Odyssey of a Leader

An e-Portfolio by Kirstin Pantazis

Exploring Voyant tools through the word choices of Edgar Allen Poe

As a teenager I was introduced to the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, both his poetry and his short stories. While his poems are iconic, his short stories had a larger impact on my understanding of language and writing. In just a few pages, Poe takes his reader on journeys that end, often tragically, but always with lessons on humanity, the frailty of life, and the importance of taking chances. He so clearly communicates not just the life lessons but also the feelings and visualization of his stories in so few words. In a course focused on the importance of clear communication and visualization, what could be more appropriate to study? Poe’s works were the perfect focus for this foray into textual data analysis and the use of Voyant tools.

Textual analysis is an important tool for researchers, particularly for those who use qualitative methods or who work with audiences requiring both stories and numerical data. Voyant tools allows a researcher to upload a body of work or corpus, to set parameters (such as removing commonly used but irrelevant words ex. is), and to visualize analysis such as word count, frequency, correlation, trends, and more. These visualizations may offer insight into an author’s frame of mind or frame of reference or show unintended focus of the author’s (possibly through repetition of terms/phrases or correlation of term usage). While Tools like Voyant allow for textual analysis it is important to remember that the analysis depends on the researcher’s understanding of the text being analyzed and that it reflects their own assumptions.

Data Summary

One of the simplest tools in Voyant is the data summary. This provides an overview of the corpus broken down by document. This project reflects an analysis of five of Poe’s short stories listed here in order of length, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Tell-Tale Heart. We see the total word count of the corpus (20,307) and the total number of unique word forms (3,849). After filtering out the common stop words and adding words such as ‘said’ and ‘Usher’, we are shown the most frequently used words. This summary gives the researcher a place to start looking for more in-depth information and allows for comparisons to be drawn between included documents.

Cirrus

The cirrus, or word cloud, is a fun and simple visualization that depicts the most frequently used terms in the corpus. Size of the term shown is relative to the frequency of the term within the corpus. The interactive display ranges from 25 to 500 words, though I find that anything over 50 words is distracting and unreadable. This tool can help the researcher pinpoint additional stop words to filter out of the analysis. This is where I realized that ‘Usher’ and other names were throwing off an analysis of imagery and needed to be removed.

Trends

The trends tool allows the investigator to visualize how often specific words or phrases are used in the corpus in among either arbitrary or defined sections. The section of this corpus was defined as individual short stories. Of note, “death,” often associated with Edgar Allen Poe’s work, is rarely mentioned in most of the corpus, being confined primarily to The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death. Instead, Poe’s works are more focused on the way the way a person perceives the world. “Thought” underlies most of the works, with the thoughts being informed by the senses. Poe uses anatomical terms rather than abstract to describe how the world is interpreted: hands, eyes, and hearts. Focusing on the gross anatomy, Poe brings his audience back to the literal corpus, celebrating the mundane body and its tactile wonders. (It is important to note that the below visualization has limitations. In particular the color palette used may be difficult to interpret, especially when adding larger numbers of words to the visualization. The interactive nature of this tool helps to clarify but this is not useful in printed or static displays.)

Contexts

The contexts tool goes beyond mere word counts, showing how an individual word is used in context throughout the corpus. Throughout every short story, Poe uses “long” more often than any other word. While this is apparent from the cirrus instrument, the word cloud does not provide any context beyond the raw value of repetitions. The context tool provides more insight into the terms use. Rather than “long” used as a length of measurement (“the long night”) it is also used to express desire (“for whom I long’). “Long” was also highly associated with time (“long minutes”, “long ages”, “long eons”). This context is understandable, especially when considering the cirrus in which many words representing time appear. While the context tool is useful, it becomes considerably more powerful when coupled with the other tools of Voyant.

