What I Learned From Thinking About Teams: A Midpoint Check in!

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A glimpse of UC Merced

You may not know this about me, but I teach professional writing at the University level, and I love it!  There is a practicality to this writing style that aligns with daily aesthetic, a sense of order and audience awareness that, in the vast openness that is the creative path, offers my brain relief.  Not sure where to start?  Consider your audience.  Identify your purpose.  Find a way to deliver information that is quick and easy to digest (and use headings and lists because that often helps!).  In this way, professional writing realm really can resemble that plug and chug formula that (yes, I admit) I sometimes  crave.   (So, before you get all huffy, dude, I know…the prof writing forms can still have style and personality, but you and I both know that we can churn out, oh, say a blog post, in a matter of hours (or days if we are being a bit picky) while a story or essay or poem can take us years upon years  to complete…and then more years to have someone decide to publish it…)

Anyway, this is all to say that my two worlds – the professional writing world and the creative writing world – rarely intersect.  And yet, the practical professional writing approach CAN help us creative types approach our own work better.

And so, today, I want to offer advice I learned from my course readings about working in teams.

At this point, you may be saying, WTF, SAM!  I was with you about professional writing, but teams?   In case you didn’t notice, writing is a solo act.  Maybe you do weird team stuff, but the rest of us go it alone!  Okay, I hear you, but stay with me, anyway.

And now, without further ado: Here are TWO things I learned about the team formation process that may help you consider the “teamwork” needed between you and your manuscript (Did you like that?  Too much of a stretch?  Oh, come on, you know you I’m already starting to make sense!)

Google Learned ImageFirst, What Google Learned From Working In Teams (And What I Learned from Thinking About Google’s Research).

The main gist is this: Google wanted to know why some teams work well together and why some struggle.  Was it because they were made up of like-minded people?  Of friends who hung out outside of work?  Was it because teams were efficient?  Or that they possessed the right combination of skills sets?  After a year of study, they found, to everyone’s surprise, that it was NONE of the above.   Instead, their research showed that teams worked well if two things occurred:

  1. Members showed a above average sense of “social sensitivity,” which is a “fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues,” and
  2. Teams created a sense of psychological safety, which they define as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up…characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

In other words, people were sensitive to what other members were feeling, and people were understaning (or at least appeared to be!).  By now, perhaps you are seeing where I am going with this.  While good qualities for working with other people, they seem like good qualities to keep in mind as we form a relationship with our own writing as well.  The “social sensitivity” might be a bit ooey-gooey for you, but it makes sense: we need to be emotionally in tune with the stuff we are churning out for, as writers, our task is to be aware of and connected with our work’s emotional core.  Seems simple enough, right?

Psychological safety, on the other hand, is the one that fascinates me more.  Consider the key concepts in this idea: the need to not be embarrassed, rejected, or punished “for speaking up.”  How often do we stop or hesitate to write because of our fear of these emotions?  How often do we worry that our work is not good enough, that a draft is “embarrassingly” rough?  (And for teachers, how often do our students apologize for drafts-in-progress even though they are supposed to be “rough”?)  Are we stifled by fear of rejection?  When we do our work, do we have a trust and respect for this thing we are creating on the page?  I also had my students listen to a podcast on productivity, that referrenced the same Google study.  They referred to psychological safety as the “ability to fail without fear of judgment.”  Perhaps its time for us to evaluate the way judgement and fear of judgment and failure keep our “team” from reaching its maximum level of productivity.

Put another way, it may be worthwhile to consider the relationship you are building between you and your craft.  Writers are, easily, some of the most sensitive, perfection-seeking people I know.  This sensitivity and need to capture something “just right” is often why many of us are writers (and why so many of my most sensitive friends are such GOOD writers).  But I wonder how different our writing lives would be if we treated our work the same way we would a team member, if we recognize when we are being excessively hard on it, when we demand too much.  For if we are not giving our work space to breath, the work doesn’t have room to explore, to attempt.  Maybe spend today (and the rest of your writing life), trying to give your work some “psychological safety.”  Do not judge attempts if they fail.  Do not expect everything to be perfect the first time. This seems obvious, and it isn’t anything that hasn’t been said before, but I wonder if treating our work with the same respect we would give to an outside person may help us do this even better.

Second, What Bruce Tuckman learned about teams (and What I Learned From Thinking About That!)

The second thing that I talk about with my students is the stages in the group formation process, a process Bruce Tuckman wrote about in a 1965 scholarly article, the principles of which are still found in many textbooks and HR websites across America.

