On Thursday, January 16, EDLAB organized its first Student-Meet of 2020. EDLAB’s Student-Meets are informal gatherings in which students from all UM faculties come together to chat about their educational experiences at the university. The focus of this particular Student-Meet was on team dynamics.
Central to the event resided the question: Is there a magical recipe for groupwork? The first part of the event was a brainstorm. The students present were divided into two groups and were asked to talk about their best experience with teamwork. What made this experience so good? On a big paper in the middle of the tables, the students wrote answers such as communication, strong leadership and a safe environment. After forty minutes, the papers were fully filled with various components of good groupwork.
Stephanie Meeuwissen, expert in interdisciplinary team (learning) processes, learning cultures and psychological safety in the workplace was present at the event too. She enlightened the students on the already conducted research on the topic. For starters, Stephanie asked the group whether they had defined team dynamics. As it turns out, groupwork is not the same as teamwork. Where a team has a common goal, a group does not necessarily have so.
Then, Stephanie explained that, though there are many assets to good teamwork – which cannot all be identified when merely looking at processes and outcomes (Decuyper et al., 2010, p.127), there are three which form the magic recipe. They are, placed in random order, the following:
- Safety, which is a shared belief that it is safe to ask, share or suggest anything in the team, also if it is concerns speaking against the status quo.
- A leader who can inspire and motivate people leading to engagement in teamwork. This is not necessarily the same as a manager, who aims to get things done (right) here and now.
- Boundary crossing attitude, which means that all team members should be open to other disciplines than their own.
As one can imagine, these three components are highly interlinked.
However, the magic recipe is not always followed. Where people come together, friction is on the watch. A team is no exception to the rule. Hence, the second part of the event was a practical application of tips on how to give feedback to a team member who is not doing their part of the work. This practice turned out to be easier than a real-life situation, due to an absence of emotional responses from both the one who receives or gives feedback. This difficulty was somewhat fixed with a second practice round in which the students had to follow a script. In teams, one student had to practice giving feedback to their thesis supervisor. How do you actually do that, giving feedback to a superior?
Both practice sessions showed once more that both giving as well as receiving feedback is not an easy task.
Wherever one goes, working in a team seems unavoidable. However, the recipe to good teamwork is not always easy to follow. Therefore, both learning about its different ingredients as well as practicing situations in which teamwork might have gone wrong are important experiences for anyone, students too. A safe environment such as a university classroom or a Student-Meet seems like a good place for this.
The facts are clear. Based on, for example, research by Amy Edmondson, one can conclude that all elements influencing the effectiveness of teamwork reside under the umbrella of so-called psychological safety. It is not too surprising that if team members do not feel safe to share their ideas or take action, which always comes with a risk, every other element of teamwork will influence the outcome differently (1999, p.379). Thus, a psychological safe environment needs to be established, in order for the other factors to have at least the environment of establishing the desired outcome. Now, the difficulty lies, of course, in how to establish an environment as such.
Interested in attending one of the future Student-Meets? Follow our Facebook page for updates
Are you interested to read more research conducted on this topic? You can find the recommended readings by Stephanie Meeuwissen in the reference list below.
Van den Bossche, P., Gijsselaers, W.H., Segers, M., & Kirschner, P.A. (2006). Social and Cognitive Factors Driving Teamwork in Collaborative Learning Environments. Team Learning Beliefs and Behaviors. Small Group Research, 37(5), 490-521.
Decuyper, S., Dochy, F., & Van den Bossche, P. (2014). Grasping the dynamic complexity of team learning: An integrative model for effective team learning in organisations. Educational Research Review, 5, 111-133.
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
Meeuwissen, S.N.E., Gijselaers, W.H., Wolfhagen, I.H.A.P., & Oude Egbrink, M.G.A. (n.d.). How Teachers Meet in Interdisciplinary Teams: Hangouts, Distribution Centers, and Melting Pots. Academic Medicine, Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges.