Get everyone in the team spirit

August 10, 2007

Experts warn that teamwork does not come naturally to those at the top level of academe. So how do you ensure a successful collaboration with your peers? Harriet Swain offers some hints

Teamwork is fine as far as you're concerned - it's the other people you work with that always seem to have a problem with it. Does this statement describe your sentiments?

Ewart Wooldridge is chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, which is researching top teams in higher education. He says it has discovered that team-working does not come naturally at senior levels in the sector.

"Often you find that at the top level a team is a talented group of individuals, not a team," he says. If this is the case, you have to recognise it and respond accordingly. "The worst thing is to deceive yourself into thinking you have a team when it is actually a set of individuals."

Gloria Moss, research fellow at the business school at Glamorgan University, says that many academics working in the UK are not aware of the extent to which their thinking may be fashioned by the individualistic assumptions that underlie society. She suggests there should be training to explain and counteract these assumptions, and the rewarding of group as well as solo work.

Meredith Belbin, of teamworking consultancy Belbin Associates, suggests that academics may have a particular problem with working in teams because of the emphasis on top scores throughout their education, and on "own work", which lies at the heart of doctoral dissertations. "It is small wonder that the outstanding entrepreneurs of our times have been educational dropouts or have suffered from dyslexia," he argues. "Learning to rely for some things on others is a necessary first step to becoming a significant innovator."

Paul Tosey, senior lecturer in Surrey University's school of management, says people leading research teams may need to work at developing a culture in which collective success and individual rewards genuinely go hand in hand, while teaching teams need to recognise that students expect them to operate in a joined-up way. It is important to share information, understand their overall purpose and think about what links a series of teaching sessions, he says. This may need particular effort from people who work in close proximity. "A kind of inverse law of proximity seems to mean that academics based in the same building can interact less effectively than a virtual teaching team that is spread across national boundaries," he says.

Tosey urges academics not to discount the validity of views from other disciplines and professions, including those of administrators. A team needs to bring together diverse skills and perspectives, he says.

"Quiet, painstaking, detail-orientated people may appear to contribute little, yet their skills will complement those of others who are more vocal, and will probably compensate for some of their weaknesses." Having different points of view also prevents "groupthink", whereby groups develop self-sealing beliefs.

For Belbin, the key to working well in a team is to assess how best to combine the particular strength of the self with the specific strengths of others. This cannot be done without acquiring relevant information on colleagues and subordinates, which can be a problem with people who resent personal probing. An independent facilitator or consultant can be useful here, he says.

Wooldridge says you need to recognise team types and that certain people react in the way they do because that is the role they fulfil in the team. Realising this will prevent people getting irritated by each other's behaviour. He suggests using one of the many team assessment tools available, such as those developed by Belbin, to recognise and understand who holds which role.

Tosey says teams should be fit for purpose, rather than necessarily aspiring to imitate the Australian cricket team. They should have a shared understanding of why they exist, what they are aiming to do, what the terms of reference are and how to interpret them, what the outcome will be and how to know when to stop.

For Wooldridge, a set of shared values is vital. "Values can bring a team together even if the individuals have different agendas," he says. And so long as all the members share an understanding of what they want to achieve together, it doesn't matter if they differ in their ideas of how to get there.

But Tosey says you should not focus on the task to the exclusion of everything else. You need to think about the team's welfare and emotional wellbeing, as well as how it will work. You therefore need to take care at the beginning to develop the team and build a sense of shared identity and ownership, rather than expecting it to hit the ground running.

Bruce Tuckman, an educational psychologist who developed a model of different stages of group development in the 1960s, said groups first go through "forming" (getting together and getting to know each other); "storming" (allowing conflicts to surface and be addressed constructively); "norming" (developing shared rules and expectations); and "performing" (achieving the task).

Tosey says a team is unlikely to perform effectively if you neglect the earlier stages.

Wooldridge adds that teams need to work in an organised way and have a strategic plan, a set of deadlines - and a leader.

"A team without a leader will cease to be a team," he says. But teams also need to involve fun. "In my experience, a good team uses laughter to bind itself. You have to find time and space to enjoy each other's company in whatever way is appropriate."

Some are never going to enjoy the company of others, however, and you may have to accept this and find ways around it. Belbin says it is always possible to consult experts on an individual basis. "One must accept the fact that some individuals are unsuited to teamwork. It is better that they do not attempt to do anything against their nature."

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