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.

Thriving Teams #2: Purpose and Goals

Every organisation has a purpose: a sense of why it exists and what it serves through that existence. For schools, this is perhaps obvious. The school exists to serve its children: to keep them safe, to help them to learn, to gain the best qualifications possible, and to prepare them for the world (add others as necessary!). Alternatively, I like the staff-centred approach from Jonny Uttley and John Tomsett (2020): ‘by putting staff first, you are on the way to providing for students the one thing that will help them make good progress in their learning: truly great teaching’. But for a team, a generic purpose or vision isn’t enough. Every team needs a compelling, specific narrative to increase their belief in, and commitment to, the school’s cause – they need leaders who create and communicate a purpose for their particular school and context.

Beneath this layer of organisation-wide purpose, the teams within the team also require their own purpose – their way of serving or contributing to the overall aims. Team leaders, let’s say Heads of Year, Heads of Department, SLT line managers, and others, need to set their own vision, purpose and goals for their teams.

The first post in this series discussed what a team is and can be, followed by exploring team composition and how we go about creating teams that stand a good chance of performing well. After that general introduction, it is time now to dedicate each post to an evidence-informed area of what helps teams to thrive. In this post, I’ll look at what evidence says about how having a clear purpose and setting team goals can have a profound effect on the way teams operate; this will mostly focus on:

  1. Clarifying purpose and direction
  2. Goals and team goals
  3. Stages of a team
  4. Role clarity

1. Clarifying purpose and direction

In the wonderful The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle (2018) examines healthy, thriving cultures in a variety of organisations, codifying his findings into three areas: building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose. For the latter, he notes how, when you walk into the SEAL headquarters in the USA, you are met by physical examples of their purpose and mission: twisted girders from 9/11, or flags from moments of conflict; at Pixar, you are visually immersed into their movies with life-size statues and installations. Coyle notes that these types of organisations understand and communicate their purpose ‘about as subtly as a punch on the nose’. He argues that high-purpose teams and environments are filled with small, vivid signals to link the present moment and a future ideal. Here is where we are; here is where we want to go. We know from research that team commitment is enhanced by a clear understanding of purpose and specific team goals, so it’s worth reflecting upon how well your team could articulate these. As Coyle advises, we should be ten times as clear about our purpose, vision and goals as we think we need to be.

Hackman (2004) suggests that every great team needs compelling direction: this will energise, orientate and engage its members. Teams cannot be inspired or bring the best version of themselves if they don’t know what they’re working towards and don’t have explicit goals. The goals should be challenging, but also consequential, he argues; the team must stand to gain something, whether that’s extrinsic rewards such as pay or recognition, or intrinsic satisfaction or sense of meaning.

Beyond defining your overall purpose for being, effective strategy development is enhanced by unambiguous goals which we’ll go on to discuss in the next section. Pritchard (1995) and his colleagues developed and implemented a team-based performance management system called ProMES (productivity measurement and enhancement system) that spans purpose, goals, and evaluation, and focuses on identifying objective team outputs, as well as the level of these outputs required to reach various levels of effectiveness for the team. Teams receive feedback referenced to these outputs, and are encouraged to develop plans that would help them achieve internally or externally set goals; with this system in mind, every project starts with clear direction and purpose, knowing the processes to follow later.

Reflection for school leaders: it’s easy to make assumptions when we lead a team: that the team understands the organisation-wide, and team-specific purpose already. That once you’ve said it in a meeting, it will be remembered forever more.But our reflections here should centre around not just what we have done, but we are currently doing to communicate purpose to our team, and therefore if we are creating a compelling direction for them to move.

2. Goal setting and team goals

Ratzenbach and Smith spend much of their seminal article The Discipline of Teams (1993), extolling the virtues of purpose and setting specific goals. They begin by asserting that team commitment – that is, common commitment – is essential to the success of the team. This is a basic requirement to ensure that groups perform collectively and not as individuals. However, the direction and momentum of this commitment is shaped by meaningful purpose, with the responsibility for the setting of this purpose coming from leaders.

