you wander around St George’s Park, the vision for the England Football set up is clear: pride, inclusivity, passion, unity. The facilities are immaculate, the attention to detail is pinpoint, and the visuals are striking. There are endless photos commemorating iconic moments and people from England’s history as a footballing nation; these adorn corridors, staircases, and even the bedrooms in the on-site Hilton – I slept with David Beckham above my bed, posing triumphantly after THAT goal against Greece in 2001. There is a memorial half way along the long, winding drive from the main road that commemorates Arthur Wharton, the first black professional footballer, and other touches throughout the site that visually celebrate England’s footballing history.

When you step inside the corridors where the classrooms and learning areas are based, the walls are clad in photographs of the three lions and what that means today: men’s football, women’s football, youth football, disability football. The narrative is clear: we take pride in who we are, we all belong, and we are a family. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into creating a vision and set of values for England Football, one that encompasses every team in the set up – it is clear, over communicated, and impossible to miss.

The site is a hub for all things football, with youth games often played here, a pitch that emulates Wembley’s, and even a place for Premier League referees to get a massage on a Monday morning.

Codifying High-Performance

My Thriving Teams blog series is attempting to take an evidence-informed approach to how teams can succeed and become more than a sum of their parts. That, too, was the focus of this module of the Pro Licence.

So, what came out from two days of knowledge sharing and discussions?

The learners had been given some homework before we got together; they had to spend some time with an elite team outside of the football world, ask them about what made them successful, and then prepare a 20-minute presentation. During the course of a few hours, I listened and asked questions as ex-footballers and coaches told the group about elite RAF squadrons, The Savoy restaurants, rock group The Coral, and countless other examples. The takeaways were fascinating, but often similar.

These elite teams shared many things, usually a commitment to vision, purpose, small details, and a winning mentality – we do everything we can to be the best we can be. It became apparent that thousands of hours of preparation often went in to a process that was over in a matter of minutes or hours. Finally, I was perhaps surprised how often these elite teams relied upon systems. Clear, flawless systems. Systems that everyone knew and everyone relied upon. In the words of an RAF squadron leader: ‘no room for mavericks, the system soon sorts them out’. Ultimately, in high-pressure situations, it was protocols that allowed teams to function effortlessly, with role clarity and confidence.

Later in the day, the course delegates, with some facilitation by FA tutors, attempted to codify their learning so far. Here are the top aspects of high-performing teams that they recorded:

  • Vision – purpose, buy in, intrinsic motivation – shared goals
  • Culture – are the team psychologically safe but still committed to improvement? Is there genuine group belonging and trust?
  • Ambitious goals
  • How the team reviews, evaluates, debriefs
  • Team work and communication: role clarity, candour
  • Shared mental models and systems
  • Selflessness
  • Relentless drive to improve and grow
  • Identifying team responsibility and team accountability

During this module, three guest speakers were invited to pass on their own experiences and insights regarding high-performing groups. Emily Martin, a prison governor; Danny Kerry, formerly the Team GB Hockey chief for the men and women’s teams; and Damian Hughes, host of the High Performance Podcast.

Emily Martin was an inspirational speaker and was extremely reflective. A former social worker, Emily transferred into prison leadership, working her way up to Feltham as governor, turning the prison’s fortunes from catastrophic to thriving. During her talk, she recognised how many leaders have a diverse community in front of them, which is why it is, in her words, vital that we become ‘culturally congruent’ with our team – that we understand their story, so that we can lead them, and advocate for them, with the empathy and understanding that they deserve.

Emily also advocates a calm, humble leadership style. She spoke of the importance of being calm in the eye of pressure; this sense of calm allows your team to feel confident, but also allows you to help them find their own solutions to problems without the threat of a leaders’ sense of panic or tension. The words that I wrote down and underlined on my pad of paper were simple yet have come to mind every day since: ‘Confident, calm and assured in enacting; humble in reflection’. Emily promotes a sense of relational, trusting leadership where the leader sets the right temperature for the team, actively listens to them, and protects them at all costs.

Danny Kerry then came to speak to the group about how he has attempted to codify high performance in elite hockey. The mind-set that he wishes to imbue upon his teams is to see opportunity and threats in the same way: every challenge is something to embrace and to galvanise the team towards. Danny spent a lot of time discussing vision, culture, and team norms. He stressed the importance of gaining collective agreement over the team’s vision, so that members and leaders can refer back to this and use it as an anchor for tasks and decisions.

A tool that one could apply to any team when evaluating vision and culture is as follows:

  • Integration: what is shared? What is consistent?
  • Differentiation: what is contested?
  • Fragmentation: what is ambiguous?

This framework allows a team’s leadership to review organisational culture by identifying how well the team can articulate the overall vision. It’s important to understand which part of the vision is shared and consistent throughout the team; this then helps evaluate what might be ambiguous, as those things could soon become contested.

Danny also advocates mapping out the team’s vision, values and behaviours – for GB Hockey, this manifested in a display with key words pertaining to those. Then, crucially, the team checks in regularly: in the last few weeks, did we live our values and behaviours?

As far as team leadership goes, Danny’s model is similar to Emily’s: people will feel responsible for the environment and team if they are involved.

Over the course of the two days that I spent at St George’s Park, I felt immersed in an environment that was dedicated to a clear vision and purposeful narrative. Every individual that I spoke with was committed, humble, and eager to improve. I spent hours speaking with people who were fascinated in the teams research I had read and reflected upon; they sought to know more and understand more. When I presented to FA staff about the science behind team debriefs, they accepted the input with enthusiasm and humility, and peppered me with questions about all sorts of other research. This is an organisation with a clear culture of learning.

What I learnt more than anything, was that football is like many other industries: striving for improvement by focusing on people. There was more discussion of trust, belonging, autonomy and collaboration as the focal points for successful team work than I had anticipated; as a multi-million pound industry with unreasonable accountability measures (sounds familiar!), it was heartening to see staff and learners alike putting team communication and involvement at the heart of what they do.

Finally, it was a wonderful and inspiring experience to spend two days with the FA on their UEFA Pro Licence course, and it’s easy to see why this is the world-renowned course for coaches to complete on their journey to the highest level. If I’m invited back, I’ll improve my car-park chat and continue to learn more about how we can all be part of thriving teams.

Just like the research I have been disseminating, this experience was an invaluable one, and is contributing to my study of high-performing teams and cultures. As I continue with this research project, I have begun creating presentations and workshops on this area of work – please let me know if you’d like me to contribute to similar work that you may be undertaking with your teams.

Thriving Teams #5: Team Communication

Mother Theresa once said “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”, and there is a lot to unpack there, both on relational and spiritual levels. The ideal model for a team is just that: doing great things together, and being more than a sum of the individuals’ parts. John Amaechi goes further and describes teaming as a ‘selfless’ process where you willingly sacrifice personal gains for team productivity.

The more I ruminate on what makes a truly thriving team, the more I realise that a group of talented, even selfless team members, will not prevail unless the team climate is conducive to sharing, working together, and developing. After reading over 50 academic papers and 25 books on teams and leadership, communication within the team arises time and time again as a big factor in the team’s effectiveness. The word communication can sound generic, waffly, even a bit intangible, and yet if we take an evidence-informed approach to unpicking team communication, there are many nuanced aspects we can improve.

It’s important that I reiterate the terms of this research project. This isn’t necessarily a leadership blog, or about how to lead an organisation. The research I have assimilated pertains to how teams perform: not THE team, but the teams within the team, if you like. The organisation as a whole may have its own set of values and culture set by the leadership team, and yet every team within the organisation will have their own ways of working. What I want to explore is how each team leader can maximise the effectiveness of their team.

On that note, I repeat that communication may seem an obvious, generic factor to consider. But we cannot assume that every team within an organisation has a healthy culture of communication and conflict management. Staff members who perform well in one team, may perform less effectively in a team where communication, familiarity, and conflict have not been managed well.

Team Communication

Given that we spend most of our day communicating, it can be easy to overlook how we might dedicate more time and thought to improving team communication. Similarly, it’s easy to overestimate how effective communication is within our team; if you meet regularly and speak a lot, then what is there to improve?

Let’s begin with a short literature review of research regarding team communication. Firstly, communication frequency is not a proxy for effectiveness. Communication quality, you won’t be shocked to read, is far more important than how often it happens. Too much noise can mitigate, rather than enhance, performance (Marks, et al, 2000).

Interestingly, Pentland (2012) conducted a study that found that the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. Energy is measured by the number of, and nature of, exchanges among team members, while engagement is about the way team members communicate between themselves, e.g. engagements between members a and b, a and c, and b and c. Other defining characteristics of successful teams’ communication included: everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure; members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic; members connect directly with one another – not just the team leader; members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.

The same study found that social time turns out to be deeply critical for team performance, accounting for more than 50% of positive changes in communication patterns in the call centre studies. In this particular research, the call centre CEO was so encouraged by the results, that he began to put all staff on similar break patterns, promoting team cohesion and communication and sacrificing call centre handling time so that all staff could be together.

Building on the notion of team energy and engagement is the concept of familiarity, defined as the level of knowledge team members hold about one another. Robust evidence suggests that familiar teams outperform unfamiliar teams on a variety of tasks (Salas et al, 2018). As team familiarity increases, team communication becomes more strongly related to team performance, due to team processes and shared mental models becoming more efficient and embedded.

While there is an argument to focus on domain-specific knowledge when it comes to the content of what teams seek to learn and understand, high-performing teams must excel at generic communication skills. A study into surgical teams showed that the more critical needs of the team were communication related: mutual monitoring skills, being alert for potential mistakes, speaking up regardless of seniority, communicating using standard language, and ensuring messages are accurately received.

In summary, research shows that high-quality communication may clarify information related to the task, ensure team members are on the same page, and mitigate any overlap in efforts geared towards task completion, providing clarity and certainty.

Communication types

So, the evidence suggests that team communication must be high quality, and that team energy, engagement, and familiarity all contribute to improve team communication and performance. The next question, then, is what does evidence say about the most effective types of communication?

Given that communication can be defined as an exchange of information, it seems reasonable that the evidence points at information sharing, knowledge sharing, and openness of communication as being some of the most effective forms of communication. In fact, information elaboration demonstrates a stronger relationship with performance than all other communication measures, with knowledge sharing also exhibiting stronger relationships with performance than several other types of communication. Similarly, openness of communication is more strongly related to performance than frequency. Openness encompasses all aspects of communication that can be linked to quality, as it entails whether team members can easily communicate with others (Salas et al, 2018).

Knowledge sharing is the process where individuals mutually exchange their knowledge and jointly create new knowledge. This implies that every knowledge sharing behaviour consists of both bringing knowledge and collecting knowledge, which is an essential part of team culture – the open exchange of expertise and knowledge. Not only does that improve the team’s shared knowledge, but also fosters an open attitude to sharing, reciprocation, and trust. Teammates who have unique expertise should share the information that is exclusively known to them that will nbe critical for the team’s effort; it must be clear and understandable, avoiding jargon (Ervin et al, 2018). Teams who have a culture of information and knowledge sharing are able to adapt quickly and are more flexible or open toward each other’s input, exhibiting higher levels of performance (Hoogeboom, 2019).

Putting the evidence into practice – practical advice for team leaders!

Organisations should ensure that teams, and their leaders, understand the impact that effective communication has on performance. This should include setting aside time for the team to talk with one another to increase familiarity, shared mental models, to clarify any misunderstandings and to discuss any communication issues or potential conflict.

Here are six tips to turn the team-communication evidence into practice:

  1. Information elaboration: the team leader must decide how to best impart information about roles and tasks to team members, who must understand what is expected of them. We already know that information elaboration links to team performance, but it is worth asking your team how they want that information conveyed. Meetings, email? 1:1 drop ins? Despite many adopting the adage “if you can send it in an email, don’t have a meeting”, Kat Howard (2020) warns against this medium: ‘there is a vast sense of unfulfillment in any text-based conversation and this can stem from either the way in which email is used or just the desire for fewer emails’. My advice is to agree with your team about how and when information will be conveyed. For example, every Thursday afternoon I send one of my teams a bulletin of key information for the following week, a routine that we decided would work well, and complements our fortnightly in-person meetings.
  2. Knowledge sharing: being part of a team that has a genuine culture of learning and development is galvanising and purposeful. This can be furthered by teams who exchange their knowledge for the benefit of the team. One strategy is to dedicate meeting and team time to the sharing of knowledge and expertise, allowing team knowledge to grow, shared mental models to be created leading to greater team efficiency, as well as the feeling among team members that they are learning and growing together, improving team cohesion and morale. This could include beginning meetings by asking a team member to share some expertise or something they have researched; create a rota, give everyone an opportunity, and observe the multiple effects of a team who regularly share their knowledge. Celebrate and give platforms to the expertise across your team.
  3. Building energy and engagement: we read earlier how important energy and engagement is for teams, outside of a formal meeting setting. These foundations can be laid, in my experience, through exercises that build belonging and trust. Dan Cable (2018) suggests that a powerful method to build relatedness and belonging within a team is to ask each person when they are at their best. Which circumstances bring out the best version of themselves? It’s a fascinating question. The rationale is, that by sharing this self-reflection, your shared vulnerability helps to bond the team, but also that each member’s response helps the team to understand what each other look like when they are truly thriving. I also advocate building a team culture where laughter, shared vulnerability, and engagement with each other’s lives will pay off in spades when it comes to future productivity and cohesion. As Kim Scott states in Radical Candor, for a team to achieve profound growth and change, they must care personally and challenge directly.
  4. Open, honest communication: evidence informs us that openness is a vital characteristic for team members to possess, so how can we foster this within our teams? Leaders can take the initiative by inviting feedback, providing honest communication with their team, and by facilitating open dialogue within team meetings. As long as parameters are set so that the team understands how to have open, constructive conversations, this will become an essential, energising part of your team’s culture. The key question for me as a team leader is: does every member of my team feel comfortable communicating, and being honest with, every other member, including the leader?
  5. Fostering genuine team building and conversation: Pentland’s research found that, in high-performing teams, team members need to communicate with other team members. Consider setting up small groups for projects or a discussion within meetings; foster their communication, collaboration and trust. Keep rotating these small groups so that the familiarity among all team members is high.
  6. Over communicate your listening: whether you’re a team leader or member, Dan Coyle finds in The Culture Code (2018), that the best cultures are full of people who listen intently – no, avidly. Their heads are forward, eyebrows raised, bodies still – they are listening with enthusiasm, which opens up a clear path of open communication. Team leaders can model this, encourage this, and keep referring back to how, on this team, we actively listen and engage because we are unique group who benefits from each other’s ideas, input, and expertise.

