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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

Making Team Differences Work

High-functioning teams welcome disagreement as a way to bring about the best results.

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Schools and districts rely on the knowledge, skills, and abilities of a variety of stakeholders to provide input, recommend options, and make decisions on a wide range of strategic and operational topics. Most district and school leaders understand that recruiting group members who have differing backgrounds, perspectives, talents, and personalities makes for good decision making.
Unfortunately, simply assembling a variety of top-notch individuals does not necessarily mean their talents and perspectives will be fully considered. Often, once a diverse collection of individuals is assembled, teams are not able to extract the wisdom available because they tend to avoid disagreement.
Ironic, isn't it? Many teams do not tap into the very diversity they intentionally sought for making good decisions.
To be high functioning, teams must embrace disagreement and encourage individuals to voice their perspectives while acknowledging others' viewpoints. Doing so encourages active participation, which brings forth thoughtful, relevant, and forthright contributions from group members.
The following four symptoms may indicate that a team is not making the best use of differing perspectives.

SYMPTOM 1. The group gets mired down in confusion.

Some groups have meandering discussions that go nowhere, causing group members to become confused and eventually mistrustful of the process. Group members may then decrease their participation or shut down altogether. Without a clear understanding of why the group exists, what it must accomplish and when, and what strengths each group member contributes, the team is likely to waste time and energy.

Solution: Communicate the essential information from the outset.

In schools and districts, working in groups is so commonplace that team leaders and committee chairs often take it for granted that group members know why each was chosen to serve, why they are coming together, and what they are supposed to accomplish. But it is important to explicitly share this information—even if it appears obvious.
To do this, the team leader or committee chair should provide an overview of the following: (1) the reason the group was convened; (2) what outcome the team is expected to deliver; (3) what pertinent skills, knowledge, and abilities each group member adds; (4) the timeline for the work; (5) any standards the group must adhere to; and (6) the group's role in the decision-making process, whether it is to make the final decision, provide input, or make a recommendation. This information can be presented in a formal charter or simply in a group discussion.
For example, an elementary literacy curriculum committee's charge may be to
  • Represent grade levels K–6 throughout the district.
  • Review literacy materials the district has already gathered from five publishers.
  • Analyze how these materials align with state and district standards.
  • Make a recommendation to the assistant superintendent by December 15, 2016, for implementation during the 2017–18 school year.
When introducing committee members, it is useful to also share why each was tapped to serve. The members of the elementary literacy curriculum committee may have experience teaching reading, writing, and language arts at certain grade levels; experience working with students from different backgrounds, such as English language learners (ELLs); or strong abilities in building consensus, making connections in the community, moving projects along on time, or analyzing data.
With this information, the group has the parameters for its work and can then create a timeline that includes the frequency, time, and place of meetings as well as milestones to plot along the way. For example, the literacy curriculum committee might decide to meet as a whole group every other week to review materials together, knowing they must review two publishers' materials by September 15, the next two publishers' materials by October 15, and the final publisher's materials by November 15, leaving time for analysis and discussion before making a final recommendation by the December 15 deadline. Alternatively, the committee may decide that grade levels will meet separately to review materials. Then at a certain date, the whole committee will start meeting for discussion and final selection. Further, the committee will be able to assign tasks or look to one another for expertise on the basis of each person's noted strengths.

SYMPTOM 2. Things get personal.

In a diverse group, team members won't always see things the same way, and these differences create plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings and hurt feelings. When group members refer to others in judgmental terms that label the person instead of stating the facts, it is a sign that group members have forgotten that not everyone thinks, responds, and acts the way they do; that they have misinterpreted a comment or action; or that they have taken their focus off the issues relevant to the group's work.
Not everyone on a team or committee will want to be best friends, but personal attacks, criticisms, and judgments cannot be tolerated. It's important for leaders to take action when they hear comments like these: "He is impossible to deal with!" "She doesn't care how she comes across; she's just trying to be hurtful!" "He doesn't care about kids. He's only in it for his own ego!" "She thinks she's so smart with her National Board certification, but she doesn't know anything about my classroom!"

Solution: Establish and enforce group norms.

