Eight Things Teams Do to Sabotage Their Work - ASCD
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July 1, 2019

Eight Things Teams Do to Sabotage Their Work

Educator teams often stymie their own power. Here's how to change that.

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Educator teams embody an amazing potential to shape school culture, increase student and staff engagement, and accelerate achievement, yet many stymie that power by merely operating the way they always have. In our work as professional learning facilitators and leadership coaches, we have seen leaders and team members alike fail to harness the potential of their teams and instead inadvertently sabotage their work. As educators focused on school improvement, we need to facilitate, model, and promote effective team dynamics to capitalize on student and teacher growth.

Here are eight ways that teams can sabotage the effectiveness of their own work and how they can fix these issues.

1. Fear of Exclusion

What It Looks Like

Leaders invite too many people to the table, which dilutes the team's goals and actions and lessens its impact.

Why It Happens

Leaders fear excluding people. They often worry about leaving someone out and therefore end up inviting people to a team who may not offer added value. Priya Parker warns about this tendency in The Art of Gathering: "There is never an easy way to say, 'Please don't come.' That's why so many of our gatherings end up being hijacked in the name of politeness. … I have learned that far too often in the name of inclusion and generosity, two values I care about deeply, we fail to draw boundaries about who belongs and why" (p. 38). Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos supports this idea with his pizza principle. Bezos believes that no matter how large your company gets, individual teams shouldn't be larger than what two pizzas can feed.

How We Fix It

Construct teams large enough to offer varying perspectives, but small enough to be productive and gain traction. Depending on the team's goals and the nature of collaboration required, the ideal size for most school teams is four to six members. This group size does not allow much room for "dead weight" and puts greater responsibility on each participant. Leaders should reflect carefully on the team's desired outcomes, skill sets needed, and what each team member can contribute. This will enable them to provide a clear rationale for both inclusion and exclusion should a staff member feel left out, and help teams be more productive once they are established.

2. Not Fully Prepared

What It Looks Like

Team members come to the meeting unprepared to tackle the problems at hand. The meeting begins, everyone looks at each other, and no one wants to talk, or team members leave with confirmed commitments, but no one communicates or touches base—even informally—until the next team meeting. Team members are present while they are in the room together, but do not adequately prepare between meetings to propel the team's momentum forward.

Why It Happens

Leaders often do not communicate to their teams what each member's role is and what is expected between meetings. Members arrive without having taken any actions or making forward progress because the team has failed to identify (and follow through on) pre-reading, preparation, or next steps to maximize their collaboration time.

This can cause problems during the meeting as well. Team members may be afraid to speak up, for fear of looking like a "know it all," or desperately try to fake their understanding or competence because they don't entirely understand the meeting's purpose and are afraid to ask.

How We Fix It

Clearly define team members' roles and close each meeting with specific next steps. Make sure all members know what actions they need to take before the next meeting and commit to share the progress they make. As William H. Whyte once wrote in Fortune magazine, "The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it."

Many leaders understand their goals and expectations, but they do not put "what's in their head" on paper. And even if they do put it on paper, they don't continue to communicate their thoughts and ideas. Ed Savage, director of training and development for L3 Technologies, states that leaders "must repeat a message 17 times to get it through, fully accepted, and then acted upon by a listener" (Mayeux, 2012).

Taking meeting notes in a collaborative document can provide a resource for team members to refer back to as needed. Leaders might also consider following up with team members between meetings in a variety of formats (such as email, project boards, or verbal check-ins) to revisit goals and expectations and ensure the work is continuing to move forward.

3. Too Much Baggage

What It Looks Like

Team members enter a meeting carrying other issues and concerns that aren't relevant to the meeting's purpose. They may be weighed down by a challenging interaction with a student, poor assessment results, or even personal circumstances that distract them from the team's work.

Why It Happens

Life can be messy. It's sometimes hard to check our baggage at the door when entering a meeting. In the same way our students bring their outside lives into the classroom, team members, too, carry their other professional (and personal) experiences into meetings.

How We Fix It

Open with a check-in question to help people clear their minds from other tasks and worries and focus on the meeting at hand. An example might be, "If you could instantly become an expert in something, what would it be?" or, "If you had one extra hour per day, how would you use it?"

Another easy solution is to facilitate a "top of mind" protocol, where each team member writes on a sticky note what is "top of mind" in either their professional or personal life. Team members then place their sticky notes somewhere on the other side of the room, where these challenges and concerns remain until after the meeting. The physical act of writing concerns down and moving them away from the meeting table helps team members get them off their minds and focus on key priorities.

4. Recognition Over Results

What It Looks Like

Educators, who often work in isolation, may be more focused on their own needs and wants than on collaborating on school or district-oriented results. For example, a team member might focus on what schedule configuration would give her the lightest load or strongest assessment results rather than on what is best for the department as a whole.