As Mary Myatt writes in High Challenge, Low Threat (2016), ‘allowing everyone’s voice to be heard is a vehicle for great messages to be broadcast. Too often, good work and appreciation are not given the platform on which to be celebrated’. I would reiterate, here, that every team in an organisation needs to promote those values – one team’s culture won’t transfer to another’s, so every team must establish the right culture for communication. I could go from an English department meeting to a coaching team meeting and find different values, forms of communication, and approaches to managing conflict.

Every leader should think carefully about how they and their team communicate, and begin to apply some of the evidence-informed approaches discussed in this post. I’ll make the assumption that your team are working extremely hard, that they are passionate, and good at their roles; yet that effectiveness as a team can only be harnessed with clear, open, precise communication across the whole team.

Next time we’ll look at how Thriving Teams welcome and manage conflict.

Thanks for reading

Sam

References:

Cable, D (2018) Alive At Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do. HBR Press, Boston.

Coyle, D (2018) The Culture Code. Penguin Random House, London.

Ervin, J. N., Kahn, J. M., Cohen, T. R., & Weingart, L. R. (2018). Teamwork in the intensive care unit. American Psychologist, 73, 468 – 477. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000247

Hoogeboom, A.M.G. and Wilderom, C.P.M. (2019). A Complex Adaptive Systems Approach to Real-Life Team Interaction Patterns, Task Context, Information Sharing and Effectiveness. Group & Organisation Management, Vol 45 (1), 1-41.

Howard, K (2020) Stop Talking About Wellbeing. John Catt, Woodbridge.

Marks, et al (2000) Performance implications of leader briefings and team-interaction training for team adaptation to novel environments. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 971.

Myatt, M (2016) High Challenge, Low Threat. John Catt, Woodbridge.

Pentland, A (2012) The New Science of Building Great Teams. Accessed 21st February 2022. The New Science of Building Great Teams (hbr.org)

Shannon L. Marlow, Christina N. Lacerenza, Jensine Paoletti, C. Shawn Burke, Eduardo Salas (2018) Does team communication represent a one-size-fits-all approach?: A meta-analysis of team communication and performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Volume 144, Pages 145-170,

Thanks for the Feedback, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Why I read it:

As part of the Thriving Teams research project that I am midway through, the importance of communication and constructive conflict keeps shining through in research and studies that I have read. After reading Radical Candor, which focuses on the art of giving feedback well in order to improve the performance of those around you, Thanks for the Feedback seemed like a logical next step, given that it switches the focus to the receiver.

In Summary:

Most books on feedback and managing conversations focus on the initiator, or giver of the feedback; Radical Candor, is, of course, a brilliant example of a book that can help you improve the way you challenge yet care for your team. However, Thanks for the Feedback focuses on the receiver of the feedback. How do we react to feedback? What can we be aware of, and what can we do, in order to make sure the feedback is something we can accept and act upon? These are the key questions that are addressed in Thanks for the Feedback – a truly enlightening study of how to receive different types of feedback so that it has the desired intention: to help us to grow and improve.

In the words of the authors: ‘our primary purpose is to take an honest look at why receiving feedback is hard, and to provide a framework and some tools that can help you metabolise challenging information and use it to fuel insight and growth.’

Key Takeaways:

  1. Feedback comes in three forms: Appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Appreciation covers gratitude and praise; coaching gives you pointers about how to improve performance; evaluation rates, ranks, and compares your performance to show where you stand. To understand what type of feedback we are being given, we can reflect on these three types, and gain greater clarity and precision by asking for the type of feedback you want,  even if that means negotiating with the feedback giver over the type they were hoping to give vs what you want.
  2. Three triggers that can be barriers to receiving feedback: Truth triggers: The content of the feedback is wrong, unfair, or unhelpful. We can get triggered when we feel the content of the feedback isn’t right. Relationship triggers: we dismiss the feedback from the specific person giving it, perhaps because of our relationship with them or view of them, rather than considering the content of the feedback. Identity triggers: the feedback we receive strikes our identity, and sense of who we are, leading us to become threatened. For each of these triggers, the authors provide a range of solutions to help remove the barriers.
  3. The benefits of receiving feedback well: probably self explanatory, but worth reminding ourselves: your relationships become richer; you learn and improve; colleagues find it more enjoyable to work with you; it is easier for you to work with others to solve problems; you model the way for others to receive feedback well.
  4. Being self aware when we receive feedback: the book is excellent at providing scenarios about what you may think and do when receiving feedback, including some undesirable responses! The acknowledgement of these likely outcomes then leads to suggestions of how to transform them into something productive. One example is the recognition of what your ‘internal voice’ may say to you during feedback, and how to harness it for good.
  5. We can play an active role in how we receive feedback: Thanks for the Feedback provides a conversation framework that most feedback conversations fall into: Open, Body, Close. For each section, the authors give likely processes and scenarios, as well as questions for the receiver to ask to make the conversation as productive as possible. The whole process encourages us to not only be aware of how we will feel during the feedback conversation, but also prompts us to ask certain questions for clarity, and methods to question, query or disagree – without being / seeming defensive or dismissive. The proposals are there to help us understand, embrace, and employ the feedback to help our growth, and not merely to put a brave face on it publicly!
  6. Assessing what’s relevant: feedback can come in many forms; perhaps the conversation is solely about this piece of feedback, or perhaps feedback is sandwiched in between other topics. This book aids the reader figure out what their feedback really means; to objectively assess how the feedback could be of worth, and how it helps us see the way we are and to focus on the most important next step: how to act upon it, or not. The awareness one gains from reading the book, and understanding more about what types of feedback we are likely to accept or reject, is invaluable for future conversations.

Favourite quote

The book is packed with questions one can ask to elicit precise, useful feedback, but here are a few of my favourites:

  • What’s one thing you see me doing that gets in my way?
  • What’s one thing I could work on?
  • What’s one thing I could change that would make a difference to you?