Creating ground rules delineates expectations and boundaries regarding the time, place, and manner of group members' behavior. In addition to the ubiquitous "cell phones off" and "be on time" ground rules, leaders should also set norms that will enhance communication while keeping discussions moving forward. These are some possible ground rules:
  • Avoid restating what has already been said.
  • Use the "yes and" technique by finding something to agree with in the previous contributor's idea before adding a new thought.
  • State disagreement by focusing on the known facts, not on judgments about people.
Ground rules like these can support group members in listening to others, keeping discussions interesting and relevant, and helping identify areas of agreement even within divergent viewpoints.
Ground rules are not effective if they are not enforced, however. Therefore, all group members must be willing to address ground rule violations either in the meeting or in private, no matter how awkward the conversations might be. To enforce these norms, group members may say something like this:
  • So, Jim, it sounds like you agree with Marcia that XYZ Publisher's materials at 2nd grade don't have enough examples of content-area reading. What new angle did you intend to highlight with your comment? [avoid restating]
  • Kay, that's a new and interesting point about the need for more opportunities for e-reading. Before we explore that further, which of Jim's points did you agree with? [use the "yes and" technique]
  • Sam, instead of referring to the 1st grade teachers in your building as "incompetent," let's home in on the possible issues related to the curriculum. What skill or competency do students lack as they enter 2nd grade that you believe they should have by the end of 1st grade? [highlight dissatisfaction with the facts instead of judging the person]

SYMPTOM 3. Members have off-line discussions.

One of the easiest ways for a few group members to hijack a committee or team is to have conversations about meeting content outside the meeting time. You might include keeping discussions in meetings as a ground rule, but even if you don't, it's important to be aware of these outside conversations and their possible causes and consequences.
When team members feel their perspectives aren't being heard or validated, they seek out sympathetic ears. This might involve approaching other group members, including the chair, to discuss a relevant topic or to complain about another group member. Off-line conversations can signal that some group members don't feel safe sharing in meetings or that they want to share opinions without taking responsibility for them during meetings.
As factions coalesce, bonding over gossip or feelings of superiority, exclusion, or unfairness, teams can begin to split. Such a split can undermine group effectiveness because members are not sharing their opinions in a forum in which the group can resolve issues together.

Solution: Hold group members accountable for bringing up issues at meetings.

When discussions that should be happening in meetings begin occurring outside meetings, any group member, especially the group's leader, must hold members accountable for owning their opinions and voicing them when the group is together. To address this issue, a group member may say something like this:
I hear your concern that ABC Publisher's materials do not emphasize multicultural literacy enough and that you think John is pushing their materials because he used to work for them. I'm wondering why you didn't bring this up in our meeting yesterday. What are you hoping to accomplish by bringing it up with me now? What preparation do you need, so you are ready to bring it up at our next meeting?
A group member who doesn't feel validated or has hurt feelings because of a comment made in the group may gossip outside the meeting about the person who made the comment. In this case, members can listen without playing into a colleague's interpretation of the comment. Responses might include something like this:
Sarah, you sound angry about Jane's comment. What do you think she meant to say about your student achievement scores in reading? I can see how you took her comment negatively, but I interpreted it differently. Do you need to discuss this with Jane?

SYMPTOM 4. Discussions in meetings are lackluster or left hanging.

When all perspectives aren't shared or validated in meetings, interactions among group members can appear flat, leaving some angles unexplored. A group's leader contributes to this by not pushing for clarity, letting members get sidetracked by tangential issues that are easier to discuss, allowing a few to monopolize the conversation, and not allowing room for dissent.

Solution: Dig deeper and highlight dissenting viewpoints.

To ensure that all perspectives are heard, all group members, especially leaders, must encourage everyone to share ideas and to give weight to dissenting voices. Team leaders can do this by helping members flesh out underlying assumptions, share examples, and consider the implications of their comments. Members can ask questions like these to move the discussion along:
  • Marion, what's the biggest positive for using ABC Publisher's materials at your grade level? The biggest negative? What concerns do you have that haven't been expressed?
  • Tom, how does the instructional approach used by LMN Publisher square with your experience with English language learners?
  • Fred, you're a big proponent of ABC Publisher. If our recommendation for materials from them is adopted, what do you think the biggest difficulty would be?
  • I'm intrigued by Jennifer's comment, which seems to run counter to the group's general opinion. Jennifer, what assumptions are you operating under?
  • John, you're awfully quiet. What information are we missing that would make our recommendation even better or that would argue against it?

A High-Functioning Team

Working in groups is commonplace, but individuals often are not skilled at interacting in a way that leads to the best results. Team leaders and committee chairs can forge a high-functioning team or committee from a wide variety of individuals by being clear about what the group is meant to accomplish and why, creating norms for group behavior, shutting down unproductive conversations, getting below the surface of comments, and holding space for dissent.

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