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Government Employees Learn To Work in Sync

September 1, 1996
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Featured Article
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When you think about large bureaucracies, you usually don't think about teams and the personal issues they experience. Yet, in 1995, we as Boulder, Colorado-based organizational consultants were hired to develop a team cycle within one of the agencies of the federal government.

Most of the five team members previously had worked together in one capacity or another. But as team members, they were unclear about their roles and how their team should operate. They needed to develop a common vision, goals and objectives, as well as communication systems and role definitions.

To complicate matters, two of the team members—Jan and Sue—shared a negative history. They didn't trust each other, and they ascribed the worst possible motives to each other whenever something went wrong. Because of their conflict, the entire team's productivity was impeded. In addition, because of the two individuals' different backgrounds, there was more likelihood of harboring misperceptions and stereotypes. Therefore, we were asked to come in and work with the team for a one-month period.

First, we established our goals:

  • Assess the team
  • Help the team define its mission, vision, values and roles
  • Provide training on communication and conflict management
  • Perform intervention on a ripe conflict within the team
  • Provide Myers-Briggs team training.

We began our work with the team by interviewing the management-designated team leader, Terry. Terry gave us some background about the team and its formation. This team was organized along functional lines, and members of the team had worked together informally for a relatively short amount of time (two years or less). Terry was overwhelmed with the team's workload, the relative inexperience of the other team members, the intense personal conflict within the team, a perceived lack of support from upper management, and the strong pressure to have the work group act like a team. After this preliminary interview, we were invited to the team's first official team meeting to provide facilitation and guidance for the team's formation.

Meeting #1: Visualizing the ideal team.
The meeting started with an icebreaker, a discussion of logistics and the setting of ground rules. Then the team established its major goal for the meeting—to define critical areas so the team could develop into a self-directed work team. We used the Blake-Mouton meeting facilitation model to enhance creative thought. This model asks participants to: Look at the ideal situation; discuss how the situation is now; and discuss ways to bring the now closer to the ideal. Using this model, the team brainstormed a list of attributes of the ideal team, which we recorded on flip charts. We prompted the team with questions to trigger their thoughts, such as:

  • How would the ideal team allocate duties?
  • How would the ideal team provide backup for each other?
  • What is optimum communication within the ideal team?
  • How can each team member grow and develop to his or her potential?
  • How would decisions be made by the ideal team?
  • How would conflicts be handled by the ideal team?

The team had a wonderful time creating a list comprising dozens of attributes of an ideal team and lumping these attributes into categories. Not surprisingly, the optimum characteristics identified by the team follow those set out by theorists: effective communication; clearly defined roles; an efficient decision-making model; enticing responsibilities; talented members and constructive interpersonal relations.

The team then discussed the current situation, comparing the ideal list to the present situation. The team members felt they cooperated fairly well to get the work done, that the work was interesting and enjoyable, and that team loyalty was high. On the other hand, other categories of team characteristics discussed below were far from ideal.

The next step in the Blake-Mouton model was to have the team discuss what was needed to bring the now closer to the ideal. It identified these areas:

  • Clearly define tasks and roles of the team itself and of team members
  • Determine work allocation and priorities based on deadlines
  • Develop communication procedures so relevant and timely information is provided
  • Develop more effective interpersonal communication and conflict-management skills.

After concluding an analysis, the team felt their meeting time was well spent. They had a lot to think about before the next gathering, which was scheduled for the following week.

Meeting #2: Prioritizing issues.
After a short icebreaker and a review of the ground rules and logistical arrangements, the team reviewed the progress made in the prior meeting. The team used the Nominal Group Technique to establish what was important. The members individually listed their priorities, which were then shared with the team and tallied. The clear consensus was that role identification, communication systems and communication effectiveness were the highest priority issues.

The group determined the first substantive issue to be discussed should be one that would be easily resolved, though clearly challenging. Therefore, they began problem solving on the team's communication systems. Through a facilitated discussion, the team members were able to list all the junctures where information exchange is important. Then the team developed consensus on how the communication needs were to be met.

"The team had a wonderful time creating a list comprising dozens of attributes of an ideal team."

Recognizing that one of our tasks as consultants was to gradually guide the team members into facilitating their own meetings, the group shifted gears toward the end of the second meeting. We pointed out to the group how a facilitated discussion enabled the team to develop consensus on the first issue. Fortuitously, the team members had just received a two-day facilitation training prior to this team meeting. Therefore, it was the perfect time to invite a member of the team to co-facilitate the next meeting with one of the consultants. Sam, a team member who had natural bridge-building and facilitation skills, stepped up to the plate. For Sam's benefit and the rest of the group's, the next team meeting was planned as a group. This process served the dual purpose of training the group on how to prepare for an effective meeting and, obviously, preparing for the meeting itself.