Read this if:

You are a leader wishing to gain awareness of how you give and receive feedback

You want to understand how and why you feel certain ways when being given feedback, and want to seek out tools to combat your usual responses so that the feedback becomes useful and productive

Buy the book here

Stepping Into The Map

In the summer of 2008 I interrailed around Europe over the course of four weeks, covering many countries and even more cities. It was a wonderful way to travel and has supplied me with some entertaining anecdotes, ranging from how a burley Australian firefighter’s presence rescued me from being mugged on an overnight train between Venice and Zagreb, to being flooded out of a tent when camping in Split and sleeping in an outdoor utility room with a family of frogs.  I’d be happy to share my experiences over a beer, sometime.

What I really loved about arriving in each city and stepping off the train, was grabbing a map and attempting to orientate myself in a large metropolitan hub. Without fail, I stepped into the map. Not literally. Joey Tribbiani modelled the benefit of that when he visits London (in London?!) in a Friends episode, placing the map on the floor and, you guessed it, stepping into it. This, he argued, was the most effective way to understand when to turn left or right, and get a sense of scale. The image, and its sound logic, flashes to mind every time I pick up a map. It makes perfect sense.

I’ve always felt that we could apply ‘stepping into the map’ into other areas of our work. Let’s consider the benefits for a moment. Standing in the map immediately immerses us into the world and perspective of the map; we essentially become one with that environment instead of our own, and see with new eyes. We gain a sense of empathy. We consider things closely that felt distant when we were outside the map. In other words, we zoom in to the smaller details and perspectives that perhaps eluded us from afar.

Well, it helped me navigate Budapest and Berlin, so how can it help us in our work as leaders, teachers, or in other roles?

Prevention is better than cure

When I was a Head of Year, my line manger would often repeat the phrase ‘prevention is better than cure’. The repetition started to grate after a time, and yet I found the sentiment profoundly useful. Her point was, of course, that pastoral roles shouldn’t be reactive alone, and that there are vast areas of our work that can be considered in advance; risks mitigated, methods anticipated. She encouraged us to hypothesise and anticipate how our year groups might behave or react to things coming up that week, therefore giving us an opportunity to create the narrative and culture that would pre-empt what would likely occur. In other words, stepping into the map gave us an edge.

Sure, we can create systems that help us to react to moments in the day, but if we can think ahead and anticipate those moments, we start at an advantage. This might not sound like rocket science, but often our planning extends to the main details, a bit of optimism, and then draws on what we think we know from previous experiences. What I’m proposing is a more in-depth method of thinking through the nuts, bolts, and angles of something to anticipate the best bets of success and failure.

How to step into the map:

  • Think through the chronology

When I’m anticipating something, I like to go chronological. What will happen first, then what will follow. How will those things transition between each other? In a lesson that could be how two tasks link; at an event it might be how the delegates move from one session to another, and so on. The point is to think of small details and how they link together. This method also means I remember to pack my toothbrush and phone charger when I go away… Think small to win big!

  • Every stakeholder counts

Stakeholder is a clinical, corporate word, but what I mean is to consider every person involved in the situation, even indirectly. Let’s say you’re planning a whole-school assembly: how will the children know what to do? How about the teachers? What about the support staff? The site team? Have you communicated parents about theme or vision of your assemblies?  When we are ‘in the map’, we are blessed with the perspective to notice and consider everyone around us, not just how the situation may impact us or those directly involved. The daily intensity of our work means that we can become blinkered by ourselves and those we immediately interact with, but it’s vital to think of those beyond that proximity.

  • Empathy, always

Along with considering who the key players are and what they will be doing or learning, we should also consider how they’ll feel about this. I don’t have a large teaching timetable, but I regularly make decisions with or for those who do have a full teaching load. When I’m in the map, planning and anticipating, I must consider their needs. How will they feel to be asked this? Have I given them enough warning, training, preparation, or communication? There’s no good being in the map if you don’t consider how it feels for others to be in there, too.

  • Think in tradeoffs

Building on empathy is  empathy plus action: compassion. In this instance, our anticipation is going to add some workload to ourselves and others. Tweaking small details of a plan, or managing something closely, adds to our to do list. But we should keep in mind: if I’m doing this, or asking this of someone, what am I not doing or not asking them to do? There must be balance.

  • Put the brakes on – is the juice worth the squeeze?

The ‘stepping into the map’ process I have outlined so far takes an investment of time – an investment that is worth it if you gain greater perspective about an upcoming event or plan. However, this investment of time should also help you gain clarity around the worth of what you are planning to do. Put simply, is it worth it?

  • Invite others into the map

At the risk of stretching this metaphor thin, it’s worth inviting others along into this reflective pre-game process. Putting your heads together as a group to share ideas and anticipate collectively, will help you see things through angles that reach beyond your own.

If you’re used to reading my evidence-informed blogs about high-performing teams, or more factual book reflections, then let me apologise: this is what my head actually looks like! I’ll step out of the map, now, deny overusing the metaphor and encourage you to think strategically, with empathy and anticipation, when you plan future projects, events, or training.

Prevention is better than cure, she says.

Radical Candor, by Kim Scott

Why I read it:

This one had been on my reading pile for a couple of years. Kim Scott offers a direct title and even clearer subtitle: ‘How to get what you want by saying what you mean.’ This isn’t just about having ‘tough conversations’, though, it’s a principle for leading teams that puts relationships, trust, and honesty first.

In summary:

As shown in the quadrant below, Scott explores different types of relationships and conversations that we often have with colleagues or those we lead, in order to improve team performance. To achieve radical candor, one needs to both care personally and challenge directly. The book gives a wide array of experiences and case studies about how to stay in the ‘compassionate candor’ area of the framework, and how to avoid the others. Yes, there is guidance about how to invite and give feedback, but there is more holistic advice for leading and working within thriving teams throughout the book.

Radical Candor aspires to help the reader achieve the following:

• Care personally: Bring your whole self to work, and care about each of your team members as whole persons with lives and aspirations beyond their work.

