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


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


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

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.

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. 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. CBO9781107589735.027

Sundheim, D (2015) Debriefing: A Simple Tool to Help Your Team Tackle Tough Problems. Harvard Business Review online:,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.

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.



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



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 (

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.

Hackman, J. R. (2004, June). What makes for a great team? Psychological Science Agenda.

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



Amaechi, J., Hawk, R. (2021) The Leading Learner Podcast. Link:

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.

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.

Hackman, J. R. (2004). What makes for a great team? Psychological Science Agenda.

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.

Support bookshops and find it here

Team Genius, by Rich Karlgaard and Michael Malone

Why I read it

I really enjoy leading teams and being part of teams. All of us have interacted within a group, be it at school, work, or in an activity such as a sports team. We’ve all been in some unhealthy, unproductive teams. And, hopefully, we’ve experienced the opposite, too. I’ve always been fascinated by why some teams seemingly click, and others flounder. I was desperate to know whether it was about leadership, personality, expertise, or some unknown dynamics.

I’m currently reading around just this: namely what makes teams thrive, and Team Genius has played a vital role in the research project to date (stay tuned for future blog posts).

In summary

The book opens with the simple principle that early humans had to form teams to survive – it was and is an essential way for our species to prosper and grow. But how much do we know about how to utilise our teams?

Team Genius sets out to explore the science behind high-performing teams. Karlgaard and Malone draw upon a wealth of research and anecdotes to create a fascinating study. There are chapters dedicated to the optimal size of teams, how differences can help, the power of pairs and trios, and finally how to manage a team to truly maximise performance.

Key takeaways

1. Less is more – researchers have found that an optimal number for a team is usually six to ten people; for one thing, it helps the leader’s span of control. Beyond that, the number 150 is used in various studies and theories to suggest a number for a larger team or organisation to thrive. 150 is said to be the number we can have a genuinely social relationship with, to build groups based on trust and a sound bond.

2. We are hardwired to work together our brains are designed to thrive in groups; being part of a trusting, purposeful group can enhance our levels of oxytocin, which in turn makes us feel and more committed to this social interaction.

3. Mirror neurons – one of the reasons it can be so easy to conform to, or enjoy, a team, is because we have mirror neurons that fire up when we observe the actions or expressions of others, encouraging us to mimic what we’ve observed. These neurons help us to emulate the emotions and actions of others, and thus bring us closer to them – an instant shared experience is created. Mirror neurons could explain why a leader who smiles and laughs creates a similar dynamic in their team; or indeed, why negative comments or behaviours in a team can spread to others quickly.

4. Differences matter – as we have seen from the failed model of Real Madrid’s Galacticos, you cannot put a team of people together without considering their cohesion. Teams need to have a variety of skills and experiences, and must engage in collaboration (studies show this needs to be planned) to ensure excellent communication. Studies also found that the homogenous teams couldn’t close the gap on more diverse teams, even if their verbal communication was better.

5. Group minds – to reach a state of ‘hive mind’, or transactive memory, groups need to meet and collaborate until they gain a common understanding or ‘metamemory’ – for example identifying who knows what, or what the team doesn’t know. Teams that reach this state of transactive memory outperform teams who do not. Again, this emphasises the importance of collaboration and examining strategy and vision for the team, and not just day-to-day tasks.

6. Managing your teams to genius – there is a lengthy chapter about how to maximise a team’s performance, including: having a compelling direction; clear boundaries regarding roles; a supportive organisational context; and how the team receives coaching and guidance. There is also explanation about task types, and how to best apply certain strategies to each one.

Favourite quotes:

‘Handled properly, a healthy and successful team can become the farm team for a whole host of new teams that carry with them the parent team’s DNA and that, with luck, are just as healthy and successful’

‘The teams in which we work, and the teams we lead, may not change the world. They can make the world a better place, make our company more successful and secure, and give ourselves and our teammates a more rewarding and fulfilling career. And most of all, we can increase the odds of our team’s success.’

Question and reflect:

Which teams am I a part of right now? Which of those teams is healthy and successful?

What can I do to contribute to my team’s success?

Do the right conditions exist within my organisation for teams to thrive?