In their words ‘The best teams invest a tremendous amount of time and effort exploring, shaping, and agreeing on a purpose that belongs to them both collectively and individually. This purposing activity continues throughout the life of the team. By contrast, failed teams rarely develop a common purpose. For whatever reason – an insufficient focus on performance, lack of effort, poor leadership – they do not coalesce around a challenging aspiration’. (Ratzenbach and Smith, 1993)

The authors continue with this argument by suggesting that specific, tangible team-performance goals are important. Indeed, these goals will help to define a set of work products that are different from both organisation-wide mission, and individual job objectives. In that sense, there needs to be an awareness of three things: the organisation’s overall objectives, a team’s collective objectives, and lastly the objectives of individuals within the team. The specificity of these performance objectives helps to facilitate clear communication, evaluation of effectiveness, and constructive conflict within the team. Specific goals allow a team to achieve small wins as it pursues its broader purpose, which in turn increase commitment.

They conclude by stating: ‘when purposes and goals build on one another and are combined with team commitment, they become a powerful engine of performance’ (Ratzenbach and Smith, 1993).

In a meta-analysis of the effects of goal setting on group performance, Kleingeld, van Mierlo, and Arends (2011) found a large overall positive effect size of .56 for goal setting on group performance; that specific, difficult goals were more effective than non-specific goals; and that individually focused goals had a negative effect on group performance, whereas group goals had a positive effect.

Reflection for school leaders: There are, of course, a variety of teams within schools. I’ve found that these teams are often time poor and task rich, and that a list of activities and admin often dominate meetings or briefings. Teams often begin in September with goals for the academic year, but how often are we referring to these goals, and do we bring in goals during specific projects? What sort of team-performance goals do your teams have? Are these an important part of your teams’ dynamics and commitment? What could you do next with regards to utilising these goals and referring back to them?

3. Stages of a team

It’s important for team leaders to have an awareness of the usual stages of team development so that certain interventions can be put in place. In the case of this post, our focus is on how we can communicate the purpose and goals of our team in its early stages, so that team members are aware of the team’s direction, and so that the team leader can predict and understand usual cycles of team development.

Drexler and Sibbett outline a team model which divides the life cycle of the team into two stages: creating and sustaining. Creating stages include orientation (why I am here?), trust building (who are you?), goal and role definition (what are we doing?) and commitment (how will we do it?). This leads to the sustaining stages, which includes planning (who does what, where), and then further stages for the team once established. It’s often tempting in a school, where there is a pressing amount demanded of our time, and in which we may inherit or work with an existing team, that we move straight into the ‘work’, before truly establishing our team in the creating stages.

The creating stages of this model are reminiscent of the early parts of the Bruce Tuckman model of team development: Forming, Storming and Norming (later followed by Performing and Adjourning). The forming stage involves team building, outlining roles, norms and expectations. Storming is then an inevitable stage where team members may become competitive, jealous, or experience conflict early on in the team’s life, which, when managed correctly, evolves into norming, where the norms and culture of the team are properly established. Performing is the team flourishing as a group, while adjourning is a period of closure.

Importantly, these models do not view any stages of team life as being irreversible. Teams move between stages when new tasks are created, new members leave or join, or leadership changes. Research supports the nature of these models, and should guide us to reflect on our own teams. Firstly, if the early stages of our team’s life, or indeed a project within that team, require us to orientate, build trust, set goals, and plan working methods – how successfully have we achieved this, and how much thought and effort did we expend on it? Secondly, like any set of expectations for pupils, or purpose and vision for staff, we need to over communicate them. The energising ‘creating stages’ of our team’s life shouldn’t be a distant memory: it’s vital that we regularly recap who we are, what we are doing, what our goals are, and how we work together.