• Challenge directly: Give/receive feedback, make tough decisions and uphold high standards. Eventually, trust and understanding is built and people feel safe to challenge one another to solve problems and uphold standards without your intervention.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Ruinous Empathy – we attempt to build healthy relationships and be empathetic and kind. Often that empathy focuses us on the moment, such as not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings, which in turn avoids telling them something that may benefit them, and those around them, in the future. Scott describes how compassion can be more important than empathy: empathy helps us understand the feelings of others, whereas compassion will provoke action to help them. In other words: compassion is empathy + action. In Scott’s words ‘compassionate candor engages the heart (care personally) and the mind (challenge directly)’.
  2. Developing trust: radical candor – Scott argues that when you combine caring personally with challenging directly, you build radical candor. When people trust you and believe you care about them, they are more likely to: accept and act on praise / criticism, tell you what they really think of your work, conduct similar relationships with other team members, embrace their role, and work on achieving great results.
  3. What radical candor is not in her revised edition, Scott worries that some people have misapplied being ‘radically candid’, using it as an excuse to be gratuitously harsh, obnoxious, straight talking with colleagues, or ‘just being a jerk’ without following the nuanced layers of the framework, or building relationships / trust. She provides some advice about misconceptions and how we can avoid these if we are ‘rolling out’ the principles of the book across an organisation.
  4. Steps to radical candor – Scott provides some steps to introduce the framework. 1: prove you can take it before dishing it out by asking colleagues for feedback about your own work. This is a vital piece of the puzzle as you model to your staff how open you are to feedback and how you act on it. From there, Scott outlines a process to start giving feedback of the compassionate candor variety, with specific methods to apply in team and 1:1 meetings.
  5. A few other gems – in no particular order, other key takeaways include: Creating a culture of open communication is at the heart of radical candor; start by asking for criticism, not giving it; with praise or criticism, always be sincere and precise; don’t make feedback personal – critique the idea or the work, not the person behind it.

There are many more chapters in the book, with sections on listening, giving guidance, teamwork, and motivation to name a few.

Favourite quote

‘The ultimate goal of radical candor is to achieve collaboratively what you could never achieve individually, and to do that you need to care about the people you’re working with’

Asking a question about your own work: ‘what could I do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?’

Favourite moment:

To help those on the path to adopt radical candor, Scott provides a list of questions and advice about how to use them in meetings. Often these questions appear uncomfortable to the one asking – they require humility and courage to ask. Some of these are real winners:

In the last week, when would you have preferred me to be more or less involved in your work?

What’s a blind spot of mine you have noticed?

I feel like I didn’t do as well as I could have in x situation. Can you help me figure it out?

Read this if:

You want to build a culture of trust, honesty, and transparency in a team

You want to help your team become more productive and effective

Support bookshops and buy it here

Leadership: Being, Knowing, Doing – by Stephen Tierney

Why I read it

After reading a series of books on teams, I wanted to return to core school leadership skills and knowledge. A coachee had generously given me a voucher for Christmas, and, being a fan of Stephen Tierney’s previous books, I decided to spend it on his new book on leadership.

In summary

Tierney refers to Being, Knowing, Doing as a leadership trivium, which link to form a triquetra, as shown below. Using this model, each part of the triquetra has its own elements. For Being, Tierney applies Purpose, and Introspection; for Knowing, he uses Specialism and Strategy; and lastly, for Doing, the elements are Implementation, Network, Guardianship, and Expertise.

When you put all of these components together, you have a comprehensive body of work about leadership in schools. Tierney draws from his own experiences, in addition to research and other educational thinkers, to create a thoughtful, intelligent, and well-rounded guide to leadership. As with Tierney’s other work, I find it perfectly clear and accessible, but also erudite and a catalyst for real thinking.

Key takeaways

I’ve attempted to outline four quite different chapters of the book. However, Tierney provides so many concrete examples and models that a summary simply doesn’t do the book justice. Beyond these examples, there are many more chapters to explore!

  1. Introspection and the mountain top – Tierney talks at length about ethics, behaviours, and introspection. He makes the essential point that leaders must hold the ‘dynamic tension’ of self confidence and self doubt in order to ensure the necessary humility required to lead. Tierney uses the term ‘sitting on the mountain top’ to urge leaders that they must take time to reflect and ponder; an opportunity not to do, but to be.
  2. Knowing how and when to act – in the strategy chapter, Tierney explains how strategy adds ‘knowledge of know-how, to the know-what of specialist domain-specific knowledge’. Both are required, he argues, for effective leadership. He then applies a five-step process to assessing and implementing change in an organisation, ranging from the content of what needs to change, to how the actions will be reviewed.
  3. Rethinking how we work – Tierney laments how we often act with the best of intentions and the worst of thought. He argues for a more methodical approach to how we implement change or improvements, and has come up with a model. What’s the problem?; What is your theory of action? E.g. if I do x, then y will happen; What evidence do you have to inform and challenge your logic model?; What would it look like if you are successful?; What information do you need to collect?; Will your data help show a causal or correlation relationship? He then goes on to quote the EEF model: Explore, Prepare, Deliver, Sustain – well worth a look. Essentially he is trying to take the countless hours that leaders devote to well-intentioned improvements, and make us more efficient so we can look back not at time spent but progress made.
  4. Emotional intelligence and putting staff first – the networking chapter is an exceptional discussion of how to support and lead colleagues. This ranges from recognising that ‘every viewpoint is a view from a point. We must be able to critique our own perspective if we are to see a fuller truth’, to applying that understanding to how we consider the differing views of our colleagues. Tierney goes on to explore how we can help staff thrive, quoting Jonny Uttley and John Tomsett’s wonderful book.

Favourite quotes:

‘Phronesis is an Ancient Greek word for a type of wisdom associated with practical action. It is about good judgment and good character. At its core, it is about the ability to discern how best to act. Practical wisdom involves acting thoughtfully and virtuously and encouraging others to do the same. Virtue, thought and action, which coalesce in effective leadership, I have termed the Way of Being, Way of Knowing, and Way of Doing.’

Read this if:

You want to reflect deeply about leadership: either when you are creating your own vision as a leader, or evaluating your existing role and work.

You enjoy reading a mixture of research, personal experiences, and a variety of examples.

You want a book that will challenge and provoke your thinking.

Buy the book here

Thriving Teams #4: Team Debriefs

Watching footage of post-game team talks by football managers always fascinated me, on the rare occasions when the cameras were allowed into the changing room. Sometimes it was dominated by cheering and roaring champagne as a team progressed to the next round of a cup; other times, a Neil Warnock-esque manager would be snarling and swearing at his players for another turgid performance. In my head, this was the post-game analysis. A few words, a bit of pointing. Name and shame. Move on to the next game.

It was only when I began watching modern-day sports documentaries, tracking NFL teams in the states, or Premier League teams in England, that I saw the improved version. Managers and coaching staff poring over video analysis, picking out positives, finding ways to improve, and then bringing the players in to study in both classroom sessions and then application out on the training pitch. The previous game’s lessons were vital to the team’s learning and improvement.

I’m sure that some of these debriefs weren’t evidence-informed or conducive to genuine team gains, but I’m always envious of the time and facilities they have, nonetheless. And, anyhow, Doug Lemov and Alistair Smith are two educators who have made huge impact on learning in elite sports, so that world is catching up; but, I digress.

In my recent pursuit of thriving teams, certain factors continue to appear in the research I have read. I’ve covered some already: the importance of deliberate team composition, purpose, goal setting, and psychological safety. But this blog post is dedicated to a feature of high-performing teams that I didn’t expect to appear as regularly as it does in research: conducting team debriefs.