Read this if:

You are a leader or part of a team

You want to explore how people can bring the best out of each other

Support bookshops and find it here

10 tips to get the most out of being coached

‘Every coach should have a coach’ is an oft repeated mantra when you step into the world of coaching. It is an idea with merit. During the recent Coaching Accreditation Programme with Growth Coaching International, we were given the opportunity to experience being a coachee. Delegates coached each other, sometimes in pairs, and other times in groups of four, over the course of many weeks; finally, we were given an expert coach for two sessions at the end of the course so that we could once again experience being a coachee.  At its conclusion, we had coaching and coachee practice in a variety of contexts, and a thorough appreciation of the benefits and nuances of both roles.

Despite the fact that having a coach is an empowering and uplifting process, we tend to write more about coaches than coachees. There are numerous blogs and books about becoming an amazing coach, including my own post. But Pete Foster asked on Twitter this week if anyone had written a guide to getting the most out of being coached. I was stumped; I knew of none. It makes sense, of course: how can we best utilise these powerful conversations so that we get the most out of them, and in, Jim Knight’s words, unlock our potential?

So, without further ado, here are my 10 quick tips to get the most out of being coached.

  1. Choose your coach carefully

The coach-coachee relationship is built on trust and rapport. The person you choose to be your coach will be someone with whom you share laughter, vulnerability, and a lot of deep thinking; therefore the fit must be right. All coaches will likely be trained and competent, but it’s important to find someone who you feel will bring the best out of you and your thinking.

  1. Be open to coaching

Once you’ve chosen your coach, the next step is to make sure you are as open as possible to being coached. One could arrive at a coaching conversation with a preconceived idea, readily packaged and rehearsed – you can go through the motions and answer questions with mild thought and neglect any deeper thinking. Or, you can accept that within a trusting and open coaching relationship, your coach’s questions will move you to ideas, thoughts, and feelings that you haven’t encountered before. You will need to share things that you perhaps only just understood or realised yourself, and then admit when you’re feeling unsure. These are the moments when you make breakthroughs in your thinking and the magic happens, but we have to be open and available with our coach.

  1. Make sure you have contracted

At the beginning of a coaching relationship, and thereafter briefly at the outset of each session, your coach will set out a contract for the relationship. This is a good opportunity for them to lay out what you can expect from each other, and possibly, as Margaret Barr did for me, ask you what level of challenge you’d like from them as a coach during the sessions. Contracting is a vital first step in the relationship, to ensure that both parties understand and consent to the style and methods of the following conversations.

  1. Prepare for the conversation (but don’t over-prepare)

Your coach will likely ask what’s on your mind, or what you’d like to talk about today. You know it’s coming, so do you need to have a topic in mind? Of course, it’s worth thinking about your coaching session before it begins – with any luck, you’ll be looking forward to it! As a coachee, I have walked into a session feeling sure of the challenge that I’d like to tackle that day. Then, a few questions later, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve found something more pressing, important, or inspiring. How does my coach do that?! The point is, it’s worth being flexible about the avenues that your mind will open up during the conversation. Therefore, I’d recommend thinking about your session in advance and preparing a few possible ideas, while being open to the dynamic nature of the conversation and your own thoughts.

  1. Utilise powerful thinking beyond the coaching sessions

While a coach’s skilled questioning is difficult to emulate when you are alone, you should begin to use what you gain from coaching conversations to, in essence, coach yourself. For example, if you recognise that your coach uses the GROW model, you can begin to apply similar processes to a problem you are thinking through. We often act on the first option that we think of, but if you coach yourself, you’ll push harder for 3,4,5 options before you commit to the best approach. Coaching conversations are energetic and empowering, but there’s no reason to confine your learning and thinking to that occasion.

  1. Give your coach feedback

A good coach is keen to evaluate their own performance, and whether or not the style of coaching they use with you is helping you to maximise your potential. They will seek feedback and act on it, for your benefit. It’s important that the coachee responds to this request for evaluation and lets their coach know what’s working, and what they’d like more of.

  1. Hold yourself accountable

Most coaching conversations will end with some tangible actions that the coachee can implement to begin to achieve their goals. As a coachee, you will have expended much energy and thinking on your chosen next steps, with a sense of optimism as you transition from the conversation into implementation. It’s vital that, at this point, you bottle your enthusiasm, hold yourself accountable, and work hard to achieve your goals. Sure, you will likely bring these actions to your next coaching conversation, but it isn’t about your coach holding you to account. What matters is how you capitalise on your intense thinking and transform that into actions and habits that will truly help you to take steps forward.

