The Southern Roots Experience

My team, The Southern Roots, definitely brought both task and interpersonal skills to the table, which is a defining characteristic of a successful team. In fact, we hit it off so well at the beginning of the semester, I was not sure we would encounter the “storming” phase in Tuckman’s Team Development model (Levi, 2014, pg. 43). I thought we would be a powerful force right away and continue that momentum throughout the semester. Instead, like any team, we did encounter all of Tuckman’s four stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing. I learned that social relations only get you so far when accomplishing a task in a team environment. My team truly became a team after we learned to constructively negotiate roles, handle the stresses of approaching deadlines, and share mutual commitment to our facilitation presentations. I believe we ultimately created a new social dynamic that combined our unique individual talents within the context of our class work (Levi, 2014 pg. 244).

Our team faced the inevitable challenges when it came time to organize and complete project assignments for the course. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to analyze our later challenges based upon the solid and successful work at the beginning of the team development process. My team members comprised of two hard-working, outgoing females. When we first met together as a team to introduce ourselves, we immediately developed a rapport and easily engaged in compelling dialogue about our personal lives. I think it helped that we had similar backgrounds, such as our southern heritage and culture (which inspired our team name). Our conversation topics centered on our similarities, which helped us not only improve our social relationships, but aided us when it came time to define our group identity and ground rules. We also respected one another’s differences during the “forming” stage and quickly recognized each other’s strengths. Levi (2014)  explains why “developing the group is important. Time must be spent developing social relations and socializing new members, establishing goals and norms, and defining the project” (pg. 46). The course built-in time for the crucial socialization process to take place – without which we wouldn’t have been able to effectively handle the challenges and conflicts later in the semester.

My team experienced challenges in the “storming” phase, such as differing perspectives on roles, responsibilities, and timeline for our first presentation exercise. Nevertheless, conflict and confusion had positive effects on my team. Our team chose to resolve our conflicts in a cooperative and productive manner. Our challenging issues encouraged us to explore a new approach and motivated us to do better on our next facilitation project. Our team took the valuable feedback from our peers and devised a different strategy for our second facilitation presentation. Levi (2014) states that “early process conflict not only helps a team develop better work processes and strategies but it teaches the team how to manage conflicts….When these teams encounter problems in the later stages of a project, they have the skills to manage the conflict and develop alternative solutions (pg. 46).  Our new strategy consisted of revisiting our team charter. I brought up our “process” checkpoints from our team charter that were in alignment with the course syllabus. We agreed upon an in-person meeting after class each week until the facilitation presentation to discuss our areas of interest, develop a project outline, and divvy up task assignments. As a result, each member came to the meeting ready to organize, trust, and cohesively work with one another on our facilitation presentation.

I also realized that I was thinking too independently. Levi (2014) argues that “To be successful, team members must feel responsible for both their own work and the work of other team members” (pg. 65).  I did not have a sense of responsibility for my teammate’s work initially. I felt that I was only responsible for myself and was ready to perform my part in our meetings; however, I failed to realize that we all need to be responsible for one another’s work and understanding of the material because we all have one, unified goal in the end. I finally realized half way through the course my interdependence to my group members. Levi (2014) states that “In a sports team, the players need one another to succeed” (pg. 64). The idea of “mutual dependency” is what defines a team and allows them to take some type of positive action (Smith and Berg, 1987, pg. 140). My team’s ability to balance both individual contributions with team success solidified our group identity (Levi, 2014, pg. 65).

One of the highlights of this course was “performing” our facilitation presentation. The Southern Roots’ concrete social relationships and successful handling of earlier stresses allowed the team to focus on performing our task in a fluid, effective way. We each took responsibility for the quality of the presentation and each other’s part, which resulted in a streamlined and cohesive presentation. We also performed at a level where we created conditions for others to learn about ways to hold risky conversations and move into difficult conversations in the workplace. Lastly, our team used the feedback from our peers to reflect, evaluate, and celebrate our successes at the end of our presentation. Our most productive work happened at the later stages of our development, which supports the literature on group dynamics and teams.

I’m so proud of my team and can positively reflect on my group experience, which says a lot about the value this course has to both personal and professional life. Way to go, Southern Roots!

Removing barriers and addressing tough issues in a group

After last night’s class discussion on addressing the pink elephant in the room, I thought about any barriers I’d be willing to remove to address the tough issues. Generally, I feel like an open book – sometimes too open in a group setting. I have left many group discussions where I think I may have been too personal and revealed too much about myself. I’m quick to discuss my thoughts, feelings, opinions openly in a group setting, especially if it’s among people I know and trust. Even if it’s on a subject that I know may be sensitive or perceived as sensitive, I am still apt to bring up the issue because I know the negative impacts that can occur if one avoids conflict and difficult issues. I often find that it’s when dealing with “real” conflictual issues that meaningful conversation can come about. For example, when my in-laws come in from out of town, I am typically bored in a family setting talking about surface issues like the weather, who won last night’s basketball game, etc. I love family conversations when we’re talking about deeper issues. From a work perspective, I head a committee that selects advising award recipients. I have a member who often plays “devils advocate” and I openly applaud her for her questions. I like it when she disagrees with the rest of the group because it forces us thoroughly examine and provide reasoning behind our choices. Are there times when I sometimes wish she would stop talking for us to be able to move on? Absolutely. However, it’s this program that has helped me focus on the importance of group process and not let my own personal objectives get in the way.

From a facilitator perspective, I help students explore, learn, and meet certain performance objectives to get into the School of Business. I consider myself a facilitator because I’m a third party representative from outside the School of Business that helps prepare students for entering the school. I’m ultimately not the decision-maker and my students consider me someone who they can trust and depend on to help them achieve their goals. If things go wrong, though (which often happens), I hope I have created a safe environment for my students to be able address tough, uncomfortable issues. If you think about it – being a good facilitator is all about good relationship skills. If you’ve developed a healthy relationship with an individual or group, he or she is likely to feel comfortable saying more personal or challenging things in a meeting. At the same time though, I have to respect my students’ right to not engage in a risky conversation that involves their academic future. I try not to judge my students when they don’t come into to see me. I try to see any type of action or nonaction as an opportunity to better understand them while keeping my own emotions in check. It’s empathetic behavior that increases the likelihood that a risky or challenging conversation may happen in the future (The Skilled Facilitator Fieldbook, 2005, pg. 253).

Healthy Competition Among Teams

The topic of competition among teams was discussed in class last week. I consider myself a competitive person and enjoy games, sports, and activities where I’m part of a team competing against other teams. I spoke last night about how competition can serve as a motivating factor for me within the group, especially if we all have the same performance objective. Competition and cooperation can lead to stronger group cohesion if goals stay task-focused and members are open/respectful to new ideas and ways of doing things. Levi argues “Cooperation, trust, and safety are preconditions for allowing constructive controversy to occur” (pg. 90). Once an individuals brings in personality conflicts to the mix (or hidden agendas), group cohesion is disrupted and issues of mistrust, commitment, and confusion become destructive. In other words, healthy competition needs to stay performance/task based (Levi, 2014, pgs. 96-97).

In our last staff meeting, my supervisor announced that there will be three senior advisor positions opening up in the next few weeks. If a current advisor has had at least three performance evaluations (aka been here 3 years or more), he or she is eligible to apply for the senior advising position. Our staff is made up of about 20+ advisors. The positions are also going to be open to other departmental advisors across the university. Therefore, I imagine there will be a lot of internal competition occurring for three coveted positions even within my own business advising unit. My business advising team consists of 3 people. However, only 2 of us are eligible to apply for the senior advisor position. I’m reminded of Levi’s argument that “Internal competition among teams within an organization can lead to sabotaged work, unjustified criticism, and withholding of information and resources” (pg. 88). Of course, my colleague and I are totally supportive and encouraging to one another and I can’t imagine any of the negative side effects happening that Levi discusses in his chapter. We both get along great, but I wonder what kind of conflicts these career ladder opportunities may have within my department and possibly the university.

I see this type of example being an individual motivating factor that can help the organization overall; however, individual/internal competition can hinder successful teamwork if there are breakdowns in communication and trust within the team.  Levi’s chapters on cooperation and competition provided clarity about healthy vs. unhealthy competition and helped me explore ways of dealing with the negative effects of competition within my own work environment.

Bonding over weaknesses?