Aside from my reference to post-game analysis or changing-room reaction, team debriefs are also known as critiques, after-action reviews, huddles, hot-washes, post mortems, and I’m sure the list goes on; I’ll settle for debriefs, a type of work meeting in which teams discuss, interpret, and learn from recent events during which they collaborated (Allen, et al 2018). Sundheim (2015) defines debriefing as a ‘structured learning process designed to continuously evolve plans while they’re being executed’, with the emphasis that the project or phase of work should be ongoing when the debriefs occur.

There’s a good chance you regularly engage in evaluation of an event, project, process, or meeting / CPD session. We all like to evaluate what we do. Don’t we? The truth is, it can be easier to say than do. Inviting feedback and evaluating our processes can be uncomfortable, humbling, and time consuming. I’d be surprised if most teams regularly, systematically, engaged in purposeful team debriefs, and I’d love to hear from those who do.

And yet, according to a recent meta-analysis, teams who engage in debriefs outperform teams that do not. Well-conducted debriefs can improve team effectiveness by 25% (Tannenbaum & Cerasoli, 2013), as they help teams and individuals to learn, communicate, and improve performance.

How to conduct effective team debriefs

So, now that we know what debriefs are, and how they are potentially of benefit to your team, let’s explore how to conduct them for full effect.

Team debriefs look very different across organisations, and even within some. Every workplace will have its own reason for the debrief: at a hospital, it might aim to increase patient safety, while a fire brigade may need to review how they can be more efficient when tackling a dangerous situation or environment.

Some of the purposes of team debriefs might be:  information sharing, performance management, problem solving, decision making, enhancing group identity, experiential learning, minimizing accidents, identifying hazards, taking corrective action, establishing psychological safety, building collegiality, and others as necessary (Allen et al 2018).

Leading a successful team is a complex business, and, as you’d expect, there are common traps for debriefs to fall into. At the heart of a debrief should be honesty and genuine reflection. An evaluative meeting could potentially become a breeding ground for shifting of blame, rewritten memories or accounts of what happened, or a battle of egos. Essentially, ineffective debriefs are problematic because they reinforce a narrative of the event that perhaps might not be accurate, may diffuse responsibility for the problems contained therein, and may ultimately lead to groupthink, i.e., the team adopting a shared, homogenous view (Scott et al., 2015). However, even while we are learning the ropes, it is worth persevering: several meta-analyses evaluated the effectiveness of debriefs, and they have all concluded that having a debrief results in improved learning and team performance compared with not having debriefs.

As discussed by Allen et al (2018) in their wonderful paper on Team Debriefs, at the U.S. Army’s Combat Training Center, debriefs are run according to the following pattern:

 1. Reviews what the unit intended to accomplish, including the overall mission and commander’s intent.

2. Establishes the group understood truth of what actually happened (e.g., review moment-bymoment events on the battlefield to ensure accurate sensemaking). This one is vital!

3. Explores the causes of the results, good or bad, and may focus on one or a few key issues.

4. Provides time for the unit to reflect on what it should learn from the review and how to sustain effective future operations.

 5. Concludes with a prospective look at the next day’s mission and what issues may arise.

Beyond this individual setting, a review by Salas, Klein, and colleagues (2008) revealed 12 evidence-based practices for effective debriefing in medical teams, though the list is transferable for all debriefing activity:

1. Debriefs must be diagnostic (i.e., identify specific ways to improve work).

2. Ensure that the organisation creates a supportive learning environment for debriefs.

3. Encourage team leaders/members to be attentive during performance regarding what they may want to discuss later (i.e., work tasks to be debriefed).

 4. Educate team leaders on the science of leading team debriefs (i.e., facilitation processes).

5. Ensure that team members feel comfortable in debriefs (e.g., psychological safety).

6. Focus on few critical performance issues during the debrief (i.e., less is more).

7. Describe specific teamwork interactions and processes involved in the team performance.

8. Support feedback with objective data.

9. Provide outcome feedback later (i.e., not during the debrief) and less frequently than process feedback.

10. Provide both individual and team-orientated feedback at appropriate times.

11. Shorten time delay between task performance and debriefing.

12. Record conclusions made and goals set during the debrief and follow-up

For a more concise, and precise, method of what to ask your team during the debriefing, Sundheim (2015) provides four key questions:

  • What were we trying to accomplish?
  • Where did we hit (or miss) our objectives?
  • What caused our results?
  • What should we start, stop, or continue doing?

Leaders and facilitators have an important role in establishing the team climate in which effective debriefs can occur. Team leaders and facilitators should be non-judgmental, avoid blame, focus on positives as well as negatives, and allow team members to reflect, as opposed to simply providing them with the information (Kolbe et al., 2015). In addition, team leaders and facilitators should encourage an open discussion and, potentially conflict, as long as it is constructive and in a trusting team environment.

Leading Team Debriefs in schools

The success of team debriefs in the military, hospitals, and emergency services suggests that even when teams are time poor, they should make time to reflect and evaluate. I could write a book about how different teams within schools might go about conducting debriefs, based on their specific functions and meeting habits. However, for now I will try to stay on a more generic footing.

Here are some of my thoughts for making these work in schools, based on my own reflections and experiences as a school-based team leader:

  • Build in the time: what you prioritise in a meeting is a subjective choice. Some items are immediately pressing, such as imminent deadlines or decisions; others are developmental, with their benefits perhaps being less tangible, at first. A team debrief, properly introduced and conducted, will gain buy in and improve performance. It’s not looking backwards, it’s feeding forward. So prioritise this time in meetings – other things could be taken care of in an email. This can’t.
  • Start with why: schools move at a fast pace, no two days are the same, and events are quickly forgotten (must be the thousands of daily decisions).To gain team buy in, it helps to explain why you are reviewing a certain process. How will it benefit the children? Or your aims as a team? How will you use this learning for next time? Make it tangible, start with why.
  • Reflect on your learning: after a team debrief, it’s a good idea to capitalise on the endeavour and progress by celebrating future successes. Every member of your team will arrive at the meeting with something different occupying their mind; an inspiring lesson observation; a confrontational parent; a pile of marking to return to. Celebrating previous debriefs, and the impact they have had on something you have achieved as a team, is a great way to capitalise on the good work done by the group.
  • Codify your findings: over the course of a team’s life, you could conduct hundreds of team debriefs. Some of these will discover similar areas to improve. It’s important that during these meetings, notes are made and recorded, so that lessons can be learned and reviewed in the future. This method may also help you spot patterns, and codify some of the best ways that your team works and improves.
  • Bring warmth, build belonging: your team will enjoy or endure a debrief based on how you as a leader convey your feelings towards it. Just like everything else, your smile, energy, enthusiasm and attitude to receiving feedback of any kind, will be infectious for your team. Feedback and evaluation is a gift, especially in a purposeful, unified team. Members may feel apprehensive, so it’s the leader’s role to make everyone feel included, listened to, and valued.

