The Art of Teaming With Others

My first nomination for Best 2016 Long Form Journalism piece is in, “What Google Learned In Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” by Charles Duhigg.

Crystal clear and filled to the brim with trenchant insights into why most teams usually flounder. In short, Google researchers found individuals on the most productive teams “spoke in roughly the same proportion” as one another and were skilled at “intuiting how others felt”. Furthermore, the greater a team’s perceived psychological safety, measured by how comfortable team members felt being themselves, the greater that team’s “collective intelligence”.

Take Duhigg’s test:

Imagine you have been invited to join one of two groups.

Team A is composed of people who are all exceptionally smart and successful. When you watch a video of this group working, you see professionals who wait until a topic arises in which they are expert, and then they speak at length, explaining what the group ought to do. When someone makes a side comment, the speaker stops, reminds everyone of the agenda and pushes the meeting back on track. This team is efficient. There is no idle chitchat or long debates. The meeting ends as scheduled and disbands so everyone can get back to their desks.

Team B is different. It’s evenly divided between successful executives and middle managers with few professional accomplishments. Teammates jump in and out of discussions. People interject and complete one another’s thoughts. When a team member abruptly changes the topic, the rest of the group follows him off the agenda. At the end of the meeting, the meeting doesn’t actually end: Everyone sits around to gossip and talk about their lives.

Which group would you rather join?

Here’s the right answer based on the literature that informed the researchers’ work:

. . .you should probably opt for Team B. Team A may be filled with smart people, all optimized for peak individual efficiency. But the group’s norms discourage equal speaking; there are few exchanges of the kind of personal information that lets teammates pick up on what people are feeling or leaving unsaid. There’s a good chance the members of Team A will continue to act like individuals once they come together, and there’s little to suggest that, as a group, they will become more collectively intelligent.

In contrast, on Team B, people may speak over one another, go on tangents and socialize instead of remaining focused on the agenda. The team may seem inefficient to a casual observer. But all the team members speak as much as they need to. They are sensitive to one another’s moods and share personal stories and emotions. While Team B might not contain as many individual stars, the sum will be greater than its parts.

Google’s researchers conclude:

“. . . no one wants to put on a ‘work face’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘psychologically safe,’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.”

These take-aways are equally applicable to most non-work teams. In my experience, a recurring challenge in applying these lessons is team members who dominate discussions often lack self awareness. Even beginning teamwork with an explicit emphasis on the importance of balanced participation sometimes does little to prevent the most loquacious among us from repeatedly dominating discussions. Those most loquacious team members also don’t realize their teammates quickly fatigue, and shortly thereafter, begin tuning them out.

Another challenge in improving teamwork is people have a multitude of negative team experiences as points of reference for every positive one; as a result, they anticipate one or a few people dominating and scant attention being paid to people’s feelings.

That’s why this research deserves a large audience. It not only illuminates why groups often get sideways, but provides a roadmap for improved work and non-work teamwork.

[Thanks FK for the link.]

Every Team is Better and Worse Off Because You’re On It

Atul Gawande, one of my favorite authors, is about to gain a wider audience through this new book that will do very well.

His New Yorker essay, Cowboys and Pit Crews, got me thinking about how we live our lives on a never ending series of teams whether grade school classrooms, athletic teams, art and music based teams, community groups, home owners associations, church councils, families, school faculties, work teams, book clubs, special interest groups, political campaigns, boards of directors, etc.

You would never guess that if your only frame of reference was elementary, secondary, and higher education classrooms in the United States. Students almost always work on things individually and faculty almost always assess students individually. Sure, sometimes students work in small groups, but they’re not taught to be thoughtful observers of small group dynamics. It’s rare that they’re ever asked why some small groups work well and others don’t. Too often, teachers wrongly assume students already know how to be good teammates. As a result, students tend to be clueless about group dynamics.

And since teamwork doesn’t factor into student evaluations, they’re even less self aware of their team-based strengths and weaknesses. They’re hardly ever asked the most basic group process related questions such as, “What do you do well as a team member? What’s most challenging for you when working closely with others? Where could you improve?”

Every person, you included, has specific skills, knowledge, and personal attributes that benefit and hamper all of the teams they are on at any one time. Which of your skills, knowledge, and personal attributes do your team’s often use to positive advantage? And how does your presence on teams sometimes limit their effectiveness? What could you do better as a teammate?

Aren’t sure how to answer those questions? Welcome to the “Almost Everybody” Club. It’s not your fault. Individualism is so pervasive in American life, schools think about students as cowboys  and cowgirls despite the fact they’ll live their lives on pit crew after pit crew.

 

Teaching Teamwork

In May, 2011, Atul Gawande gave an insightful commencement address to Harvard’s Medical School graduates.

He reminded the graduates that the practice of medicine had changed markedly, and that increasingly, the best docs are members of teams.

Gawande pointed out that, “The doctors of former generations lament what medicine has become.”

I’m having my graduate-level teacher certification students read the address. On the copy I’m providing them, I’ve lined out “doctors” and “medicine” and written in “teachers” and “education”.

Here’s Gawande’s primary point:

The core structure of medicine—how health care is organized and practiced—emerged in an era when doctors could hold all the key information patients needed in their heads and manage everything required themselves. One needed only an ethic of hard work, a prescription pad, a secretary, and a hospital willing to serve as one’s workshop, loaning a bed and nurses for a patient’s convalescence, maybe an operating room with a few basic tools. We were craftsmen. We could set the fracture, spin the blood, plate the cultures, administer the antiserum. The nature of the knowledge lent itself to prizing autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency among our highest values, and to designing medicine accordingly. But you can’t hold all the information in your head any longer, and you can’t master all the skills. No one person can work up a patient’s back pain, run the immunoassay, do the physical therapy, protocol the MRI, and direct the treatment of the unexpected cancer found growing in the spine. I don’t even know what it means to “protocol” the MRI.