Seth Godin (2008) suggests that we need to have faith in our team and its leader; we want to believe in what we do and who we are lead by. I will dedicate an entire post to psychological safety and trust in an affective sense during a later blog. However, the way a team is structured, and the purpose it is infused with, determines how much trust team members have in the team. For team members to trust in the team they must feel that the team is competent to accomplish their task. This reminds me of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion 3.0 (2021), in which he discusses how a teacher earns the respect and trust of their students not by merely ‘building relationships’, but by using their time purposefully and productively. The team members’ collective belief that they can be effective (Guzzo et al 1993) is known as potency, and has been found to predict team performance above group member ability.

Therefore, having a clear idea about the different stages of your team’s development allows a team leader to reflect on what might be required at that moment to ensure productive, effective team work and communication, and just as importantly, staff buy-in that the team is progressing.

Reflection for school leaders: it may be useful to ‘audit’ (my apologies, not my favourite word) the teams you currently lead or are part of. Can you identify a particular stage that team is at? I’d very much recommend looking more at the two models I have referred to, one of which is extended and adapted usefully by Andy Buck in Leadership Matters 3.0 (2018), to try and understand how your team is functioning now. This may throw up some challenges for you as a leader in the way you manage the team, but also may be useful in uncovering a few ideas about interventions that will help your team progress.

4. Role clarity

While there must be clear team-wide goals that increase commitment from team members, it’s also vital that each member of the team has clarity regarding their own role. Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that teams benefit from a combination of individual members understanding their precise role within the team, but also understanding how other members contribute towards the team effort. We’ll look later in this series at how shared mental models and transactive memory can be utilised by teams to help them to self-correct and to be adaptable, flexible, and cohesive, but it’s fair to say that role clarity is a bedrock of those traits as a team. It is this individual clarity and certainty that allows teams to become adaptable, for example in the adjustment of task strategies or team behaviours in response to changes in the team or task environment. Hackman and Morris (1978, cited by Driskell et al 2006) noted that adaptability is one of the few universally effective group strategies, but a sense of clarity and competence is required first.

Interestingly, researcher Tammy Erickson (2012) found that when teams are collaborating, they benefit from a combination of role clarity, and being given independence regarding the ways in which they work. Without role clarity, team members are likely to ‘waste energy negotiating roles or protecting turf, rather than focusing on the task’. And yet, research also found that team members are more likely to want to collaborate if the path to achieving the team’s goal is left somewhat ambiguous. If a team perceives the task as one that requires creativity, where the approach is not yet well known or predefined, its members are more likely to invest more time and energy in the collaboration.

The leader’s role, therefore, is to ensure that the roles and responsibilities of the team members are clearly defined for the specific project. Leaders should help team members understand the project’s importance and objective but leave the exact approach to the discretion of the team.

Other research complements this, to a point. Dalenberg et al. (2009) found that members of military teams who engaged in a brief strategy discussion prior to mission engagement exhibited greater coordination and better overall performance, as the briefing clarified roles and procedures. Mathieu and Rapp (2009) found that teams that produced high-quality teamwork plans (regarding how the team will work together) and taskwork plans (regarding performance strategies for the task) early in their development achieved higher performance. Fisher (2014) further elaborated the distinction between taskwork and teamwork planning, and found that the two forms of planning produced distinct effects on teamwork processes. Specifically, taskwork planning impacted coordination, whereas teamwork planning impacted interpersonal processes, and both exhibited an indirect relationship to team performance. Sources from this paragraph are cited in Driskell and Salas’ wonderful paper ‘Foundations of Teamwork’ (2018).

Reflection for school leaders: role clarity can be difficult in school-based teams, because most teams will be made up of teachers whose role is predominantly to teach. How then, are we to assign roles within departments or other teams where members’ usual and main roles are teaching the children? If we consider a subject or stage team, we may do project-based work, such as developing an area of the curriculum or redesigning assessment and feedback approaches. This project will not be a permanent one, but nevertheless the team members need clarity about their role in the project – what they are expected to do, and what the specific goals are for their part of the team effort. If staff members do have specific areas of responsibility as part of their role, then this more permanent arrangement will require role clarity for what is expected of them day-to-day; again, this will include how they contribute to the team’s goals, and how their role differs from others on the team.

Concluding thoughts.

