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Why does effective teamwork matter? It leads to purpose, belonging, trust, learning, and, ultimately, high performance. In an education world where time and resources are scarce, and yet the demand for performance is sky high, how can schools embrace teamwork as a force for school improvement?
Sam Crome's book The Power of Teams explores evidence from across sectors, including education, to find out what high-performing teams share, and how we can adapt the most effective teamwork strategies to the unique environment of a school. The book outlines a model of teamwork factors that contribute to truly thriving teams, with theory, research, tangible actions for school teams, and a range of expert voices who contribute their experience in case studies.
Buy The Power of Teams from the John Catt Bookshop using this link, and use the code JCTTR2324 for 20% off your purchase of any John Catt book!
We were delighted to welcome Sam onto Teachers Talk Radio for an interview with our host Kathryn Taylor. So, what did we learn more about The Power of Teams?
1. What role does vision play in creating a powerful team?
"Vision is the whole foundation of the team: where are we now, where are we going, how do we get there" Sam Crome
Have you worked in a team or department where you just turn up, teach your lessons and tweak a few schemes of work in June and July? Sam has - and he looks back on those days with horror.
Sam says that the leader must have a vision for what they want from the team - and this can be co-created by asking the team what they think about their own vision and their vision for the group, to create a sense of buy-in. While lots of leaders are good at whipping out a vision at the first INSET day of the year, too often these visions go unmentioned for the rest of the year and play no part in the lived experience on the ground.
For Sam, good vision is part of the everyday, and constantly referred back to and built upon - not just wheeled out in a presentation once or twice a year.
2. What role does psychological safety play in a team?
"The best teams are safe to fail, with an open culture of dialogue... they use this to create ambitious aims" Sam Crome
Sam argues that teams with psychological safety push each other to be the best they can possibly be. He cited a study of clinical teams by Dr Amy Edmondson in 1999, who looked at why certain hospital teams were working better than others - she noticed that the teams who were most effective at meeting their outcomes were reporting the highest number of mistakes, and the least effective teams were reporting the lowest number of mistakes.
It confounds logic, doesn't it? But on interviewing the teams, Dr Edmondson found that the highest-performing teams owned their mistakes, talked about their mistakes and normalised them as part of the learning process. The lowest-performing teams were less likely to do so because of a culture of fear or a lack of trust - they were making more mistakes, but were less like to report them.
Based on this finding, Dr Edmondson codified the concept of psychological safety. It sounds warm and fuzzy - but she makes it clear that the open culture and warmth is created for team members to push each other to be the best they can be.
This is closely linked to radical candour, which is all about providing an honest appraisal of ourselves and others in our workplace. Sometimes we make a mistake by being overly empathetic, hoping we don't hurt people's feelings, but that sometimes means we avoid giving honest feedback. On the other hand, some people can be exceedingly blunt and obnoxious when giving feedback. Radical candour is the sweet spot - and it is best practised in a culture of psychological safety.
3. How can teams engage in effective decision-making?
"You have to have a flat hierarchy of ideas, even if the team leader has the final say" Sam Crome
Dr Kulvarn Atwal, author of The Thinking School (also published by John Catt) once told Sam that "without autonomy, you leave your brain at home". If you go to work and no-one asks you to share your expertise or say what you think, you stop bringing ideas into work - why would you, if no-one asks you?
Sam says that when you give people room to think and contribute, they constantly bring ideas that can be of benefit to the team or the organisation. This requires a flat hierarchy, where everyone brings knowledge and experience to the table. Think of the opposite: imagine a meeting where no-one is consulted or asked to contribute, especially on something they may be passionate about. This is one of the signs of toxicity within a team.
Our host Kathryn Taylor believes that autonomy is facilitated by structure, with protocols to invite all voices to take part and share ideas. One way to do this is proposed by Sam: a discussion where one person brings to the table a problem with which they are grappling, everyone else in the room gets two minutes of thinking time to consider the solutions they would implement, and each person then has one minute to share their thoughts - without referring to anyone's thoughts who have gone before. As a result, the person with the problem can hear all the views of the room without overlapping ideas, before chairing a more open discussion if they wish.
4. How do you stop admin from dominating team meetings?
"You have to be really clear what you expect from people... but you have to do what you can to make sure it isn't the dominant part of your meeting time" Sam Crome
If you are leading a team and are comfortable with the people you are leading, you may fall into the trap of not planning your meetings in much depth - everyone will turn up with their cup of tea, the leader will run through the current to-do list and everyone can leave early after half an hour of unremarkable work. To plan and run a meeting is a very deliberate task. Sam thinks about planning his meetings like planning a lesson - with clear outcomes, making sure everyone is engaged and everyone is learning with a good climate. It is time-consuming, but absolutely necessary, because team members need to know the meetings are productive spaces.
One of the problems with meetings in education is that team members will often arrive with baggage. It might be a set of essays to mark, or a difficult phone call to make - either way, teachers often go to meetings with quite a lot going on in their head. If they think that really productive work takes place in those meetings from previous experience, they will be more willing to immerse themselves in the agenda.
Admin is important, but is it complex enough to warrant meeting time? Or can it be digested without verbal input? Sam sends out his team bulletin on a Thursday at 4.30pm (agreed as a team) and meets his team on a Friday morning (with pastries!). During the meeting, he will ask his team whether there are any parts of the admin section of the bulletin that need clarifying, then spend the meeting on tasks that will improve teaching and learning.
One thing that a new leader can consider is contracting: planning explicitly how a team will communicate with each other. Sam will often meet with team members when taking over a new team, to discuss what is working well, how team members would like to develop and how he can support them with this. It doesn't take long to ask a group of people how they would like to be communicated with, and once it is agreed that direction is set. It should be reviewed now and again so team members can give him feedback.
5. How do you explore mistakes without succumbing to the blame game?
"Blaming people has no impact on improvement or future growth" Sam Crome
Whether you like it or not, teaching is a high-stakes profession. We are dealing with children's futures and we are subjected to Ofsted scrutiny. So how do we avoiding blaming people?
There are ways to explore mistakes or sub-optimal work that don't involve blame. One method is to reframe failure by being human - we all fail multiple times a day, and some of these failures may be related to high-stakes happenings. If something does go wrong, it is worth considering what thing will have the biggest impact on turning the corner, and how team members can work together to find a solution while looking after each other.
Sam will usually adopt a coaching approach in this scenario - after all, as a school leader, he works with trained professional adults who should be able to understand what has gone wrong and how to better it next time without too much reflection. His conversations are centred around what support is required to get things right next time.
At the start of the academic year, leaders may find it helpful to utilise contracting by saying that things will go wrong and therefore exploring what the team should do and shouldn't do in these cases, to make sure that members get the best out of each other. By agreeing on this at the start of the year, the team leader can achieve buy-in.
Want to find out more about The Power of Teams? Listen on demand below!