Today, isn’t it a workplace truism for nearly everyone that “. . . you can’t hold all the information in your head. . . and you can’t master all the skills”?

Gawande adds:

The public’s experience is that we have amazing clinicians and technologies but little consistent sense that they come together to provide an actual system of care, from start to finish, for people. We train, hire, and pay doctors to be cowboys. But it’s pit crews people need.

On my students’ copies, I’ve lined out “doctors” and “people” and substituted “teachers” and “students”.

Gawande acknowledges that medical education fails to teach docs to function like pit crews for patients. The same is true for teacher education.

Too often nursing, medical school, and teacher education faculty wrongly assume that novice nurses, docs, and teachers will naturally, through osmosis, form knowledgeable, skilled, interdependent work teams. Absent intentional team-building curricula, in which case studies would be an integral component, professional apprentices depend upon the modeling of their veteran colleagues, often out-of-step ones pining for old school independence and autonomy.

When in comes to intentionally teaching teamwork, what can and should professional preparation programs do to shift the balance from cowboys to pitcrews? More generally, what can employers do to teach teamwork?

They shouldn’t assume it’s something someone is either born with or not. Effective teamwork can be taught through case studies that illuminate what the best teams do and what commonly trips up most others. And by proactively providing pre-professional students positive examples of excellent teams during their fieldwork.

Happy Interdependence Day

If someone said to me that I could only read one person for the next ten years, Atul Gawande would be among my finalists.

His May 26, 2011 New Yorker essay, Cowboys and Pit Crews, is the transcript of his recent commencement address at Harvard’s Medical School. As always, it’s insightful and important.

Here’s an excerpt:

     The core structure of medicine—how health care is organized and practiced—
emerged in an era when doctors could hold all the key information patients needed in
their heads and manage everything required themselves. One needed only an ethic of hard
work, a prescription pad, a secretary, and a hospital willing to serve as one’s workshop,
loaning a bed and nurses for a patient’s convalescence, maybe an operating room with a
few basic tools. We were craftsmen. We could set the fracture, spin the blood, plate the
cultures, administer the antiserum. The nature of the knowledge lent itself to prizing
autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency among our highest values, and to
designing medicine accordingly. But you can’t hold all the information in your head any
longer, and you can’t master all the skills. No one person can work up a patient’s back
pain, run the immunoassay, do the physical therapy, protocol the MRI, and direct the
treatment of the unexpected cancer found growing in the spine. I don’t even know what it
means to “protocol” the MRI.

     Before Elias Zerhouni became director of the National Institutes of Health, he was
a senior hospital leader at Johns Hopkins, and he calculated how many clinical staff were
involved in the care of their typical hospital patient—how many doctors, nurses, and so
on. In 1970, he found, it was 2.5 full time equivalents. By the end of the 1990s, it was
more than fifteen. The number must be even larger today. Everyone has just a piece of
patient care. We’re all specialists now—even primary care doctors. A structure that 
prioritizes the independence of all those specialists will have enormous difficulty
achieving great care.

The problem according to Gawande is “We train, hire, and pay doctors to be cowboys. But it’s pit crews people need.

In my field, teacher education, we train, hire, and pay teachers to be cowboys. But students need pit crews. Increasingly, the world of work require employees to function as team members.

Older docs, Gawande points out, don’t like the changes because they miss their autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency.

Just like those older docs, I dislike the forced teaming that’s increasingly required of me. For pit crews to work, Gawande argues, “you must cultivate certain skills which are uncommon in practice and not often taught.”

The problem at my workplace is everyone else dislikes the forced teaming at least as much as me. And we’re lacking the skills Gawande alludes to. Given that increasing interdependence is a reality, it behooves us to first identify and then cultivate the “certain skills which are uncommon in practice“. To do that, we can either wait, probably for a really long time, for formal leadership to take the initiative, or we can, as I propose, take the bull by the horns ourselves.

First, a trusting, caring work culture must be created where all the team members are willing to talk openly and honestly about whatever misgivings they have about proposed group projects. Too often some of my colleagues choose not to participate in planning meetings, and then, as soon as the meeting is over, vent to one or two people about the direction of the conversation in the privacy of their offices. The technical term for this is passive-aggressive bullshit.

Another fundamental problem is people commit well in advance to being at certain places at certain times to help the team out in specific ways, only to say they can’t make it once the date draws near. Sometimes they work with the team to reschedule, other times they don’t. When a few people aren’t dependable and don’t pull their weight, conscientious team members become bitter about having to do more than their fair share of the work.

Bitterness builds, trust is eroded, teamwork suffers, and people’s negative associations with teaming harden.

Then the question is whether we should press pause and revisit people’s past frustrations in an effort to get to the bottom of why some people are resentful. Like a troubled couple that refuses to enlist the help of a counselor, the answer is always no, “If we just do the work, people’s frustrations will subside.” But they don’t, instead, they build.

Until trusting, caring communication becomes a group norm, my three team essentials—1) actively participate in team planning; 2) show up when you say you’re going to and do what you’ve committed to; and 3) at least try to have a sense of humor—won’t make a bit of difference.