I have been guilty many times of getting carried away by tasks, admin, meetings, and the assumption that my team know what they are doing and have understood purpose that I am supposedly communicating via osmosis. Exploring the literature in this area has elevated both my awareness and understanding of the importance of communicating and considering team purpose and direction more, but also validated the notion that spending time on this area is vital for team commitment, bonding, trust, and therefore, performance.

We have examined some comprehensive findings on purpose and direction, team goals, team stages, and role clarity, and I hope that the links to a school context were enough to stimulate your own thinking about teams which you lead or are part of.

The next post in the series will explore creating a culture and environment that allows a team to thrive, focusing on psychological safety and trust.

Thank you for reading

Sam

References

Buck, A. (2018) Leadership Matters 3.0. John Catt, Woodbridge.

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

Dalenberg S, Vogelaar ALW, Beersma B. (2009) The effect of a team strategy discussion on military team performance. Military Psychology.

Driskell, James & Goodwin, Gerald & Salas, Eduardo & O’Shea, Patrick. (2006). What makes a good team player? Personality and team effectiveness. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice. 10. 249 – 271.

Driskell JE, Salas E, Driskell T. Foundations of teamwork and collaboration. Am Psychol. 2018 May-Jun;73(4):334-348.

Erickson, T. (2012) The Biggest Mistake You (Probably) Make with Teams. Harvard Business Review. The Biggest Mistake You (Probably) Make with Teams (hbr.org)

Godin, S. (2008) Tribes: we need you to lead us. Piatkus Books, London.

Guzzo, R.A., Yost, P.R., Campbell, R.J. and Shea, G.P. (1993), Potency in groups: Articulating a construct. British Journal of Social Psychology, 32: 87-106. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8309.1993.tb00987.x

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

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

Kleingeld A, van Mierlo H, Arends L. (2011) The effect of goal setting on group performance: a meta-analysis. J Appl Psychol. 2011 Nov;96(6):1289-304

Lemov, D (2021) Teach Like a Champion 3.0. Jossey-Bass, London.

Pritchard, R. D., Editor (1995). Productivity measurement and improvement: Organizational case studies. New York: Praeger

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

Thriving Teams #1: What is a team?

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

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

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

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

What is a team and teamwork? A short literature review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team Composition – creating and shaping our teams

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

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

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

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

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

Teams in schools

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions from blog one:

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

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

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

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

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

Key reflections for both the author and the reader:

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

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

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

Key research and concepts covered in future blog posts:

1.            Key features of healthy, thriving teams

2.            Team norms, roles, and behaviours

3.            Unhealthy teams and characteristics

4.            Team processes and task types

5.            Team development and interventions

6.            Debriefs, conflict, communication, and candour

7.           Being a learning team.

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

Thank you for reading

Sam

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change, by Damon Centola

Why I read it

I had a wonderful day at ResearchEd Surrey in October. I caught up with old colleagues from Farnham Heath End, Weydon, and beyond, met new colleagues from Twitter, and attended some enlightening talks. I even navigated Jade Pearce’s PowerPoint in her excellent session on evidence-informed teaching. Adam Robbins’ talk on behavioural change was particularly fascinating, and was based on the work of Damon Centola. Adam summarised Change excellently, adding humour and a schools-based focus. I knew immediately that I had to buy and review this book!

In Summary

As the subtitle ‘How to make big things happen’ suggests, Centola sets out to understand how change can occur on a large scale. He explores how social media sites like Twitter became so popular, how the British Army successfully recruited so many men from a range of classes in World War 1, and what the true secret is to influencing people to adopt or change.

The book is based around the idea that we have weak ties and strong ties in our networks. Weak ties might be the majority of my Twitter followers who I do not know well; family members, friends, and more established colleagues would be examples of strong ties. Centola explores how both weak and strong ties can be useful to spread different types of messages, but crucially he assesses the types of messages and behaviours that can be changed or influenced through different ties and methods.

The book is full of research, by Centola himself (he conducts some wonderful studies), as well as other scientists, and finally a range of examples from various industries and moments in history. The prose is compelling, and the passion for the subject is ever present.