Some examples of the questions discussed to prepare for the third meeting were:

  • What items should be on the agenda and how should they be framed?
  • How should the items be ordered?
  • What time frames should be allocated to the items?
  • When and how should comments be summarized and reflected?
  • What types of interventions may be required?
  • What would be each of the co-facilitator's roles?

Meeting #3: Defining each member's role.
This third meeting was devoted to defining the roles of the team members. By listing tasks, reflecting points of view and looking at members' skills, the team was able to define individual and team roles more clearly.

The team member/facilitator plunged into his new role by acting as a recorder. As the meeting progressed, Sam became more comfortable in asking questions and reframing certain responses. He recorded the entire meeting himself and developed an agenda for the next meeting with the team. Sam took the flip charts with him, which he used to write up the report for the meeting. Clearly, Sam's confidence was greatly enhanced by having the opportunity to co-facilitate. Since that meeting, he has eagerly volunteered to facilitate other team meetings.

Meeting #4: Developing communication skills.
Throughout the earlier team meetings, we observed team process dynamics such as: who spoke to whom and how; how conflicts surfaced; and how members interrupted each other so we could help the team develop improved communication techniques. According to Edgar Schein, Sloan Fellows Professor of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the key to helping a team develop is to listen for process—that is, to attend to how things are said instead of focusing on what is said. Based on our observations and the team's desires, the fourth meeting was devoted to developing the communication skills of active listening, reframing and effective speaking.

The team members—Jan and Sue—who were engaged in a substantial conflict based upon two years of compounded misunderstanding, avoided direct confrontation, but freely discussed their conflict with others. This triangulation dampened team communication and productivity, creating an atmosphere of mutual distrust. This meeting, given its focus on effective communication, gave Jan and Sue the opportunity they both needed to risk addressing each other with their issues. We viewed this opportunity as a way to use the technique of meta-mediation, whereby the individuals in conflict can work on substantive issues while learning the process skills of effective communication.

"The team had a wonderful time creating a list comprising dozens of attributes of an ideal team."

As the various issues began to surface in a heated manner, we immediately stopped the action and asked the parties to reframe. For example, when Jan said: "You never meet our deadlines," we stopped her in her tracks and said: "Reframe, using an 'I' statement." Jan would then restate her thought as: "When you don't get the reports in on time, I'm concerned about meeting our deadlines." Then, Jan and Sue reflected back what each of them heard from the other person before stating her own point of view.

Through this technique, the team saw the skills they needed when they were demonstrated in a practical way. And, Jan and Sue experienced a real breakthrough in their working relationship by successfully talking out their issues. Also, other team members learned by their encouraging example.

Meeting #5: Acknowledging individual and team personalities.
The last opportunity to work with the team under our contract was in the context of a one-day Myers-Briggs team-building training using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The MBTI is a tool that helps people in organizations understand themselves and others, appreciate individual strengths and differences, clarify team decision making and communication styles, and encourage conflict resolution. It provides an indicator of personality by looking at eight personality preferences (extroversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/ feeling and judging/perceiving). The purpose of this training was to help team members understand their own and other team members' individual personalities as well as their team's personality. We developed a personalized report for the team to provide guidance for years to come. The information presented in the report came alive through the use of interactive discussions and exercises. The afternoon session was especially dynamic, when the team focused on team strengths and weaknesses and engaged in team-building projects. Specific discussions and exercises included work on:

  • Similarity/dissimilarity of personality types on the team
  • Strengths and weaknesses of the team and of each member
  • Problem-solving styles of the team and of each member
  • How each team member and the team as a whole prefer to use time
  • How the team deals with conflict
  • Specific action items that can be taken by individual team members or the team as a whole to improve team functioning.

Interestingly, the personalized team report, which was prepared by an outside source, identified many of the same areas we had been working on for the past month. This validated that the needs and objectives the team had developed for itself were exactly on target. The report ended with an action plan, which clearly laid out the next steps for this team. The team then prioritized these steps in the context of what they had already identified as critical in prior team meetings.

The Myers-Briggs team-building training also is a good fundamental tool and could be the first step in working with a team, depending on the team's individual attributes. If the Myers-Briggs training is done first, an action plan is developed in the context of personality types. This information could be used as a start-up point for a team to enhance its effectiveness. Given the needs and expressed desires of this particular team, however, we conducted the Myers-Briggs training at the end of our month with them. Because conflicts had been resolved and trust had been established during the one-month consulting period, the team members were ready to be more open and honest about their personal styles in the Myers-Briggs training.

Clearly this team had come a long way during the month we were privileged to work with its members. Through this process work, the team developed a sense of its mission, values and roles; worked on critical items such as communication systems and work responsibilities; resolved some underlying conflicts; began rebuilding trust; and developed an understanding about themselves and others' personalities in the workplace. If the team keeps the momentum that was established during this short period of time, we're certain they'll become a performing team in the not-too-distant future.

Personnel Journal, September 1996, Vol. 75, No. 9, pp. 91-94.

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