“The Art of Effective Teamwork”

Managing Schools Today May 2008

THE ART OF EFFECTIVE TEAMWORK

Geoff Moss and Elizabeth Floyer

A team exists for a purpose, its members work towards a common goal or outcome. In the school context that may be, for example, a subject department or faculty developing a bank of differentiated teaching activities for aspects of that curriculum, or translating its school discipline policy into a strategic behaviour plan for that particular department. In the teaching world the products of teams are likely to be realised as plans and strategies for individual teachers to put into operation. The management of teams to develop effective plans and strategies and the leadership of individuals to develop their professional skills, however, will require similar leadership skills.

In the last two articles in this series we have written about the ways that managers could improve the quality of leadership they provide to those who directly report to them.  When applying Situational Leadership II within the context of Performance Management we described how the first undertaking for managers is to assess the development level of each of their direct reports on each of the major tasks they are expected to perform. The next step is to select the matching leadership style to meet the needs of the direct report at this stage. In our next article we will describe how leader and direct report may best partner-up in order to meet their goals within the context of a school’s typical management system.

However the reality is that most managers’ meet with their direct reports as a group. It is variously estimated that managers can spend up to 80% of their time attending meetings. Is the purpose of these meetings clear to all? Is the process of conducting them effective? For those who have to lead them these sorts of meetings can take up a large proportion of management time, particularly as most school managers are part-time in that role, spending most of their day as teachers. Making best use of that management time then is even more important. But just as many reviews and surveys reveal that meetings are the predominant means of communication between manager and staff, these same studies often reveal that meetings are perceived by those who attend them as costly, unproductive and dissatisfying. [1] This is particularly relevant to many aspects of school management, where it is often a case of “management by meetings”.

In most schools there will be time allotted for senior management meetings with the head teacher, for curriculum team meetings with the heads of department, for year tutor meetings and so on. Most such meetings are composed of groups of people, rather than one to one. They are often called “team meetings” but within many schools they function as such in name only. In reality they are gatherings of work groups.  We define a team as two or more people who come together for a common purpose and are mutually accountable for results. There is a difference between a team and a group. Often work groups are called teams without developing a common purpose and shared accountability. A collection of individuals working on the same task does not necessarily make a team. However they may have the potential to become a high performing team once they clarify their purposes and values, strategies and accountabilities.

We mostly see ‘teams’ developing out of working parties that have been assembled for a specific purpose and a limited time period. Sometimes those working parties never become truly teams because they have not received the appropriate style of leadership for the development stage they were at.  Sometimes departmental groups with a more or less permanent existence will become teams because they have either helped themselves or been helped to work through the developmental stages of team building.

These developmental stages are well documented and described. The history of research on team processes has consistently demonstrated that, whatever their core function or purpose, teams develop through four or five stages.  Most managers will be familiar with the four steps of  “forming, storming, norming and performing” that succinctly describe the changing key issues of teams at each stage of development. [2]  A further survey of these transitions within the life cycle of a group describes five stages – an orientation stage when the group is first meeting and people are getting to know the task and each other, a subsequent dissatisfaction stage when personal differences emerge and dominate the group process, before an integration stage when group cohesion develops and people learn to work together. This paves the way for the production stage when work is being done more effectively and, if there is a finite goal for the team, once achieved then a fifth stage of termination. [3]

In our schools those charged with the task of team leader will have experienced these stages without necessarily recognising them, or appreciating that each stage needs a particular style of leadership to move the team forward. In many schools the team gets stuck at one stage – usually the dissatisfaction or storming stage – and the leader may then learn to avoid the use of team meetings. While for teachers the challenge of managing the behaviour of some classes can tax their resources and resolve, those demands can pall into insignificance when, in role as a manager, they have to face a stormy group of teachers!

