In the next phase of our studies, we are going to be working as a team, and reflecting consciously on this aspect of the experience. Given that this is an online programme, I already know this will be a challenge. In my experience, establishing effective teams is hard enough when you see each other a lot – if you have never met then establishing rapport and accountability becomes much harder. In a previous module, I even came across some research to back this up (Pyoria, 2007). However, working in remote teams is a skill increasingly demanded of all of us, so it is worth practising and developing.
We have been asked to reflect on the “Big 5” of teamwork (Salas et al, 2005), relating one or more to our experience and making recommendations for the task we have ahead. The “Big 5” are:
- team leadership
- mutual performance monitoring
- back-up behaviour
- team orientation.
I have a lot of experience of teamwork in corporate contexts, but this is fundamentally different to an academic project. There is no hierarchy of authority established, performance management can only happen mutually, and none of us are earning our living by doing this project. In fact, the closest comparison that comes to mind is my time as boat club captain at university – an experience I have drawn on before in this blog. It was an early and very intense lesson in teamwork – even more than most sports, rowing relies on very close teamwork. Quite literally, a crew will only be successful if everyone pulls together. Everyone is also rowing voluntarily – they can simply walk away if they want to. And given the standard we were at, let’s just say I couldn’t motivate anyone by holding out the prospect of winning a major competition.
Three of the “Big 5” strike me as highly relevant to my experience:
- Team leadership – I won’t bore you with the details, but my captaincy involved facing down a group of people with fundamentally different views to mine. It was highly painful and meant losing most of my best rowers, but it was the right thing to do. Very few groups can entirely self-organise – someone needs to make a decision and the others accept it, otherwise there is no hope of success.
- Mutual performance monitoring – this needs to be done the right way. Occasionally,on a bad outing people would start giving each other “advice” in the boat. This always led to rows and poor performance. The time for feedback and coaching is not in the thick of the task – it is afterwards when everyone can reflect. We had occasional team debriefs after training where we each stated a way in which we would improve for the good of the crew. These were highly effective.
- Team orientation – this includes belief in importance of the team goals over individual goals, which was a constant source of frustration for me. Being a small club, we had a limited pool of rowers and many of them would only row if they could be with their friends, or in a certain boat. This is understandable in some ways – the whole thing was done for fun – but you will not build a strongly performing team on this basis. The team goal needs to be considered important enough for people to sacrifice their own personal goals to it, at least sometimes.
So how would these lessons apply to our upcoming project? Perhaps as follows:
- We need a leader who is not afraid to make decisions, and whose decisions are respected by the others. In previous group tasks, it has been hard for anyone to assume this role. In the upcoming task, this role is built into the structure, which is a good thing, and the role must be acknowledged by the whole team.
- We do need to be prepared to give each other feedback, but also be sensitive to appropriate timing – not when we are pushing to meet a deadline, perhaps.
- This will be a hard one, but there will be times when we have to put the team goals before our personal ones, perhaps attending a web conference at an inconvenient time for us, or doing a task that is not our favourite because it needs doing. It’s a balance of course – no one should lapse into martyrdom. But we will not success unless we can focus on the needs of the team as a whole, not just our own. We all have day jobs, families and lives in addition to our studies, so this will be a real challenge.
If we can get this right, we will have cracked a very challenging teamwork situation.
Pyoria, P. (2007) ‘Informal organizational culture: the foundation of knowledge workers’ performance. The Finnish Model of an information society’, Journal of Knowledge Management, vol.11 iss.3, pp.16-30.
Salas, E., Sims, D. and Burke, C. (2005) ‘Is there a “Big Five” in teamwork?’, Small Group Research, vol. 36, no. 5, pp. 555–99.