Editor's Note: Often when we talk about positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), we focus on student behavior — what it looks like, how we can improve it, reward it, discipline it, and report it. What about our role? This is the third in our series taking a closer look at the roles adults play in implementation. Check out the first article exploring implementation fidelity, here, and the second article about creating staff buy-in, here.
My high school had a creek running through the middle of it. The 9th grade field biology teacher took advantage of it and used the creek as an instructional tool. We studied the water flow in the fall versus the winter. We counted nematodes under microscopes. At the end of the term, he had us put together everything we learned into a group project describing the creek’s full ecosystem. I don’t remember much about my group’s final report, but I remember what it was like working with four other people.
Group projects can still be hard for me as an adult. Sometimes, I struggle the way I did in my field biology project team. Where group projects were something I did sometimes in high school, I’m now a full-time team member in my full-time job. Teamwork is how we operate.
Your school is likely no exception.
You have behavior teams and leadership teams, grade level teams and activity teams, planning committees and subcommittees. Team-based decision making is how your school operates. How can you turn those teams into effective decision makers while avoiding the parts about group work that make you want to scream?
What I'm about to tell you feels straight-forward. When you think about, these are things we learned somewhere along the way...maybe even from a certain tall, yellow bird when we were kids.
That’s the great news I want you to remember as you keep reading. So many of these strategies are things you already do as a team. If they aren’t, these are things you know you should do as a team…and the research backs that up.
What Makes a Team Effective?
A team of researchers wanted to know if they could measure a group’s collective smarts the same way psychologists measure someone’s IQ. They took 699 people and divided them into teams of different sizes. Researchers measured each team member’s IQ and then asked teams to do a variety of tasks – from figuring out what to do with a brick, to planning a shopping trip. In the end, teams who did well on one task were more likely to do well on other tasks. Researchers also found a group’s success wasn’t necessarily tied to how smart its membership was. That’s right; this research literally proves the whole actually can be greater than the sum of its parts. If it doesn’t really matter how smart each team member is, what does make a team successful?
Successful teams in this research project had two behaviors in common, and one other attribute which is my personal favorite. First, team members were sensitive to each other’s emotions. They paid attention to more than just what someone said; they noticed how they said it. Second, no one dominated the discussion. Every team member contributed equally. As my colleague, Anne Todd, told me the other day, “If one person talks the whole time, that’s a memo not a meeting.” Finally, my favorite part: teams with more women on them were also more successful. (Researchers said this was likely due to the women on these teams scoring higher on their ability to perceive social cues than their male teammates…but I digress.)
Does any of this really surprise you, though? When team members care how other members feel, are sensitive to other perspectives, and invite everyone to participate, it makes sense a team would be better equipped to do good work than a team doing the opposite. However, teams are made up of fallible human beings and as such, are likely to fall victim to common issues.
How Do Teams Fail?
Depending on the body of research you pursue, there are several ways teams can fail. Michaela Schippers, Amy Edmonson, and Michael West looked closely at research related to team decision making and team learning. They found, when you boil it all down, teams are more likely to fail when they make these three common mistakes.
When They Don’t Know What They Don’t Know
My schedule is fully documented in my phone. I know both kids have soccer practice on Mondays and parent teacher conferences are next Thursday and Friday. I know when I have a dentist appointment and when the next no-school day is. You know what isn’t in my calendar? My husband’s twice-a-month 7:00 AM staff meeting. Without fail, at 10:15 PM the night before while I’m laying out my running clothes for my 6:30 AM run, he says, “Oh. Um. I have early staff tomorrow.” That means I either leave the 8-year-old to watch the 3-year-old so I can run [insert sarcasm here] or I should just cool it trying to find my shoes because I'm not going anywhere in the morning.
Researchers call this a failure to search for and share relevant information. “Experimental studies have demonstrated that groups discuss common information (held by all or most members) at great length, and unique information often fails to surface.” I knew I had a run in the morning. He knew he had an early staff meeting. Because we didn’t know what the other knew, we stumbled on a conflict. We stumbled on that conflict every first and third Tuesday…of every month.
