Group dynamics by design
We are told that good teamwork is essential for effective organisations of all types, including schools. Teamwork is a cornerstone of "Total Quality Management" and OFSTED extols its virtues.
The theory is that good teams achieve more than the sum total of the individual contributions of their members. One cannot doubt that this was true of Adam and Eve, the original team. But what is the reality behind the rhetoric of teamwork? Is it simply a matter of balancing the team and all will be well? Sadly not, as with many things in life, good teamwork is easier said than done. Several issues must be addressed if we are to realise the benefits of teamwork in our schools.
First, teams should be properly prepared. They need a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities of team members, their tasks and targets, the resources available to them (including appropriate training), and how the results of their efforts will be evaluated. Evidence from OFSTED inspections suggests that production of detailed action plans for teams and measurement of the outcomes from teamwork are relatively weak aspects of school development planning. OFSTED has also pointed to the confusion of roles and responsibilities between senior and middle management teams as another area of weakness in many schools. For example, senior teams frequently spend too long on "nuts and bolts" issues and have insufficient time for vital strategic planning. Middle managers are often ill prepared for important responsibilities like monitoring standards in their areas and supporting their teams.
Second, the leadership of teams is a more subtle and complex business than many realise. A team's competence to undertake a task may vary widely. The spectrum from low to high competence and commitment needs a corresponding range of leadership styles from the directive to the delegating.
It will take time for most teams to grow confident that they can complete a task successfully. Helpful leadership will ensure that enough time is spent on preparation and planning and that the team experiences some early success at the implementation stage. Leaders who either tell the team what to do or undertake most of the work themselves are not helping their team members to gain confidence.
Third, teamwork will not flourish without an atmosphere of trust. This applies both within and between teams at all levels. Some of the tensions that result from lack of trust have been explored by Wallace and Hall in their study of six senior management teams, (Wallace, M. and Hall, V., Inside the SMT, Paul Chapman Publishing 1994). Trust must be generated from the top. It includes a greater openness with information, allowing people more responsibility and taking calculated risks.
Fourth, despite the textbook theories, very few teams are perfect for the task. Strategies are needed to produce the proverbial silk purses. The use of a facilitator (a "fly on the wall" team member) can help to bring understanding about group dynamics, conflicts that need resolving and a clearer focus on the task. Although most team members will have strengths to be encouraged, frankness about weaknesses in the team may be necessary. All leaders should have training in interpersonal skills like negotiation and resolving conflict. Unfortunately this has been a neglected area in schools' in-service training.
Much research evidence shows that successful organisations have discovered some of the keys to effective teamwork and four of them have been outlined above. I want to finish with a salutary tale based on my recent experience of a teacher placement with the local business unit of a national company. The unit was in a dire state five years ago and its future looked uncertain. There was very little trust between management and the rest of the workforce and productivity was poor. Now, five years on, the unit has been turned round so successfully that it is one of the best in the company.
Staff at all levels in the unit agreed that this change was largely a result of more effective teamwork, but it had been a hard slog and they still had a long way to go. One of the managers likened the effort required to get some people in the organisation working together more effectively to water dripping on to a sharp stone which is gradually turned in to a smooth pebble.
The managers have a vision for the future: strong teams working together for the good of the unit and the company. This vision must be shared and lived out day by day in an atmosphere of trust and with patience so that everybody will be willing to play their part.
Central to the unit's progress has been training. Training the members of teams so that they become more confident and committed, training leaders so that they can build successful teams.
These are the fundamentals of effective teamwork, but we should also remember that we cannot win them all!