In class last week, a classmate brought up a great point when we were discussing the paradox of intimacy – does a group initially connect on the stuff we tend to hide? In other words, do groups tend to connect over each other’s weaknesses rather than strengths? Strengths can be so individualized that oftentimes it’s hard to find commonalities within the group. However, weaknesses seem to be a shared experience across the board. In the Berg and Smith book, the authors illustrate an example of the paradox of intimacy. An MBA professor starts the class with allowing everyone to reveal his or her own anxieties about starting a new graduate program and feeling like the only “fraud” in the room. Once those anxieties are shared and known, only then can the group progress, connect, and fully engage with one another (Berg & Smith, 1987, pg. 124-125).

I thought the example is in direct contrast to what are some mainstream techniques to getting groups to connect with one another. For example, my advising team participated in StrengthsFinders a few months ago and went through a training that involved us focusing on each other’s abilities and strengths rather than our weaknesses. I left the training better aware of myself, but I could have cared less about other people’s strengths (sorry to be so blunt). In fact, I am still confused how I would use Strengthfinders to match people up in a team because I can’t see how the strengths are performance based. Group tasks and individual strengths are so specific given the context. StrengthFinders helps the individual understand themselves, but I’m still left wondering if in terms of group development, would it be best to bond with our team members about our weaknesses first? If the point of group development is a collective and shared experience, then shouldn’t we focus on what unifies us instead of what sets us apart? Allowing a group to focus on the weaknesses first can bring about the need to contrast it with another person’s individual strengths. A conversation about strengths and weaknesses could be much more organic and natural rather than a computer program telling you what your strengths are. I don’t mean to bash Gallop’s StrengthFinders tool, but I just think it has it’s limits (at least from a group development context).

On the flip side, I do understand the need for a group member to fully understand themselves before they can fully contribute to the group. Groups are made up of individuals and the starting point to most development has to start with the individual disclosing sensitive information about themselves to the group in order for any meaningful experience to occur. However, when does it stop being about the individual understanding themselves and when does it start to be about something greater than themselves? In other words, the pinnacle of group development I would think is when the individual can put their own personal needs/initiatives aside and focus on the collective identity and goals of the group.

The paradoxes are such “heavy” concepts that I often find myself feeling like I’m back in a philosophy or psychology class rather than an education class. I’m aware now more than ever how connected just those fields are to one another. Who knew! (man my head hurts after writing this post!:)

When is a group a team?

Our first class taught me that anyone can form a group, but it’s not as easy to form a team. The terms “group” and “team” are often used interchangeably, but are actually two separate concepts. Levi defines a group as a collection of people with some type of relationship to one another, but a team is a “special group of people who work interdependently to accomplish a goal” (Levi pg. 3-4). Teams have a common goal, purpose, and mutual acceptance of one another. Creating a successful team can take a while to develop, but once they’re formed, they can become powerful forces in an organization. Levi argues that successful teams have the power to control parts of business operations and can be given decision-making abilities depending upon the org culture (Levi pg. 16). Teamwork is much more of a process than I originally thought and it largely depends on the composition of the group.

Prior to our group assignments, I had some of the common reservations about being “assigned” a group to work with out of my own choosing. I love working in groups and teams and strongly believe in the value of teamwork to accomplish performance goals, but I am use to working with people I know. I worried about about the possible group dynamics with people I never met. I also initially doubted the shoebox idea since I thought a 10 minute verbal introduction could serve the same purpose. After presenting and hearing about other student’s shoebox items, I realized how wrong my assumption was. The shoebox idea quickly started conversations about personal and professional topics that wouldn’t normally have been brought up had we done our typical introduction. The thought that was put into each item allowed us to connect to our group members on a deeper level, which is at the heart of developing a team. We need to be able to trust and accept one another prior to any task. The shoebox idea was the perfect way to be able to start that process.

My group is made up of all hard-working females who have already had multiple jobs. We each have our own unique interests, which I think compliment one another. A successful team has to have group members with both task and interpersonal skills. I’m looking forward to breaking down various aspects of group and team development, especially in an organizational context. I find group dynamics an interesting topic of study. Since I’ve never studied teamwork from a psychological point of view, I think this class will not only help strengthen my teamwork skills, but my facilitation skills as well. Perhaps my last blog will answer the question, “when did my group become a team?”