Every team member brings a unique perspective to your group. Sometimes we forget to let people in on the information we know. That means, if you find yourself talking about finding solutions to fights on the playground, be sure you’ve at least spoken to the playground supervisor to get her perspective. Get it on your agenda to invite someone from the transportation department to your next meeting before you start coming up with solutions to problems on buses. Make sure you have the representation you need sitting around the table before you start tackling an issue head-on.
Our assumptions are more likely to go unchecked when we work quickly or use short-hand, broad-stroke terms like ‘lots’, or ‘many’, or ‘best practice’. Combat this team failure by using data.
When Assumptions Go Unchecked
I once went into a team meeting with an idea to create a whole new set of resources based on feedback I had heard the week before. Every day that previous week, I heard about this one process people struggled to understand. I figured we needed to address it. In the meeting, I stood up and said, “We’re hearing from lots of people about this. I have some ideas on how we can help them.” My team’s lead said something that stuck with me ever since, “How many is a lot?” His question required me step back and actually count how many people – including the five who spoke to me – have the same problem. Despite their impact on my week, most wouldn’t describe five people out of thousands as ‘lots’. Before he committed time to my solution, he checked my assumption.
Deciding to act on hunches is a common way teams fail. Researchers suggest our personal experiences, goals, and even our history with other team members create a perfect storm ripe for making decisions based on assumptions. This doesn’t happen as often when we’re working through difficult problems. When we aren’t sure what the issue is, we take our time to precisely define what’s going on. Our assumptions are more likely to go unchecked when we work quickly or use short-hand, broad-stroke terms like ‘lots’, or ‘many’, or ‘best practice’. Combat this team failure by using data.
When someone on your team presents a problem without offering data to back up their assertion, that’s your moment to ask a question. Take a minute to pause and consider what you just heard. Go to your data sources and check out how big the issue is. Make sure your team has immediate access to data to verify whether a problem is school-wide, limited to a smaller group of students, of even if it’s really a problem at all.
When They Keep Doing What They’ve Always Done
When we first made our applications available to schools, customers emailed our personal inboxes or called our direct office lines whenever they had a question about their accounts. Twelve years later, and with more than 5,000 schools using our applications, we operated our customer support the same way we did when we had fewer than 10 subscriptions. Sure, we noticed the way questions got lost when one of us was away from the office, but we valued the personal connection schools had to us and our applications. Then, one day, someone asked why we managed customer contact like this. No one could come up with a better answer than, “It’s just the way we’ve always done it.
The first day a team meets, it starts to establish routines. From the way the agenda gets set, to how you make decisions, these team routines can be hard to change – even when it’s painfully obvious they’re getting in the way of progress. Researchers call this an escalation of commitment – when teams are so entrenched in their existing processes, they fully miss the fact that changing course might get them better outcomes. The only way to disrupt this is to establish a norm in your team that asking questions, and providing critical feedback is welcome and expected. Our customer support team was one where people felt comfortable asking those critical questions - even questions about the way we operated for the last 12 years. From that one question, “Why?” he exposed a part of our process holding us back from gaining the efficiency we really needed. By challenging the way we’ve always done things, his question made it possible for us to support an ever-growing number of customers committed to making their schools more effective for all students.
See. None of these strategies are shocking. Successful teams get that way when teammates listen to each other and care about how a discussion makes someone feel. They create safe spaces for critical thought and no one dominates the meeting. Knowing how to collaborate doesn't mean we're exempt from making mistakes. Make sure your team fully represents the people who have a stake in the decisions you make. Talk about the ways your solutions impact others and if you don't know, ask. Use data to check your assumptions and better define how big or small a problem really is. Finally, create norms for your team explicitly stating everyone is free to ask questions, respectfully challenge ideas, and offer alternatives. When teams decide to be inclusive of every member's perspective, they open themselves up to more successful solutions.