Using the framework of Situational Leadership II we can undertake the same sort of diagnosis of development level with teams as we can individuals, and flexibly apply the necessary team leadership style.[4]  We see that the team’s productivity or competence and its morale or commitment in performing its tasks follows a similar pattern of stages. In order to provide the appropriate leadership style for the team, to meet its needs and to guide it successfully to a point of positive productivity, the leader needs first to diagnose its stage of team development.

Diagnosing the team development stage allows us to select a leadership style that matches the team’s needs at this point. As we saw in previous articles, Situational Leadership II gives us a way of modulating leadership style through a combination of two elements – directing and supporting.

Directive behaviours with teams include organising, educating, focusing and structuring. When people first come together as a team they want to know how it will be organised. They may need information about the task, instruction in how the tasks will be undertaken, understanding about how to work together. They will want to know about the focus of the team – where does it prioritise its efforts. If they have not worked together before they will want guidance about how the team will be structured – clarification of roles, who reports to whom, who does what, what responsibilities each team member has for the task and towards each other. The key purpose of directive behaviours is to develop competency among team members about how to manage tasks and work effectively with each other.

Supportive behaviours with teams include praising, involving, listening and encouraging. In order to develop team cohesion people will, at various times, need to be involved in decision-making, encouraged to participate, acknowledged for their efforts, valued for their differing skills and contributions, and be able to share leadership when appropriate. Creating harmonious teams is about encouraging some to step forward and some to step back, and eventually getting everyone to be aware of their own responsibilities to make the team work. The key purpose of supportive behaviours is to develop commitment among team members, to be motivated to achieve goals and to have confidence in each other.

Team Development Stages

TDS 1 : Orientation stage – When teams are first formed, unless the members have been coerced, we would expect that individuals, although new to the situation, would be mostly keen to be on the team. Along with this enthusiasm they might also come along with unrealistic expectations of what the team might immediately be able to accomplish. Also at this stage the ways of working together have yet to be determined. Team members will be unclear about norms, roles, goals, and timelines. This will give rise to some uncertainty and team members are likely to look to the team leader for guidance early on. So, at this orientation stage, there is likely to be a high dependence on a leadership figure to provide purpose and direction to the team.

A directing leadership style is needed. More guidance and structure is required to provide the information for the team to get underway with its tasks. The communication will tend to be more one-way because the team leader has the job of explaining and clarifying the team’s tasks and of establishing roles and routines. Although at this stage it may seem unnecessary, establishing some sort of ‘team charter’ may prove useful later. A team charter would spell out the team’s purpose, its goals and means of achieving them – the roles that each person has, the ways we will communicate with each other. In a sense they are the ‘ground rules’ for how we will work as a team.

TDS 2 : Dissatisfaction stage – Typically, as the team members get some experience of working together, they may suffer a drop in morale as they experience a discrepancy between their initial hopes and expectations with the reality in practice. They may find that they are accomplishing far less than anticipated because of interpersonal differences. Note, too, that when people have been pressed into teams this stage is where they are more likely to start out. The challenge of the task is sometimes less than the challenge of working together. Differences of opinion and different ways of working have by now emerged – but not been resolved. Subgroups may form within the team, alliances and enmities may grow! It may not be as severe a scene as this – but at this stage the issues for the leader that emerge are not just to do with the task but also with the people. At this dissatisfaction stage the leader will continue to provide direction (task-focus) but now also needs to provide high levels of support (person-focus).

So at team development stage 2 a coaching leadership style will be needed. Team members need encouragement and reassurance as well as skill development and strategies for co-operative working. Often it will be necessary to restate the team’s purpose, confirm its values, remind everyone of its ‘ground rules’. This is where having a team charter would help to remind people of their roles and responsibilities in making the team work. To promote the commitment of team members they need more involvement in the decision-making at this stage. So the leader needs to allow for more two-way communication. Recognising people’s accomplishments to date and giving feedback on progress may reassure people that this team is not just a waste of time. But also difficult interpersonal issues must not be avoided. The leader needs to open up honest and responsible discussion about emotional blocks to progress, cliques and conflicts, and work on their resolution if the team are to feel confident with one another. It may often be, at this stage, that unrecognised personality differences between team members are creating discord. So, at this point in a team’s development, we may often explore these personality factors through the use of Myers-Briggs Type Inventory or Jung Personality Inventory. Helping team members to see how differences of personality give rise to differences of approach when tackling tasks or working co-operatively can often eliminate negative interpersonal relationships at this stage, and instead allow team members to value those differences.