Conclusions

This is a tool best used as a suite of tools rather than as individual components.  Deeper insights come from putting the information from all the tools together. Word clouds or summaries are a good place to start, but it is only when combining insights from all the tools that you get deeper textual analysis. Additionally, the Voyant tool is helpful for pointing out what isn’t there. I expected to see “death” or “darkness” or other tropes associated with Poe appear in the analysis. This forced me to confront my own biases about the material. Often, what we expect but is missing is as important as what is present. It will be interesting moving into our capstone process to see if we can use this tool to help analyze data from multiple focus groups or participant reflections.  Further, the data visualization tools may make the data more accessible to our clients.

Leading by Example – Gender Equality in Higher Education

Gender inequality is an important issue in higher education and one that will not disappear without concerted effort. I think one of the most important policy changes that can be made is that there must be representation on hiring committees. This must be more than tokenism and should reflect what the institution wants to see rather than what is currently at the institution. Further, when determining where there are discrepancies, data should always be disaggregated so that institutions have clear pictures of where women, and other minorities, are being hired and how much they are being paid. Included in the hiring process should be policy that requires the advertising of all positions in diverse places.

I would like to see the state review and rework its hiring policies and then retrain its Human Resource heads. Currently, many state agencies have very strict hiring guidelines that keep interviews to short timelines and allow no variation in the questions posed to any interviewee. We know that this way is not working to diversify our institutions. I believe that the process should be amended to require diversity training of all hiring committees and then to trust in those committees. To give the committees more leeway than is currently given so that they can ask follow-up questions or pose questions in their own words. Hiring rubrics should consider the many non-traditional (non-white middle-class male) ways in which an interviewee may have gained experience.

Once hired, institutions should work to ensure that they are welcoming places for all their employees. This means being open to the possibility that there are problems on campus and maintaining rigorous systems that encourage feedback and complaints and that root out inequity when it is found. Policy must be made that requires the highest levels of administration to regularly receive bias training that asks them to examine their own behaviors, attitudes, and words. Trust must be built, through the dedicated efforts of all, to ensure that institutions are aware and ahead of any potential inequity or discriminatory actions.

I also believe that there should be institutional policy that requires annual review of pay to check for gender discrepancy and ensure equitable pay across gender. Additionally, higher education should work to move towards a culture that openly discusses pay and benefits rather than one that emphasizes the altruism that is often prized in education. While there are many times when I would argue that education is not a business, in this instance, it is important to treat employees as valued parts of the business and to recognize that they must be compensated for their contributions with tangible benefits rather than with words of praise for their caring/giving natures.

Most importantly, I hope to be the change that I want to see in higher education. I must persist through the disheartening imbalances and inequities that are prevalent in the upper echelons of higher education. My determination must be rooted not only in my desire to improve the higher education system for our students but also in my desire to improve the way the system works for the women that I hope will follow me. I must be willing to endure unequal pay, harassment or discrimination, the ridicule or contempt, and the loneliness of being the only one while I work to pave the way for others. As we have seen in the cases discussed in this class, it is only when we are willing to have our lives made public and to endure the censure that comes from speaking up that we are able to change the larger system for the rest of us. I hope to have the strength to continue to be the change that higher education needs.

Pinning Down an Ever-changing Concept – Title IX Coverage

While I support the new administration’s efforts to broaden the groups that are given protection under Title IX, I believe that the best course of action for Secretary Cardona is a measured and bi-partisan effort of revision that neither maintains the previous administrations strict stance against inclusion and victim’s rights nor reverts back to what the Obama administration had in place. As we see in the readings in this week’s module and in the many recent news stories about Title IX, sex and gender are two terms that have regularly shifting and misunderstood or not commonly agreed upon definitions. I believe that in order to get anything done Secretary Cardona will need to first establish a working definition of each term that is agreed upon by the majority of involved parties. He would then be best served by writing into any future letters, recommendations, policies, or orders, a regular review and update of the definitions. This acknowledgment of the shifting of societal and scientific understanding of sex and gender will allow education institutions to move forward with a set schedule in mind for possible shifts in policy. It is my belief, based on our previous study of leadership, that much of resistance to change is discomfort with uncertainty. Building in a schedule for regular review of base definitions will help all involved to feel confidant in adopting new policy or procedure and will help them to get used to the idea that this is an area that requires regular updates and change. By adopting neither of the previous administrations policies out-right this also furthers the idea that Title IX must constantly make progress and that the Department of Education is willing and able to take on responsibility for improving on itself. As Laura Dunn said in an interview for NPR, consensus is possible, it simply requires work and the will to achieve it (Smith, 2021).