One of my previous students created this image (used with permission) that gives a nice overview of what this process looks like (many of you will probably find it familiar):

Forming Norming Storming Performing

As this image shows, the group process starts with “forming.”  During the forming phase, group members are often excited to be working with each other on a new task (Enthusiasm High) but skill levels are low and time must be given towards learning them.  From there, we enter the “Storming” phase.  Here, the newlywed phase runs out and reality sets in.  Enthusiasm dips and skill levels are still low.  This is the phase when the most conflict occurs.  That conflict, however, is important because through your engagement and discussions with peers, you reach the “Norming” phase.  During this stage, members know what they are supposed to do and are doing it.  Skill levels are growing as well and productivity starts increasing.  Finally, if all goes well, the group can reach the “Performing” stage, when people are excited again because the project is going smoothly and their skill levels have improved enough to complete the task.

In this formation process, there are two important things I tell my students:

  1.  Storming is normal.  Expect it and be prepared for it.  When you are in conflict, it often helps to step back and say, aha!  Sam told me this was going to happen!  We are storming! Often, that helps to cool emotions OR, better yet, can serve as a way to talk to other team members about what’s happening (as in, “Okay, clearly we are in the storming phase.  Can we talk about where our ideas are differing so we can start norming?”)
  2. Not everyone reaches the performing phase.  In my opinion, a big part of why this happens is because groups are AFRAID of the storming phase.  If you never storm, you never really norm (or your norm becomes a state of with-holding to avoid conflict even though conflict is necessary!  Conflict lets us know how to get on track?) In other words, during the storming phase, people know what they are supposed to do AND what is expected of them.  If this doesn’t happen, groups can’t reach the final phase (which is when group work is at its best)

And so, right now, at the (almost) midpoint of this Writer’s March, I invite you to consider the team formation process within your own writing life, especially in relation to storming. The purpose of Writer’s March is about creating a writing habit, and our own “storming” often results in us failing to create those habits.  For me, symptoms of”storming” include…

  • quitting because you’ve gotten off track and have missed a day or two
  • letting other things distract you from your task
  • making yourself feel bad about what you haven’t done
  • convincing yourself that there really isn’t any time to work

What if, instead of getting down on ourselves or instead of stopping, we identify this stage for what it is: a stage that we must work through. And if we do work through it, we can finally reach a NEW norm, perhaps one that has started to recognize a good schedule…or one that is better at protecting our writing time and saying no?  Maybe its even as simple as letting ourselves buy that tasty coffee when we write to keep us motivated?  In any case, recognize that whatever struggles are happening right now, like the struggles in the team formation process, they are a PART of the process.  AND, don’t forget: if you don’t storm, you can’t find a strong norm, and if you don’t find a strong norm, it’ll be more difficult to perform.

In Closing…

That wasn’t so bad was it?  Were the connections more obvious than it seemed?  I hope so.  Thanks for sticking with it.  Also… just for fun, why not a few old fashioned polls to check in?  (Haven’t done one yet, so why not!)

3 thoughts on “What I Learned From Thinking About Teams: A Midpoint Check in!

  1. Sam, you have no idea how badly I needed to see this. I’d never encountered either of these studies before, but as I was reading, I was able to find one-to-one correspondences with generalizations of the process of team-building you describe and actual moments with the team I work with in “real” life. It’s a team that’s constantly having to re-invent itself due to “changing business needs” and performs better than any I’ve been a part of. Especially poignant because circumstances beyond our control mean that the team is going to be broken up before too long.

    I know that doesn’t say much about my writing, but now you’ve given me something to think about, especially since I’ve seen the method succeed in other contexts.

  2. Bob! Thanks for the message. Also, after reading your message, I went back to this post and was like, holy cow! So many type-o’s! Apparently, yesterday was too crazy for me to properly proofread (even though I DID proofread. Taht’s the weird part!). In any case, I did think, well that’s nice. Psychological Safety! No one made me feel bad about it (though I know you judged me silently to yourselves. haha, just kidding.

    In any case, I actually love reading about working in teams. I think its because I once had a really amazing team to work with and it made sooooo much difference. This was then followed up by a teeeerrrrrribbllleeeee team, and that made so much difference, too, but just in the totally opposite way. Since then, whenever I read about these things, I keep going back to those two extreme experiences and love when the research can line up with my experiences. I hope it continues to go well!

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