TDS 3 : Integration stage – As the team begins to develop its ways of working together, of establishing the norms of team behaviour, then productivity begins to improve. Moderate to high productivity, but also variable morale, will characterise a team at the integration stage. Increased clarity about team goals and purpose and improved commitment to team values and norms allows for greater task accomplishment along with the development of interpersonal skills. We would see in teams at this stage of development a growing sense of mutual trust, and probably a willingness to share the leadership role. At this stage team members are able to appreciate the differences that exist between each other, and are ready to see the strengths in these differences. Sowhen teams are becoming more established we may make use of the Belbin Team Roles Inventory to identify different people’s strengths and propensities for different team roles. We can consider the value of different ways of working within a team, in order to make it a more productive team. However because the newly won feelings of trust will still be fragile, people will tend to avoid airing disagreements with one another. They steer away from healthy conflict for fear of rocking the boat. Actually this reluctance to deal with conflict can slow progress and lead to less effective decision making.

Leadership style now focuses more on the person than the task aspects of the team. It is a more supportive style, less directive. Leaders must now encourage the communication of healthy disagreement, to strive for more openness about differences, to overcome the fear that disagreement will lead to unhealthy conflict. The team may still need some reliance on explicit norms of behaviour to structure these discussions at this stage, but as confidence and trust in each other continues to grow then less and less significance is given to these formal checks and balances.

TDS 4 : Production stage – When the team has finally reached this stage in its development then both productivity and morale are high. Team members share a sense of pride being part of a high performing team. Now the primary focus is on developing and maintaining that performance. Communication between team members is open and easy. Roles that people play within the team are respected, routines for working together are well established, and relationships are positive and trusting. There is also less reliance upon structure and set procedures to ensure that things are orderly and run smoothly. More likely now, the team can decide what is needed as the task progresses.

The leadership role of the team manager now seems almost unnecessary. The style of the manager will be mostly hands-off, allowing the team to take more charge of its own performance. Leadership is more of a shared activity. The team will benefit from proper recognition of its achievements but it doesn’t require much in the way of external motivation to maintain its morale.  The appropriate leadership style, in Situational Leadership II terms, will be a delegating style.

Groups of co-workers become high performing teams as the result of many factors. Important among these is to have a clear team purpose and values, attainable goals, mutual accountability for results, trust and team cohesion. Teams can develop their effectiveness through the right sort of leadership, and thus accomplish goals that would be impossible to achieve individually.  In our schools those charged with the task of leading teams will ultimately make their own jobs easier by transforming an unfocussed and dispirited work group into an effective team through the process we have described. It will initially demand more effort, more conscious planning, more strategic thinking. The steps we have described in this article provide the structure for making it so.  

References

[1] Romano N C, Nunamaker J F (2001) Meeting Analysis : findings from research and practice Proceedings of the International Conference on Systems Sciences

[2] Tuckman B (1964) Developmental Sequence in Small Groups Psychological Bulletin

[3] Lacoursiere R B (1980) The Life Cycle of Groups : Group Development Stage Theory Human Sciences Press, New York

[4] Blanchard K. et al. (2000) Situational Leadership® II San Diego, USA

[5] Clark D R (2004) Team Development Survey retrieved from http://nwlink.com~donclark/leader/teamsuv.html

Geoff Moss and Elizabeth Floyer are accredited by the Blanchard organisation to provide training and consultancy in Situational Leadership® II. They are currently engaged on a number of projects with schools in the UK applying the method to facilitate Performance Management and also as a strategy for Situational Teaching in the classroom.  www.behaviour-learning.com   tel: 0870 241 8262