Title IX enforcement will continue to be a mix of “Dear Colleague” letters, regulations, and published policy interpretation. Until the legislative branch of our government chooses to enact a new law that either broadens or more clearly defines what rights individuals have to remain free of discrimination, on the basis of sex, while in educational settings that are funded by the federal government there is no better way to ensure the protection of our students and stakeholders. The OCR and the Department of Education will continue to attempt to get in front of issues but will have to remain largely reactionary as our court system narrows or redefines what our current laws mean. The issue of transgender individuals is currently at the fore of many legal battles, particularly concerning their participation in athletics, once it is settled it is likely that we will see another issue arise to take its place. What of students who don’t want to be given a gender label? I fully expect to see higher education having to deal more directly with gendered bathrooms. I know of many institutions that have designated one gender neutral bathroom on each of their campuses and called this enough. I expect, and hope, that education will see more direct guidance about the availability and accessibility of gender neutral spaces. I also believe that higher education will have to address our reliance on data, including data on sex and gender, in a world that no longer offers only a binary choice. How will we rank institutions or decide on funding if many of our current schemes are reliant upon a strict binary split for clean data?

Moving forward, education leaders will have to be able to live and work within a world where the only constant is that the rule of today will likely not work tomorrow. We will need to learn to find an anchor in our personal frameworks, a reliance on those who have studied and understand the laws of our system, and a belief that our education system is regularly working towards truly equal treatment of all students under the law.

Smith, T. (March 10, 2021). Biden Begins Process To Undo Trump Administration’s Title IX Rules. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/03/10/975645192/biden-begins-process-to-undo-trump-administrations-title-ix-rules

Searching for Justice in Higher Education

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce’s report on public colleges and racial privilege is a data filled essay on the continuing need for affirmative action policies within higher education. Unfortunately, the report does not go far enough by stopping its suggestions at affirmative action policies that increase access for historically disadvantaged populations. Further, the reports language is potentially damaging these populations by reinforcing the idea that open access institutions are low quality options. The report does not address the fact that many students in open access colleges do not intend to earn a bachelor’s degree. Are these students being included in the calculations of degree attainment used in this report? In Virginia and across the nation, the majority of open access institutions are community colleges, most of which do not offer bachelor’s degrees. Therefore, bachelor’s degree attainment must be looked at not just as a product of open access quality or initial acceptance at selective institutions, but also as a product of transfer student access and success. The report oversimplifies.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down policies that use quotas in admissions processes. Quota is defined by Merriam-Webster as a proportional part or share. The arguments presented to support affirmative action, such as those in the Georgetown University report, all revolve around the number of students at a given institution not being proportional to the number of that group of students in the general population. At the heart of the affirmative action debate is the issue that our institutions, our government, and all of society, rely on data, on numbers, to define our problems and measure our progress towards our goals.  At the same time, the highest court in our land waffles between not allowing the use of quotas and requiring specific and definitive proof (via data) as the basis for college admissions policies. Higher education admissions procedures are being held hostage by our supreme court.  Our supreme court is well versed in legal practice, but they are not necessarily well versed in current education theory or the current ethical theories that drive our higher education institutions and their policies.

One such current ethical theory that is widely used at higher education institutions is that of justice as fairness. This theory, begun by John Rawls, posits that social inequalities, such as admissions procedures, should exist when they are designed to benefit the least advantaged members of society. It seems to me that our justice system and our education system are working from two ethical theories that are not compatible. What we need is a more widely accepted definition of what justice is, or what ethical framework we use, so that we can all work towards the same goals.