  1. Consider using a journal to record your experience

I’m not necessarily advocating detailed in-meeting notes, as this can hamper the conversation. But I’d encourage a coachee to begin making notes about the sessions – the ideas they came up with, their next steps, what worked well, etc. As I’ve said already, coaching conversations often evoke ideas and thoughts that haven’t existed until that moment; recording them and revisiting these notes can be a good way to reflect, and to recapture the magic of that session, so that you can carry this energy into the following days and weeks of implementation.

  1. Be honest if it’s not working out and request a change of coach.

It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, but not all coaching relationships work out. This could be down to a difference of styles, or perhaps just a lack of chemistry, which means the trust and rapport don’t build to a productive level. Either way, if it’s not working, it’s best for both parties if you change and find a match that works better.

  1. Think about training to become a coach

Hopefully after making the most of your time as a coachee, you will have enjoyed the wonders of coaching. You will have felt the weight lift from your shoulders as you become more empowered to achieve your goals and set new, ambitious targets. Perhaps, dare I say, you will have the desire to become a coach yourself, and to help others maximise their potential in the same way that you have started to.

Thank you for reading


The Coach’s Guide to Teaching, by Doug Lemov

Why I read it 

I’ve read Teach Like a Champion many times, although for whatever reason haven’t written a blog post about its brilliance! Doug Lemov is an astute thinker, has invested thousands of hours into what he researches and writes about, and brings precision and clarity to his work. I was delighted to attend a football match with Doug and Joe Kirby recently, and I can confirm that Doug is as humble, curious, and intelligent as he comes across in interviews and his books.  Despite this book focusing on helping sports coaches to understand teaching and learning better, I knew it would be packed full of insights for any profession.

In summary

The beauty of a book that teaches coaches about teaching, is that Lemov takes on the mammoth challenge of distilling the hugely complex array of teaching strategies and research into something fairly concise and navigable. He covers all manner of evidence-informed practice, from spaced learning to giving feedback.

The book is packed full of quotes from experts, sporting and teaching analogies, and a lovely prose style that is clean and accessible, especially amidst the technical aspects of the content. I should mention that the layout, colour scheme, and illustrations (by Oliver Caviglioli) are also fantastic.

The Coach’s Guide to Teaching was written primarily for sports coaches to better understand how to teach their players. But, it made me, a teacher, even more enthusiastic about my job, and just a little curious to see how good a coach I’d become!

Key takeaways

Every page of this book has a ‘takeaway’, so I’ll summarise a few of my favourite chapters, instead!

  1. Building culture – I was so pleased to see a chapter dedicated to this topic. Daniel Coyle (author of Culture Code) is quoted at length, and Lemov states that ‘culture is built, sustained and transmitted in a series of small moments’, and in sustaining our focus on what is important. The chapter has many insights about how we build a sense of purpose and culture that empowers everyone to be their best. There are also many anecdotes and examples of dialogue one could employ to turn an interaction into a positive, impactful one that aligns with the organisation’s culture.
  2. Knowledge, curriculum, and shared vocabulary – one of the key tenets of the book is that coaching isn’t just about motivation and culture – knowledge and curriculum play a huge role in building a successful team. Lemov provides models for how to build curricula for a variety of contexts. But the part I liked the most was the section on shared vocabulary. You’ll know from Teach Like a Champion that Doug is a big believer in naming techniques in order to streamline communication and add clarity to conversations that can become technical and complex. This is a vital part of the book for any coach or teacher.
  3. Giving feedback – Feedback is a nuanced area of teaching, and Doug does a brilliant job in tailoring it to a sports-coach audience; in turn, I learnt a lot from these sporting analogies. One coach speaks of finding it difficult to improve the players who don’t want to listen or learn, and Lemov discusses how a broader culture of trust and strong relationships are the bedrock of giving everyday feedback to improve performance. The chapter progresses to cover many fine points of feedback, such as positively framing it, critiquing actions not people, and being precise.

Favourite quote

Throughout The Coach’s Guide to Teaching, Lemov includes quotations from sports players, coaches, teaching experts, and cognitive scientists. Here are a few of my favourites:

Wayne Smith: ‘a lot of people say how creative the All Blacks are or how much flair there is, but creativity is just practice that’s camouflaged.’

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark: ‘Any methodology that does not increase the efficiency with which relevant information is stored in, or retrieved from long-term memory, is likely to be ineffective.’