Why It Happens

If one individual conceptualizes a great idea, they may not want the other team members to get credit for it. When teachers work in silos, it inhibits their ability—and in time their willingness—to learn from others.

How We Fix It

Focus on collective goals, and the ways that team members can support one another's collaborative success. When organizational members engage in effective dialogue, they learn as a team, and, as a result, produce more effective and aligned decisions that support the organization's shared vision and enhance individuals' sense of personal mastery (Senge, et al., 2012). Leaders should also try to give positive feedback and recognition, where appropriate, when a team achieves the organization's shared vision.

5. "Oh, Look, a Squirrel!"

What It Looks Like

Teams bounce from topic to topic without an agenda or clear goals to guide their work. They value one another's collaborative capacity, but struggle to actualize real change.

Why It Happens

"Squirrel syndrome," or a lack of focus, occurs when teams don't have clear goals and a skilled facilitator to keep them focused. They get caught up in the spirit of healthy conversation but fail to make real progress toward their goals.

How We Fix It

Set an agenda prior to the meeting and stick to it. Identify a strong facilitator to guide collaboration and keep the group on task. Consider framing each agenda with the team's goal(s) to maintain a consistent focus on collective priorities. Within the agenda, set clear timestamps for each discussion and action item to ensure the team keeps pace. If/when a meeting topic derails, these guideposts will enable the facilitator to carefully steer the conversation back on course.

6. Failing to Follow Through

What It Looks Like

Team members don't follow through on commitments, and it damages the team's effectiveness, including its ability to create a culture for growth. Colleagues join teams—sometimes too many teams—but are not fully committed to their goals, purpose, and actions.

Why It Happens

Priorities are unclear and often compete with one another. There is not a clear vision or action steps guiding the school or district's work (in an actionable way). Commitment has not been firmly established as a part of the organization's collaborative culture or participants are overcommitted to too many teams.

How We Fix It

Accountability is one of the hardest competencies for teams to fully master because it takes time and follow-through to keep individuals on the hook. Effective teams commit to mutually accountable actions—and follow through. McChesney, Covey, … Huling (2012) refer to this discipline as creating a cadence of accountability in which leaders check-in weekly with their teams to report on commitments, learn from successes and failures, and clear the path to make new commitments.

7. Stymied by Silos

What It Looks Like

Schools and districts operate in a variety of silos based on grade levels, content areas, experience levels, and even cliques. For example, veteran teachers may not interact with new teachers, or curriculum might be adjusted at one end of a grade band without consideration for the impact it might have at the other end.

Why It Happens

Silos occur because schools and districts become too comfortable with current structures, familiar team members, and existing curriculum or policies. They fear "rocking the boat," and comfort is confused with effectiveness. Team members default to protecting their turf and resist change—even if such change is in the best interest of the school or district as a whole.

How We Fix It

Foster a collaborative environment. Place district and school goals in public spaces such as hallways or a team planning room. Create cross-functional committees or vertically aligned planning times in schools to encourage people from different groups to interact with one another. In professional learning sessions, group teachers and staff randomly to push them to collaborate beyond their existing silos.

8. Meeting to Meet

What It Looks Like

Teams convene on a particular day and time because it is on their calendar, even if no clear goal has been established and communicated.

Why It Happens

We are creatures of habit, which is why so often we get stuck in having meetings for meeting's sake. Meetings provide us with a false sense of accomplishment because they can be easily checked off our to-do list.

How We Fix It

Maintain consistency and structure for team stability, but don't be afraid to cancel meetings or shift them to email communication when appropriate. Reflect on the collaborative power of convening. Does it add value, or is it simply an item to cross off your action plan? This will help leaders determine if teams truly need to meet.

Stop the Team Sabotage

In the book The New School Rules (2018), Kim and Gonzales-Black write, "Many people have a natural desire to work in teams, which is a positive impulse that can be harnessed to create thriving school cultures and outcomes. … The challenge is to overcome the problems that are working against the very enthusiasm and creativity we all want" (p. 142). Don't be afraid to change the rules and the ways in which your teams are formed, established, and operated. Avoid silence, squirrels, and silos, and instead, foster high-powered teams that promote collaborative goals, mutual commitments, and unparalleled results.

References

Kim, A., & Gonzales-Black, A. (2018). The NEW school rules: 6 vital practices for thriving and responsive schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Mayeux, R. (2012, May 8). The rule of seventeen—If you want to get your message across & accepted, repeat, and repeat, and … [blog post] 15 Minute Business Books.

McChesney, C., Covey, S., & Huling, J. (2012). The 4 disciplines of execution: Achieving your wildly important goals. New York: Free Press.

Parker, P. (2018). The art of gathering: How we meet and why it matters. New York: Riverhead Books.

Senge, P. M., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J., & Kleiner, A. (2012). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents, and everyone who cares about education. New York: Crown Business.

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