In reviewing the long list of court cases and political policies that narrowly define affirmative action I wonder that higher education institutions manage to function at all. I am amazed that educational leaders are not paralyzed by fear of running afoul of a muddled legal morass that is affirmative action law. Having read and discussed the laws, college policies, how we got to where we are, and arguments for and against affirmative action it is my belief that the only way for an educational leader to move forward is to root themselves in an ethical framework that they believe in, to stay abreast of current legal cases that may affect their institutions, to hire a crack legal team to represent the institution, and then to move forward.  Crafting policy and procedure that align with the institution’s mission and values and with their personal ethics should be the leader’s first concern followed closely by working to ensure that any policy is defensible by current or past legal standards. The law, and the supreme court’s interpretation of it, changes regularly. Leaders must learn to live with uncertainty and be sure of their motives such that they are willing to defend them in a court of law – and then move forward, willing to work towards a better future and unafraid of fighting for their beliefs in court.

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Policy and Procedure in the Pathways Program

It is easy to see yourself as constrained by a master builder rather than as an architect of the box that you chose to work within. I often feel as though I have no control over the rules and regulations that govern how I work as the transfer coach at my local community college.  I am grant funded and I answer to a supervisor at my home institution as well as a grant director who is housed at another institution.  Upon reflection, I have been privileged to assist in the creation and modification of several policies at my institution, within my grant, and at the state level.

At the state level, I represent my institution on the State Committee on Transfer (SCT), a group that is currently working with SCHEV to draft new policy in response to the state legislature’s mandate that transfer between public institutions be ‘fixed’ or made more efficient and less costly for students.  While the legislature has not passed a law or written a statute directly governing transfer policy, they have issued a mandate to public institutions that the situation be resolved upon threat of new legislation.  To avoid new laws being written, the SCT has been tasked with drafting policy and procedures that will fulfill the mandate while still allowing institutional flexibility.  It is interesting to see how higher education institutions are choosing to craft their own policy, working together to align current practices that are often diametrically opposed, rather than submit to new legislation which they all agree would be more confining. Additionally, I find it fascinating that higher education institutions act much like individuals, wanting to be in charge of their fate, bemoaning their lack of power, and yet regularly choosing not to be involved in the process of governing themselves.  For example, before I was the representative to the SCT, there were many state meetings where my institution was not represented and therefore not involved in crafting policy it had to abide by.

My position is funded by a generous grant from a charitable foundation and I was hired as the sole institutional representative at the beginning of the grant.  The Pathways program is small, with only four full-time employees, all housed at different institutions.  At the outset of the program, it was made clear to us that we were to act in an administrative, not legal, capacity, focusing on policy and leaving legal matters to the higher education and grant funding organizations’ legal teams.  Beyond that, we were given few constraints within which to dictate the programs policies.  While the idea of not worrying about legal matters seems freeing, it is important to note that we had multiple layers of both external and internal forces constraining our actions, including federal and state laws that govern all educational institutions.

External forces that guided all Pathways policy worked as boundaries within which we were able to create program policy.  As we added students to our program, we encountered more external guides.  When we began to work with foreign students, we had to adjust policy to abide by the Department of Homeland Securities policies on foreign students.  When we began to offer stipends, we had to adjust program policy to follow federal and state guidelines on who can be paid for work and how this pay must be reported.  The line between external and internal policy is blurry for the Pathways program.  We are our own program, but we work within four institutions.  Each of the four institutions involved in the Pathways program have different guidelines governing diversity, equity, and inclusion, all program policy must meet the guidelines at each of our institutions.  The Pathways program itself now has customs and procedures that are not codified but that govern our daily work.  Additionally, all policies set forth by the program must meet standards held by the grant funding organization.  To this date, more than a year into the start of our program, we have set very few official published policies, preferring to rely on customs and usage, or common law.

The Pathways policies that are clearly articulated are going through a process similar to the six steps detailed by Kaplin and Lee (2014).  We began by identifying potential issues within the program.  Then we designed solutions that would address the issue while leaving the grant director freedom to interpret the policy liberally. Next, the grant director drafted a formal policy and the grant team edited it ruthlessly.  The draft policy was taken to the Pathways program board made up of members from each institution and the funding organization.  Once approval of the policy was granted, the policy was published and implemented.  We are currently in the evaluation stage where we are collecting data to determine if the policy has any unforeseen adverse effects and if the intended goal of the policy has been reached.  The Pathways program incorporates modifications based on the evaluation of the new policy into the policy process.  Policy making is therefore a cycle rather than a linear progression with review and updates being viewed as necessary parts of the process. Pathways is lucky in that we are a small group and easily maneuverable.