Jeremy Denk: ‘While the teacher is trying to discover what isn’t working, the student is in some way trying to elude discovery, disguising weaknesses in order to seem better than they are.’

Favourite moment

At the beginning of the book, Lemov cites a moment when, as he was about to present to some of baseball’s most learned and successful coaches, he had doubts. His opening gambit was to show a video of the brilliant maths teacher Denarius, teaching a lesson in his school; he would then ask the coaches what they noticed. But at the last minute, he worried that these elite sports coaches would be dismissive of a classroom teacher in action.

But, Doug rolled the clip, and then posed the question. And then waited.

And then one of the most well-known coaches in the league spoke up. ‘He’s teaching everybody. Everybody.’

And then the room came to life with feedback and discussion.

This story illustrates the universal features of teaching, coaching, interacting, and bringing out the best of those you are leading. And that’s what this book is all about – whether you are a coach, teacher, or something entirely different, the energy and passion combined with the technical expertise will provide many insights.

Read this if…

You are a teacher looking to engage with the key characteristics of effective teaching, learning, and organisational culture.

You are a coach!

Support bookshops and buy it here

6 ways to start your coaching journey

In 2019-20, I lead a staff wellbeing research project, which aimed to explore evidence-based approaches to wellbeing in schools. This culminated in the Biscuits at Breaktime blog, an article in Impact, and, unfortunately, some cancelled primary research when COVID hit. My colleague, Rachel, and I read a lot about Self Determination Theory (SDT), a psychological needs model that really spoke to us; through that lens, coaching kept being cited in various studies as a brilliant way to address a teacher’s autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

But, coaching? Isn’t that basically mentoring? Don’t I do that anyway? Those were the questions that sprang to mind; I was one of the uninitiated, swept along in the conflation of mentoring and coaching. And so began my coaching journey, which is still in its infancy.

What has followed is 18 months of simply the best professional development I have had. Becoming a coach, and being coached, has taught me an incredible amount about leadership, myself, and the power of a trusting, coaching relationship. If you are thinking of becoming a coach, please read on and discover my top tips for getting started.

  1. Prepare the ground – reading, asking, watching

Due to all of the fuss in the academic papers that we read, I decided to do some reading of my own. I started with Coaching for Performance, by Sir John Whitmore. This was probably a bit much for a first-time coach in the making. I understood the premise, but the book alone was unable to give me the feeling of being coached (I’ve since delved back into it for many coaching lessons!). I decided to watch some coaching videos on YouTube, keen to observe how both parties interacted, and if the process was as empowering as it claimed – and if it really did ‘unlock potential’ in the coachee.

My interest was piqued, firstly on an intellectual level, and now on an emotional one. I had almost ‘felt’ coaching. At this point, I did two things. Firstly, I coached myself with a list of coaching questions; this undoubtedly helped me work through a few personal and professional challenges, but, of course, it lacked the energy of relationship and trust that I would later find from a coach. My second move was to celebrate wildly once I’d seen that leadership hero, Andy Buck, had released a book about his own model of coaching: BASIC Coaching. I devoured the book quickly, and enrolled onto the online course. I’ll detail that more in tip 3, but ultimately my advice here is to immerse yourself in coaching in a few different ways. Read, watch, question, engage with a variety of coaches, models, and styles.

2. Get a coach

This sounds obvious, but its importance cannot be overestimated. I recommend that everyone has a coach, even if you don’t want to become one yourself. As a trainee coach, though, having a coach has a few benefits. The most obvious is that once you have been a coachee, you can empathise with the position: the trust you have in your coach is paramount, the vulnerability you feel as you think or verbalise previously untapped ideas, or the other different emotions you encounter throughout the process.

Having a coach also helps you to see how it’s done – a model example of how to get the most out of your coachee, but also how to apply those nuanced techniques such as summarising, replaying, etc.

3. Invest in your initial development

The first course I did was Andy Buck’s BASIC Online course, which was informative and engaging. He spoke with passion and clarity, and it complemented the book really well. I had to coach someone and send it in for assessment at the end, too, which meant that I did 4-5 hours of coaching during the course.