Key Takeaways:

Simple vs complex contagions – like a virus, a simple contagion spreads easily across a network. Perhaps it’s something simple like a funny video or an inspirational tweet – people pass it on and it moves fast. However, complex contagions are ones that people resist. They are behaviours, ideals, or decisions that involve risk or change. These do not spread quickly or via weak ties. Therefore, we can use weak ties to effectively spread simple contagions, and strong ties for complex contagions – but it’s important to understand what we want to spread or change before planning the method. Both have their benefits and drawbacks, depending on the context.

Fireworks and fishing nets – building on ties, Centola uses the analogy of fireworks and fishing nets (see below) to represent how we might attempt to change behaviours. The fireworks model spreads information quickly and its reach is large, although the downside is seeing behaviour from a range of weak ties is less likely to influence you with a complex contagion. However, Centola’s research shows that people are more likely to adopt something complex when they are exposed to it by their strong ties; the fishing net model represents this – the spread will be slower as information travels from neighbour to neighour, but having interconnected movement means that people will see changes across more than one of their strong ties, influencing them to adopt. This is a seminal part of the book that is well worth reading in more detail than my short summary.

Snowballs, shotguns, silver bullets  – so, we want to affect change in a village of 1000 people; here are some methods. Shotgun: this involves a broad approach, say targeting 10 people from all over the village and hoping this spread will reach the maximum number of people; the silver bullet approach involves identifying the most connected person, and putting all your energy into them spreading this message using their vast network; finally, the snowball approach is like the shotgun in terms of choosing 10 people, let’s say. However, this time you choose people who are connected or geographically close. The spread will be slower, but the connectedness of this group means they are likely to successfully adopt the change with high trust, and then it’ll begin to spread to others. All of these methods have their own merits and pitfalls, as discussed by Centola in this fascinating chapter. See the Favourite Moment heading.

Relevance and its 3 principles for adopting: Centola suggests that relevance is vital in our choice to adopt. For example, when we judge a change or innovation to be useful to us, or if it requires a degree of emotional excitement or loyalty, we are far more likely to adopt if we engage with people who are similar to ourselves. However, if behaviour change is based on believing a behaviour is widely accepted, the opposite is true; we want to see a diverse set of people adopting something.

Tipping point for change: Centola’s research, conducted in a fascinating social network study (you must read it!), involved planting ‘agents’ into a community to influence a group decision. It turns out that 25% is the magic number. If 25% of people in a community or group advocate a certain decision or set of behaviours, that can be a tipping point for the rest of the group to conform.

Favourite moment: Malawi Farming experiment

In Malawi, the traditional method of planting crops in rows wasn’t sustainable due to soil erosion and inefficiencies in holding water in low-rainfall years. The solution was pit-planting, i.e. digging a small pit for each crop to be planted in. But this was a big change and needed strong take up across the country to help the agricultural industry, and, in turn, food supplies. Scientists used the snowball, shotgun and silver bullet methods in different parts of Malawi – whereby some ‘agents’ were planted to help with uptake – and over a few years reviewed which method lead to the most number of farms adopting pit planting.

Over the course of the trial, the snowball method was the most effective, and they started with just two agent farmers per village. The progress might have been slow at first, but the trust they created in their fishing net meant that others saw first-hand how the new method could be trusted.

Another fabulous anecdote from the book – there are so many more.

Favourite quote – norms

‘The idea is a simple one: successful social change is not about information; it’s about norms. Social networks are not merely the pipes through which ideas and behaviours flow. They are also prisms that determine how we see those behaviours and interpret those ideas’

Key questions and reflections:

How could you adopt some of these principles to influence change in your organisation? Perhaps with a team? Perhaps with students?

Do you have the right infrastructure to initiate change and communication in both a fireworks and fishing net model?

Think about your organisation. Can you identify how and why behaviour or change has spread before? How could this be optimised?

Read this if…

You are a leader or manager interested in behaviour and change

You work within, or lead, a team and want to know how to improve dynamics and introducing change.

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