Kaplin, W., & Lee, B. (2014). The law of higher education, 5th edition: Student version. Jossey-Bass.

A Leader’s Philosophy

I believe in the transformative power of teamwork.  A leader is nothing without their team.  Strong teams are rooted in mutual trust and respect.  I will give credit and recognition where it is due.  Further, I will promote the department and its efforts to the rest of the organization.

I believe that challenges to our views make us stronger.  I will listen to your opinions and your dissenting views.  However, once a decision is made, we must all support it.  I will not tolerate tearing each other down.  We sink or swim as a team.  This does not mean that we can’t make change.  Change is essential for developing as individuals, as a team, and our product.  Growth is important and only happens when we are honest with ourselves and our team.  To that end, we must all make time for honest self-reflection.

I am committed to the college mission; to helping every student to create their own success story.  I believe in the promise and potential of each student who walks through our doors and I expect that to be mirrored in my employees and the way we treat each other and our students.  Everyone deserves respect, to be heard, to be included in their own academic and professional journey.  There is no place for prejudice or discrimination in our work or on our team.

I am committed to maintaining the balance between work and life, and to helping each of you to do the same.  Our work is important, but we work so that we can live – we don’t live to work. Spending time with family, protecting our mental health, and regular self-care enable us to be more productive in our work.

I am not perfect.  I will make mistakes, everyone will, we’re human.  I promise to take responsibility for my actions and my decisions, and I expect others to do the same.

I believe that the best leaders are authentic leaders who embody their philosophy in everything they do and encourage their team to do the same.  Consequently, everyone will have a chance to develop as an individual and within the team.  It is my privilege to lead my team as they develop into strong, effective leaders.

The Process of Peer Editing

I am a competent but not a confidant writer.  Consequently, the process of peer editing, turning a rough draft over to a classmate for review and reviewing their work in return, was nerve wracking.  I agonize already over what feedback my instructors might give me.  Did they like my word choice? Did they notice the slight hitch in flow where I added a data point?  Did I come across to strong or to wishy-washy, or did I show my voice and position on the topic?  Asking a classmate to look at a work in progress, and giving them my honest opinion on their work, required an enormous amount of vulnerability and trust.

The peer editing process was useful in this instance and I believe that was largely due to the partner I had. This exercise reminded me that Lencioni’s (2002) foundation of trust for teams is relevant in all things.  My peer editor and I had worked together before on other class work and had already learned to trust each other a little.  Without that I would have been more concerned with how my comments on their paper would be taken.  Knowing each other, knowing how we’ve reacted to previous criticism and how open we are with sharing our concerns, I felt able to judge the type of critique that would be most helpful.  Similarly, I felt that the critiques I received were made in an honest effort to improve both my writing and my confidence.  And they did.  I accepted many, though not all, of the suggested edits.  Often, my partner pointed to areas that were unclear but did not attempt to fix it – they simply pointed to sentences and to why they were confused and I was then able to re-write to address the issue but in my own voice.

While this process was successful and helpful in this instance I am not sure that it will be in every instance.  I very much appreciated this particular partner’s help as they have a very different voice and view from my own.  I worry that this process might be counterproductive if paired with a partner who I had not built trust with on both an academic and a personal level.

References

Lencioni, P. (2002).  The five dysfunctions of a team.  Jossey-Bass.

 

Blog Post #5 – Strength through Conflict

Conflict is a necessary, valuable part of high functioning teams (Lencioni, 2002).  According to Eisenhardt et al. (1997) teams who do not engage in constructive conflict are likely to make less effective decisions based on fewer and less detailed options.  For conflict to be a positive experience a leader must understand why some people avoid conflict, their personal conflict preferences, and how to encourage healthy conflict resolution within the team.