After this, I did a coaching course in my Multi Academy Trust, and, having loved that, I signed up to Growth Coaching International’s Accredited Coaching Program. This was in my top 3 professional decisions ever made. GCI are international coaching experts who specialise in coaching for education. The online course, which ran for six months and was lead by Christian van Nieuwerburgh and John Campbell, involved colleagues from Europe, South Africa, the USA, and Australia. We attended live sessions as a large cohort, accessed weekly modules on the online training platform, watched many coaching exemplar videos, kept a reflective journal, and had to discuss coaching matters with our fellow delegates on the online portal. Best of all, though, was how we were split into small groups for a series of weeks; during this time, we coached each other, listened, gave feedback, and became firm friends. We got countless hours both being coached and coaching, in addition to watching other coaches. Finally, at the end of the course, we were given two coaching sessions by one of GCI’s expert coaches – a wonderful way to consider how we would take coaching forward into our careers. My coach was Margaret Barr, who taught me a huge amount about how to combine humility, warmth, challenge, and professionalism as a coach.

I don’t have shares in GCI, but I do advocate significant investment in your development as a coach. Coaching is a layered, intricate practice and it’s easy to fall into bad habits or to forget about some of the nuanced approaches that take a bit of extra work. Your first 6-12 months as a coach is vital, and is worthy of your time and effort.

4. Practise

Again, at the risk of sounding obvious, you need to coach regularly and keep trying things out. Once my GCI course finished, I decided I would offer my services as a coach (with no charge), so that I had regular practice to complement the reading that I carried on doing. At present, I coach two people within my school, and the rest I met on Twitter! They include an Occupational Therapist, and three teachers. I love working with my coachees and feel that I learn more from the sessions than they do!

5. Find a network

After we finished the GCI course, one of the groups who I spent a number of weeks with agreed to keep in touch. In December, we are going to meet via Zoom and discuss our coaching experiences in the autumn term. This is incredibly exciting! A group of learners coming together to reflect, swap stories, and talk about our future coaching journeys.

Within this group, I’ve also begun a reciprocal coaching relationship with one of my colleagues. We zoom once a half term and coach each other during the meeting. This relationship is one of collegiality and trust, and means we can practice together and then offer honest and constructive feedback at the end. There are other ways to engage in professional networks, of course, such as joining an association like the Association for Coaching, or signing up to a group like CollectivEd, who do great work.

6. Keep developing

After nearly two years, and many hours of coaching, I am still a novice. Coaching, despite one of my friends describing it in jest as ‘asking questions without starting with the word ‘why’’, is a complex process and requires dedication and humility to keep focused on how we can improve.

When you work with a coachee, it quickly becomes obvious that the conversation can have a huge impact on their professional choices, and therefore their emotions, wellbeing, productivity, and so much more. The person you are coaching is worthy of as much investment in your continued development as you can muster.

This might take the form of reading, training, practising, and being involved in professional networks. But mostly it involves identifying as someone who is always looking to improve their coaching.

See the coaching section of my Pocket Library to see my favourite coaching books so far!

I will continue to post about coaching as time goes on. I hope this post was a useful introduction into the six steps I took to become a passionate, developing novice coach.

Please ask me any questions or share your coaching journey!



Leading assemblies: nostalgia and lessons

Today, as I drove down to East Wittering for my half term break, I kept getting visual flashes of standing in front of a room, leading a community of students and staff in an assembly. One of my favourite aspects of the job. Actually, my favourite. Perhaps I miss being a Head of Sixth Form, when I was able to lead a weekly assembly. Or perhaps my head turns towards this subject after a few weeks of remote-assemblies due to a rise in COVID cases at school. Whatever the reason for these visions, after almost two years without regular communal time, I needed to reflect on the power of an assembly, and what I’ve learnt along the way.

Even as I begin to write this blog, memories from over a decade of assemblies continue to come flooding back. The moments where I stared out at a sea of indifferent faces in my earlier attempts, when I over planned and under delivered. Those moments of emotion coursing through my veins as I shared something personal, or a piece of literature or film that moved me. I have a Band of Brothers assembly that I struggle to get through. Don’t even get me started on when I talk about Lion. But what I remember mostly, is connecting with a room full of people, and feeling the tangible buzz that what I just said helped to build us as a team. A culture. A united group on a wonderful journey of community and learning.