Put simply, teams that engage in debriefing regularly and effectively enhance their teamwork (Tannenbaum & Cerasoli, 2013), their sense of belonging to the team, and improve overall team performance. In terms of organisational outcomes, a debriefing organisation becomes one that learns and improves more continuously and, ideally, a healthier, more effective, and reliable organisation.

We do such important work for children and our staff. Every day, or week, we conduct hundreds of actions and processes, often becoming habitual in the way we approach our work. A culture of debriefing and evaluating the work of our teams will create purpose, team unity, and increases in team performance, as we review how we work and how we can improve. It may be uncomfortable at first. It may take up some time. But the investment that you will expend is shown to have wide-ranging benefits; this is another step towards a thriving team.

Thank you for reading

Sam

Earlier posts in the Thriving Teams series:

Thriving Teams #1: What is a team

Thriving Teams #2: Purpose and Goals

Thriving Teams #3: Psychological Safety

References

Allen, J. A., Reiter-Palmon, R., Crowe, J., & Scott, C. (2018). Debriefs: Teams learning from doing in context. American Psychologist, 73(4), 504–516. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000246

Kolbe, M., Grande, B., & Spahn, D. R. (2015). Briefing and debriefing during simulation-based training and beyond: Content, structure, attitude and setting. Best Practice & Research Clinical Anaesthesiology, 29, 87–96. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bpa.2015.01.002

Salas, E., Klein, C., King, H., Salisbury, M., Augenstein, J. S., Birnbach, D. J., . . . Upshaw, C. (2008). Debriefing medical teams: 12 evidence[1]based best practices and tips. Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety, 34, 518 –527. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1553- 7250(08)34066-5

Scott, C. W., Dunn, A., Williams, E., & Allen, J. (2015). Implementing after action review systems in organizations: Key principles and practical considerations. In J. Allen, N. Lehman-Willenbrock, & S. Rogelberg (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of meeting science (pp. 634 – 660). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/ CBO9781107589735.027

Sundheim, D (2015) Debriefing: A Simple Tool to Help Your Team Tackle Tough Problems. Harvard Business Review online:  https://hbr.org/2015/07/debriefing-a-simple-tool-to-help-your-team-tackle-tough-problems#:~:text=Debriefing%20is%20a%20structured%20learning,or%20changes%20on%20the%20field.

Tannenbaum, S. I., & Cerasoli, C. P. (2013). Do team and individual debriefs enhance performance? A meta-analysis. Human Factors, 55, 231–245. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0018720812448394

Thriving Teams #3: Psychological Safety

It can be difficult to define what makes someone feel confident or at ease within their team. Some argue that a happy team is a productive team, while others say the opposite is true. In my years’ long pursuit of staff wellbeing and satisfaction, I’ve often leant towards autonomy, trust, and opportunities to collaborate as key factors contributing to healthy culture and team work.

In the last 12 months, I’ve read Amy Edmondson’s The Fearless Organisation, Dan Cable’s Alive At Work, and Andy Swann’s The Human Workplace, with all three titles advocating safe, open-minded workplaces that allow people and teams to flourish and succeed. It was in these books that I began to understand the concept of psychological safety as a tool for wellbeing, but also a necessity in productive, thriving teams.

So far in this blog series I’ve covered what makes a team, followed by team purpose and goals. So, given that we now know how to create a team and give it direction, it’s now time to explore how we can create and lead other enabling conditions for successful teams, starting with psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is a trusting behaviour that is defined as the team’s shared belief that it is safe to take interpersonal risks without fear of backlash (Edmondson, 1999). In other words, the team members have a collective understanding that they are safe to express themselves, to try things out, and to fail. Amy Edmondson has conducted many studies about psychologically safe teams, and the impact of those on the team’s morale and productivity.

One study by Julia Rozovsky looked at which teams at Google performed best, and analysed the teams’ hobbies, backgrounds, friends, traits and more – no trends emerged as to why some teams performed better than others. And then they looked at psychological safety, and everything fell into place. Even Google’s brightest, sharpest performers needed to be within a psychologically safe team in order to thrive (Edmondson 2019).

Psychological safety is not just a ‘nice to have’ or a box of biscuits, or even a reassuring smile. It raises standards in teams, with Edmondson’s studies finding that it increases candour, mutual respect, and trust. A psychologically safe team is a conducive environment to set ambitious goals and work towards them together. Put simply, having high standards and high psychological safety is a winning ticket, and natural combination, to help a team truly thrive.

As social beings, we tend to conform, and desire acceptance; we work out early in life how to avoid interpersonal risks. At work, we may avoid asking questions in order to look more competent, or may avoid challenging a colleague because we don’t want to be branded as someone who causes trouble or rocks the boat. Edmondson finds that the best teams create cultures of openness and curiosity, where staff are encouraged to question, report errors, and discuss the risks of failure – failure is considered an inevitable step in the journey, not as terminal. The team knows that their interpersonal risks are low when they belong to this team, and their inhibitions lower so that they can perform to their potential.

According to Salas et al, ‘it is critical that organizations, team leaders, and teammates create environments where psychological safety can flourish and be a mechanism to resolve conflicts, ensure safety, mitigate errors, learn, and improve performance’ (Salas et al, 2018).

How to build psychological safety

Building genuine psychological safety isn’t as simple as being a friendly face and letting people do as they please. It’s important to note that psychological safety isn’t just being nice to people or having low expectations about work; it is not letting things go to avoid a tough conversation.

Here are three prominent features of a psychologically safe team and their leaders:

Candour constructive feedback is essential to psychological safety. In The Fearless Organisation, Edmondson cites Pixar and their ‘Brain Trust’ process, in which groups evaluate projects at early stages, and give constructive, impersonal feedback. The expectation is that all projects will need a lot of work and feedback to begin with – it is natural, anticipated, and celebrated. It’s important to ensure that leaders and team members are both comfortable to ask for feedback, and understand that it is vital to team growth and productivity. Netflix seem to do a good job here, too, as they ask employees to create memos to be shared openly across teams, so that they can gain constructive feedback from the outset of an idea or project. There will be a whole blog post on feedback and candour later in the series!

Freedom to fail – building on candour, it’s important to create an environment in which failure and fear are uncoupled. Where the emphasis is on failure not being something to avoid, but a natural part of learning and exploration. The team’s mindset needs to be solution-focused, with no blame culture. If the team has clear, purposeful goals, as discussed in the previous blog post, then any failures along the way are just steps to navigate. These failures can also become galvanising moments for group discussion and collaborative problem solving. It reminds me of playing Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Megadrive with my brother in the 1990s – the fiendishly difficult final levels were like a Rubik’s cube to be discovered and puzzled over; every time Sonic met his doom we’d gasp (or cackle), return to the drawing board, and plan our next line of attack. 25 years on, those ‘strategy meetings in the bunker’ are some of my favourite memories. In High Challenge, Low Threat, Mary Myatt discusses how to earn trust within a team by saying ‘I think you can do this’, and ‘I’m here to talk things through’ if things don’t go according to plan (Myatt 2016).