Conflict Styles

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) is a self-assessment tool that separates behavior preferences into five modes based on an individual’s assertiveness and their cooperativeness (TKI, personal communication, 2020).  The TKI’s five groups are labelled with terms that interfere with its interpretation due to negative societal connotations.  Competitiveness, for example, while expected of men, is not as socially acceptable for women (Powell et al., 2002).  Likewise, avoidance is often referred to as running away from a problem instead of dealing with the situation.  It has been suggested that renaming these groups may make it easier for individuals to be comfortable with the labels and more likely to lean-in to using the techniques that each group embodies (T. Saunders, personal communication, 2020).  Despite the negative connotations, it is important to understand that each team member will have a unique preference for how to handle conflict and that each conflict style has value when used in appropriate circumstances.

According to Schulz-Hardt et al. (2002) groups tasked with objective evaluation of alternatives are better able to make unbiased decisions when they ensure either genuine or contrived dissent.  Genuine dissent is best created when the group’s composition can be manipulated so individuals have natural differences in their preferences (Shulz-Hardt et al., 2002).  Because this is often not possible in predetermined working groups, Shulz-Hardt et al. (2002) recommend contriving dissent by creating diversity of opinion through inclusion of individuals with diverse education and functional backgrounds and creating a culture where dissent and debate are valued.

Team Discussion

Following is a continuing analysis of a production team detailed in Blog Post 2 and analyzed in each post since.  The team has not taken the TKI and therefore what follows are estimates of their preferences and predispositions.  The team leader, the PD, is likely high on collaboration and mid-range in all other areas.  Conversely, the APD does not like conflict at all and is high in avoidance.  The other team members all differ in their preferred styles, but the overall team is driven by the leader’s preferences.  Though the team would prefer not to fight, the members are not afraid to express differing opinions.  The PD’s willingness to collaborate with an emphasis on listening to concerns and finding optimal team solutions coupled with their ability to take responsibility for decisions has led to the team’s overall ability to regularly produce a quality product.

Shulz-Hardt et al. (2002) stress the importance of educational and functional diversity within teams that are unable to choose their members.  The production team has worked together for five years and its membership is set by it’s board of directors.  It is comprised of people from varying functional backgrounds with the PD and CD in higher education, the APD in K-12 education, the FD in information technology, the TD in military service, the ND in research, and the MD in electrical technology.  Two members have no college experience, three members have bachelor’s degrees, and two members hold master’s degrees and are currently in doctoral level studies.  All team members can request that their assistants be included in planning meetings.  The production team evidences diversity of experience and background such that it should be able to engage in genuine dissent and positive conflict if it chooses to do so.

Self-Reflection

Individual team members need to learn what their conflict preferences are, and to expand their ability to use different modes of conflict resolution.  As a team member, I need to get better at compromise – at recognizing situations where I don’t have to be right in order to be successful.  Using Eisenhardt et al.’s (1997) recommendation of humor might help encourage team spirit and to lessen the sting of not ‘wining’ my way in a team conflict.  Focusing on the facts of the situation at hand and reminding myself and the team that the conflict is not personal should also help to encourage the use of different modes of conflict resolution.  The team would also be well served to talk over individual conflict preferences and the overall strategies of humor, multiple options, and a facts-only debate style.  Even from inside the team, rather than as the leader, the attempted use of these strategies by one member, me, should start to shift the culture around conflict by making the team a safer place to voice dissent.

Recommendations

When making major decisions the team should be aware of its potential towards conformation bias and seek to mitigate this by bringing in the assistants so that the group is more heterogeneous in its initial preferences and therefore has greater chance of genuine dissent (Shulz-Hardt et al., 2002).  When time does not allow for this, the team should ensure that one member is assigned as devil’s advocate to encourage dissenting opinions thereby expanding choice and ensuring a higher quality decision (Shulz-Hardt et al., 2002).  Though the team feels comfortable airing issues together, it needs to work to change the culture so that dissenting opinions, conflict, is valued more highly rather than seen as an obstacle to overcome.  This is particularly important for those members who are currently afraid of conflict (Lencioni, 2002).  Encouraging the psychological safety needed for productive conflict can be begun by just one person’s willingness to be vulnerable to the team (TedxTalks, 2014).  While it would be best if this person was the PD, the team leader, any member, myself included, can begin to change the organizational culture by leading with our own vulnerability and by being willing to listen for and encourage dissenting opinions.

