A roomful of educators attentively participated in a professional development session on Effective Team Building led by Wellington Management at the NonProfit Center on Tuesday, April 10th. Rebecca Walker and Linda Platt, the duo from Wellington running the session, opened with a brief but powerful introductory activity. Everybody was asked to find somebody in the room whom they did not know, and introduce themselves to that person. After a few minutes of introductions, the group was called to order, and everyone was asked to introduce themselves to the same person again, but this time, to do so by beginning with the phrase, “If you really knew me well, you’d know…”
Entering into the session with such an activity established a strong group norm for participants to open up and feel comfortable with one another. The team from Wellington soon made their purpose for opening the session in such a way clear: findings from Google’s Project Aristotle, and in-depth study of what makes some teams more effective than others, found that the only significant indicator of a team’s success was the team norms that they chose to observe collectively. As Rebecca remarked in her presentation, “The right norms can raise a group’s collective intelligence, while the wrong norms can hobble a team.”
This information is contrary to the prevailing theory for team success of the past: that the collection of the best individuals must, when put together, create the best team. It turns out though that this is simply not true. Increasingly, teamwork is essential to the workplace, with the average person spending almost seventy-five percent of their time engaged in some form of communication. And this kind of teamwork is difficult. Rebecca made the analogy of a pick-up basketball team: “You have to get together, get it working, and get on with it.” In the kind of teaming environment that most people see in the workplace, and especially the out-of-school time education space, focusing on the assets of isolated individuals as opposed to the group as a whole is most often not possible, not relevant, and most importantly, not effective.
What is effective, as uncovered by Project Aristotle, is the pair of critical normas that were observed in all of the teams studied who achieved the highest level of efficacy in their work. These two norms are conversational turn-taking, or equality in contribution, and above-average social sensitivity, or empathy. Together these two norms help teams function with a high level of “psychological safety.” Psychological safety is defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing themselves, and where nobody will be punished, ridiculed, or reprimanded for doing so. Teams that can create this kind of environment through their group norms were found to be much more effective than those who were not.
It is important, though, to caution against focusing solely on psychological safety at the cost of actual production of deliverables. This balance is what Rebecca referred to as the battle between “software and hardware.” It feels great to have all the software, but without the hardware, the team is still not effective. The balance comes in having high psychological safety while maintaining high accountability in the work. Not enough of either or both of these can and will drag a team into a place that will have a very difficult time reaching its potential. Low psychological safety paired with low accountability leads to apathy, low psychological safety with high accountability leads to anxiety, and high psychological safety with low accountability leads to a plateau of comfort without production. However, if a team is able to cultivate both at high levels, they can function in a productive learning environment — one that is occupied by the most effective teams already.
To close the training, Wellington’s session leaders left participants with strategies to advance teaming skills both within existing groups as well as on the individual level. Within existing teams, the main theme of investment in team norms was the primary conclusion of the meeting, and had three actionable facets of it:
- Identify meaningful team norms
- Hold discussions to build strong agreements about those norms
- Call out and hold people accountable for when norms and agreements are broken
There were also three strategies provided for how individuals can improve their teaming skills on their own:
- Increase your self-awareness
- Become an anthropologist; study and try to understand why people act the way they do
- Live by the rule of reciprocity
The session was met with tremendously positive feedback, with some participants even staying behind to take pictures with Rebecca and Linda. One educator in attendance, Neil Jacobs of the 3PointFoundation, commented later in the week that he had in fact run a meeting the following day completely differently based on the material presented at the session, and that because of the shift, the meeting was far more effective.
Boston Beyond would like to thank Rebecca, Linda, and Wellington Management for their excellent work running this event, as well as all of the participants who were able to attend and contribute.