Be a don’t knower – leaders need humility – they should admit what they don’t know, ask questions, and trust those around them. ‘Leaders who are willing to say ‘I don’t know’, play a surprisingly powerful role in engaging the hearts and minds of employees. In Adam Grant’s fantastic Think Again (2021), there is a great anecdote about introducing more psychological safety at the Gates Foundation, and the huge relief of employees when Melinda, who staff couldn’t usually get an emotional read from, announced that she goes into a lot of meetings where there are things she doesn’t know. The staff felt safer in the knowledge that their seemingly perfect leader had gaps in her knowledge, and was brave enough to admit it.

In Dr Kulvarn Atwal’s The Thinking School, he advocates a model of ‘high challenge, high trust’, whereby his staff work relentlessly for the benefit of the children, within the context of open dialogue, high autonomy, and a huge amount of collaborative work. Staff are encouraged to provide feedback to leadership, and then even more so to lead on projects and initiatives. Inviting staff to contribute isn’t a form of weakness, it encourages diverse thinking, loyalty, and greater staff buy in. Having visited the school myself, I saw how staff are encouraged to burst in with an idea, knowing that Kulvarn will talk it through with them (always asking first how it will benefit the children) and give them the chance to try it out and then evaluate.

Atwal cites research (including his own doctoral work) and interviews which suggest that teachers value working together in groups, as an effective and empowering form of development. In his school, Atwal’s staff gave me many examples of how they had split off into groups to work on research projects, joint planning, and similar, with trust and autonomy being the wind in their sails. It has made me rethink how schools can foster collaborative work across different teams, focused on curriculum planning, research projects, extra-curricular activities, student learning… the list could go on, but as Atwal says, it will develop a positive culture and high investment from staff. From what I saw, this created effective psychological safety across his staff body.

Action points for teams and team leaders:

Returning to Amy Edmondson’s work, she sets out three ways to introduce psychological safety into your team.

  1. Set the scene: when working with your team on a project or set of work products, begin by clarifying the nature of the work, and acknowledge how failures along the way will be ‘currency’ for growth. In other words, be clear about purpose, but also admit that there will be challenges.
  2. Invite participation: it’s important for leaders to admit that we don’t know all the answers, and to engage the team with this process and or project as a joint-learning opportunity. Jurgen Klopp (from 4.30 in the video) speaks particularly well about this when he discusses working with experts within his team whose knowledge he invites and must draw upon to be most effective. Fundamentally, leaders should acknowledge they are not, in fact, omniscient, and encourage open communication and feedback across the team, while also asking the team open questions.
  3. Respond productively: as the project or process takes shapes, results will begin to appear. The work is in motion, and it won’t always go well. This is the opportunity to listen carefully, acknowledge and welcome those who flag up errors or possible improvements, and destigmatise failure.

How I’ve incorporated some of these ideas into a team I lead:

A team that I am very proud to work with is the group of Heads of Year and Assistant Heads of Year across our school and sixth form. I’m by no means a perfect leader, and I certainly don’t hold all the answers. My main priority for our team work is that they have a clear understanding of what we are working towards –both overall vision and day-to-day, operational targets – and that they feel completely safe within the team, knowing that  feedback, thoughts and reflections will be welcomed. There are a few methods I’ve used to develop this culture, although I must admit that the personalities across the team are particularly conducive to working together and pulling in the same direction.

Firstly, I like to ask the team their views and input on just about everything. Yes, I will outline my particular vision for a project and present the standards I think we should work towards, but those goals are often contributed to by the team. Asking the team questions and genuinely listening to, and acting upon, their suggestions is a key tenet of our team culture – they know that they have a voice, and are valued. Adam Grant (2021) advocates the use of ‘how do you know?’ as a question for any member of a team to ask; as a tool for asking a non-judgmental question that mixes curiosity with a desire to know more, and I try to model that sort of tool for others to use.

I also believe that the team will achieve greater psychological safety through learning and growing together. Every fortnight, I hand out some reading relevant to our roles (leadership, culture, pastoral work, mental health), and, two weeks later, we review that reading at the beginning of our meeting. Our meetings always begin with learning, discussion and sharing. In December, the team all selected a book, we bought them, and they will share their reading and learning from these books on a rota during our next 12 meetings this year. It’s this tangible sense of learning and developing as a team that makes us feel safer to ask questions or give feedback to each other.

In the last 12 months, we have launched a new pastoral curriculum; this has been exciting and purposeful, and we are beginning to reap the rewards. It also felt like stepping into the unknown. In the early planning sessions, we talked a lot about the potential of this curriculum, what we wanted from it, and some of the issues we might face. Key to these reflections was that these challenges would be both inevitable, and would always have a solution. We stepped into the hard work of the pastoral curriculum not expecting ‘results’ but a process; this means that when we review our provision, which we do and will need to do regularly, we aren’t peeking between the gaps in our fingers as we cover our faces in nervous anticipation, but that we embrace and celebrate the direction, opportunities and challenges.

Concluding thoughts:

In Putting Staff First, Jonny Uttley (and John Tomsett, 2020) provides the Education Alliance’s Ethical Leadership Qualities: Competencies and Behaviours. Here is a link to that framework. If all leaders aspired to these behaviours – including categories such as trust, wisdom, kindness, service – their teams would enjoy a strong sense of psychological safety and likely become productive and successful. This would be a good piece of work to discuss with leaders at your school when considering what sort of behaviours and values the organisation demands from its leaders and staff.

It’s invigorating to note that there is a plethora of evidence to suggest that psychological safety and trust in teams is not just about wellbeing, but also fundamental to the success of a team. Objectively, we must work as hard at this as we do on our other goals and metrics for success.

I’d like to finish with a wonderful quote from Mary Myatt, whose words I cannot hope to improve:

‘Top leaders create a safety net, where it is OK to make mistakes. There are no recriminations, only discussions about what might be better. A psychological safe space is the crucial element of creating trust. And a sense of humour, which means that nothing needs to be taken seriously. Because, after all, (mostly) this isn’t brain surgery, and no one is going to die’ (Myatt 2016).

Thank you for reading and following so far.

Sam

References

Atwal, K (2019) The Thinking School. John Catt, Woodbridge.

Edmondson, A (2009) Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly.

Edmondson, A (2019) The Fearless Organisation. Wiley, Hoboken.

Grant, A (2021) Think Again. Viking, London.

Myatt, M (2016) High Challenge, Low Threat. John Catt, Woodbridge.

Salas, E., Reyes, D., McDaniel, S. (2018) The Science of Teamwork. American Psychologist.

Tomsett, J., Uttley, J. (2020) Putting Staff First. John Catt, Woodbridge.