References

Eisenhardt, K. M., Kahwajy, J. L., & LJ III, B. (1997). How management teams can have a good fight. Harvard business review75(4), 77-86.

Lencioni, P. (2002).  The five dysfunctions of a team.  Jossey-Bass.

Powell, G. N., Butterfield, D. A., & Parent, J. D. (2002). Gender and managerial stereotypes: have the times changed?. Journal of management28(2), 177-193.

Schulz-Hardt, S., Jochims, M., & Frey, D. (2002). Productive conflict in group decision making: Genuine and contrived dissent as strategies to counteract biased information seeking. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes88(2), 563-586.

TEDxTalks. (2014, May 4). Amy Edmundson: Building a psychologically safe workplace [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8

Blog Post #4 – Teaming Trouble

Introduction

Successful teams are constructed by effective leaders through careful planning and regular cultivation of open and honest communication within the team.  Teams must learn how to be effective as a group and how to communicate across cultural and ingrained barriers.  When a team faces a set-back they can rebuild and come out stronger if they are willing to risk their comfort and safety to have tough conversations about how they function.

Creating Team

Assigning a group of people to work together does not make a team.  Teaming is a conscious decision to work towards a collective goal rather than to work together towards individual goals, group work (Kahn, 2009).  The first step in building a team is for the members to jointly create a clear, simple mission statement that will guide the team in every other action it takes by defining what they will accomplish.  Once this is complete, the team can create roles to parcel out the work, communication plans for easy coordination, and decision-making processes (Kahn, 2009).

The ability to do the above is grounded in the assumption that team members will openly voice their thoughts and opinions, particularly when they disagree, so that the team can be sure it is making the best choices at any given point.  According to Edmondson (TEDx Talks, 2014), this communication does not happen when individuals do not have psychological safety within their team.  Edmondson (TEDx Talks, 2014) further posits that psychological safety must be cultivated within a team so that each member understands, not theoretically but in practice, that their competent image is not as important as their willingness to ask questions and help the team to learn.

Improving the Team

In a continuation of the analysis of the production team that was described in Blog Post #2 and further detailed in Blog Post #3 the following are recommendations for improving team function.

  1. Making a Mission: The production team was handed a company mission statement that none of them had been involved in crafting and that had not changed in the more than 5 years they have been working together.  Step one should be a team meeting, or two, for the team to discuss and create their own mission statement.  This statement should consider why each member is working as a volunteer in this organization and what they see as their personal goal and as the overall production goal.
  2. Communication Plans: There are no written policies on how the production team will communicate with each other. In order to clearly define communication channels, and to define the boundaries within which the team will function, the team should create a written practice that addresses when working hours are, what forms of communication are acceptable, and how often communication is needed and/or expected.
  3. Safe Space: Uncomfortable conversations need to be had to discuss the team’s comfort level with being vulnerable and taking risks in front of each other. The team must acknowledge its current willingness to be vulnerable and then work to build trust within the team to encourage open communication where no one holds back for fear of looking stupid.  Lencioni (2002) suggests multiple exercises that could serve as a starting point for this such as appointing a team member to ‘mine’ or encourage dissenting opinion, or introducing real time permission where a team member who notices discomfort stopping the talk to remind the team that conflict is vital to improvement.

Taken together, these three steps have the potential to clarify the team’s goals, rededicate them to working together as a team, set boundaries so that the team is not torn by competing demands, and create a space in which each member’s opinion is valued as a chance for the team to learn and grow.

References

Kahn, W. (2009). The student’s guide to successful project teams. Routledge.

Lencioni, P. (2002).  The five dysfunctions of a team.  Jossey-Bass.

TEDxTalks. (2014, May 4). Amy Edmundson: Building a psychologically safe workplace [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8

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