Without wishing to become too nostalgic, here are some lessons I l have learnt along the way:

Build culture and values

When you are a head of year or similar, leading an assembly is a chance to create and sustain your team. You must decide which values and messages are key at the beginning of the year, and your assembly is a vehicle to over communicate them, celebrate them, and realign them. Never underestimate the effect of a respected adult standing in front of young people and telling them what really matters to them – what this community is aspiring to, and how it will achieve this. You can keep going back to your year group’s, or school’s, mission for that year. In my head, each assembly takes another step towards every person in the room becoming confident with your overarching message. Confidence breeds conversation. Conversation and discussion creates the shared language and culture to which you aspire.

Refer back to the assembly

Once you have set out your stall in an assembly, the work has just begun. It is time to circulate during the school day, linking back to the content and questioning students about it. How can they see those themes or ideas in everyday life, not just in a quiet assembly hall on a Monday morning? Like good retrieval practice, it is important to keep quizzing and discussing the assembly itself, so that it becomes an important and memorable part of the week. Anything that gets mentioned once for 15 minutes in the week lacks prominence.

Of course, this is an opportunity to listen, too. In the first instance, they listened, you talked. The rest of the week is a chance to ask them about their own views or experiences.

Referring back to the assembly should also feed into a focus for the week, perhaps a form time activity or pastoral curriculum link. It also forms an important part of day-to-day student conversations regarding their choices. ‘It’s so fantastic that you chose to ______ after our assembly this week, I really value how you’ve exemplified…’. Or, ‘we agreed in assembly this week that as a year group, we are kind and loving. I know you buy into that, but it hasn’t worked out in your decision this time. So, let’s…..’.

Long-term continuity

Over the course of the year, you can build on previous assemblies. One year, I was writing a novel. I told the Sixth Form in September what I was doing, and what I hoped to achieve. I told them that I was nervous and that there would be many bumps in the road. That in six months time, I might not be finished, but my daily habits would have helped me get a lot closer. Once a month, I updated them. Word count update. Emotional update! Goal update. As the year went on, this became a hot topic of conversation, but was also a topic that mirrored their studies. For them it was two years of academic endurance where many steps built up to a final goal. Mine was the same – we journeyed and shared together.

Another long-term project I like to set out in assemblies is the use of Kiva, a micro-loan website that helps people from around the world secure loans for their businesses or education. It’s a wonderful tool that focuses on sustainable development instead of one-off donations. I usually set out what Kiva is at the start of the year, and we vote which of 3 causes we will send a loan to (I secretly loan to all 3). Then, throughout the year, we lend to more causes, and check in on those who have used our money already. The satisfaction that students get when you show them that $1.50 of your loan has been repaid because the loanee’s business is growing and succeeding, is just fantastic. It’s important to show students that we see projects through, that things matter for the medium and the long term.

Share vulnerability

As authority figures in a school, our role is to set values and rules, and to uphold them. An assembly is an excellent opportunity to share who you are and any pertinent vulnerabilities that may help build rapport or relatability. At certain moments, I like to talk about how I was adopted. I want the students to understand the struggle I faced with my identity as a teenager, not to gain their sympathy but to share the message that each one of us carries their own insecurities and difficulties – often unbeknown to everyone else that walks through the school gates each morning. This is a key factor in building empathy among a cohort. We all have our stuff, and I’ll get us started.

If an assembly leader can share vulnerability, they model it to the children. It’s okay to admit a ‘weakness’ or emotion. It opens doors. Conversations. Sharing in the future. It means when you are counselling students, they understand that you are an open and authentic person.

The key is to take your piece of vulnerability and to make a link to relate to everyone in the room. If I talk about how I skived college to read Oscar Wilde and Jack Kerouac during my A-Levels (true story) because I was overwhelmed by parental divorce and friendship issues, I can then discuss this with them to reflect on how they cope with difficult moments. What is their tendency? Do they make better decisions than I did? How can they improve on my choices? These moments should be transferable and provide lessons learnt!

Exposure and education

Assemblies, are, of course, a brilliant way to expose students to values, experiences, and cultural capital. Reading James Handscombe’s A School Built on Ethos, I was inspired by how many poems, novels, speeches and moments in history had been discussed in his school. What you speak about in assembly will be noted as important to your students. This is why we must plan carefully and think about inclusion, diversity, and cultural references. I was, earlier in my career, given some feedback that I talked a lot about the wisdom of white, male sports coaches. There was nothing sinister in that feedback, and what I received was that I need to appeal to the audience in front of me by broadening their horizons– it’s not enough to educate the children about what they already know or are exposed to. That was a valuable lesson for my future planning.

Sincerity is the greatest fuel

Some assembly leads spend a long time working on the visuals behind their assembly: PowerPoint, videos, etc. But visuals are no match for the authentic gaze of a sincere speaker. Someone speaking from their heart, whose every glance towards the audience, every connection made, is an opportunity to share their soul and sincerity with those in the room. This is why it’s so important to speak humbly and sincerely, to engage with topics that light your fires; anything artificial, such as a borrowed idea from someone else, will fall flat.

While I miss the volume of assemblies that I used to lead, I know I have a few more in my locker. It took years for me to feel confident of my delivery, and happy with my planning. I’d love to discuss assemblies with others – one of the brightest points of every week.

Hopefully these reflections will resonate with others. Happy assembling!


Making The Leap, by Dr Jill Berry

Why I read it 

Aside from the fact that Dr Jill Berry is, I believe the term to be, a legend of the game, I actually won this in a prize draw at the Southern Rocks conference in 2018. I was an Assistant Headteacher in charge of Learning and Teaching, and had brought members of my L&T Group with me for what was a brilliant day of learning and fun – in fact, I met a few members of Team English and the delightful Doug Wise. At the time, I laughed aloud when I won Making The Leap – it seemed laughable to me that I would even consider becoming a headteacher, let alone be good enough to become one. As a Deputy Head now, I’m not making the leap, but I am interested in the wisdom and experience of Jill Berry!

In summary

Jill outlines the process of becoming a headteacher: understanding when you are ready, choosing a school, the application process, the transition, the opening months in post, and then becoming established. Jill applies her own wisdom and experience as a headteacher, but, just as usefully, shares her doctoral research. The six participants in her study, who were making the move from Deputy to Head, are featured throughout the book, adding multiple perspectives and insights.

As I read the book, I quickly realised that almost all of the pearls of wisdom could be applied to preparing for, and beginning, any professional role. The takeaways below are aimed to be transferable so that readers can apply to their own role or aspirations.

Key takeaways

  1. Start with why – sometimes we are taken by the current when it comes to our career – circumstance doesn’t always match intention. Berry encourages middle leaders to think about why they are looking to step up. Such questions include: ‘what do they believe the new level of responsibility will enable them to achieve, and how will that be more rewarding and fulfilling than their current role?’ Or, ‘what is appealing about the extended sphere of influence accorded by the position to which they aspire?’.
  2. Inheriting a role vs inhabiting a role – Berry dedicates a chapter to managing the ‘lead in’ period. There are many practical ideas, here, but chief among them is how we ‘inherit a role’, for example in the way we inherit a culture and context;the question is, how much do we change a culture, and how much will the existing culture change us? This idea of reciprocal socialisation is fascinating to consider, as we work out how we both inherit and inhabit this new role.
  3. The perfect leader? – the perfect form and method of leadership builds in your mind during the course of your career, but this may change over time. The author suggests that, in post, there is the leader you most want to be, and the leader the school requires you to be at that stage.It will take careful consideration at each step to decide how to apply both values and pragmatism to your given context.
  4. Sustainability is the key – while the book is a celebration of moving into headship, it also warns about how to give yourself the best chance of achieving the right balance. From finding a mentor or coach, to contributing to education beyond your school, or focusing on gratitude among the busy days, Berry provides a range of ideas to help heads in what is such a demanding role.

Favourite quote

‘In my opinion, being a head is not dramatically different in nature from being an effective head of department, the leader of a pastoral team, or a deputy head. Leadership is both simple and complex. It is simply about getting the best from all the individuals within the teams for which you are responsible, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’

Favourite moment

As Sam Strickland attests, you cannot truly know the role of a Headteacher until you do the job. Berry calls one section ‘Continuing to build the bridge as you walk over it’, citing many examples where research participants faced unexpected events in the early part of their Headship, such as a bereavement in the school community in the opening weeks of September.

Why is this my favourite moment? I found the honesty of Jill and her participants truly refreshing. We are all muddling along, doing our best, and trying to apply our knowledge, experience and instincts for the benefit of those we work with. The vulnerability shared here, that even headteachers feel imposter syndrome and regularly deal with situations they feel are beyond them, was humbling and a real motivator to keep challenging oneself.

Read this if…

You are considering moving into another professional role – it doesn’t have to be headship

You are a Deputy Headteacher who is thinking about ‘making the leap’!

Buy the book here