Irrationally held Truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors – Huxley 1825-1895

Stating

Our team ended our team learning module on a high, with formed friendships, cohesion, evidence of team working and learning and increasing “psychological safety” in the group (Hills 2001). This is a stark contrast to the emotionally loaded response experienced when our old team was split up and the mourning experienced at the loss of the old team.

Deconstruction

When our old team was split up, the emotional response was extreme and surprising. The old team functionally did not work; moreover, we didn’t necessarily get on as individuals when working together. In fact, after splitting up, as individuals, we get on a lot better now and it feels like tension has been relieved. Consequently, the expectation due to the failures of previous tasks, poor team working, lack of communication and tension building, was that we’d look forward to splitting up the team and a new beginning. This was an expectation I shared with members of both teams.

I was looking forward to engaging with business minds that had been placed with me, to compliment and challenge me, and for my existence in the new team, to do the same for others. I wanted to feel an enterprising spark, similar to what I had within Enactus and what I had at the beginning of my time with Gateshead Council, where by, I know there is really “something” within this collective of people and exciting things lie ahead, even if it is far from perfect at the moment. With the old team, we all felt nothing.

So when the team was split up, there was a significant amount of misplaced anger towards the lecturing staff for doing such a thing and anger directed towards members of our new team. It was also interesting because before the team swap, we’d heard lots about other members of the other team, so we united with many preconceived ideas of each other. I’m sure others had assumptions about me too. Surprisingly, even I felt up tipped and a bit resentful of this new team, which was completely unexpected, as I’d wished for the change so much.

However, week two was a lot more positive and we went through a process of discovery, realising that within this team whilst we were all very different, there was a good match of skills and differences. When we started discussing our business ideas, there was a spark there and a different type of energy. Moreover, as the weeks grew on, there grew a bond, where by the team, engaged in tasks for the team’s overall learning as a unit. Such learning could only take place, in situations where physical proximity was enabled. However, outside of meetings and physically working together, the bond by the end of the module wasn’t strong enough for distance learning as a unit, but it was a positive start. But within the progression towards the end of the module, there was a progression from group of emotional individuals into the beginnings of a team.

Within the team learning module, this is probably the module in which has enabled me to truly get the most out of my other modules and to challenge my preconceived strengths and weaknesses, whilst showing me how I can effectively contribute to the team. My biggest learning point has been the potential learning opportunities within the team itself, if team work and a team learning culture is fully embraced. I’ve learnt far more about myself, about business and about other people through my “interactions” and “experience” within my teams (Winstanley 2005). I’ve also realised that on reflection, all the high emotions and frustrations, as real and as personal they felt within the team, are actually a natural process of team learning and team formation. Perceived failings and difficulties was actually the team learning (Winstanley 2005).

Theorising

The emotional response in the beginning of the new team could be put down to a new “learning shock” in which a new learning environment is formed and is completely unfamiliar and the learner experiences a state of shell shock (Winstanley 2005). Within the learning shock theory, learners experience feelings of disorientation, frustration, tension and desperately try to cling onto the familiar (Winstanley 2005). This can further be connected with Mezirow ‘s (1990) theory of “meaningful learning”, in which learners in new situations can experience a “narrow orientation”, in which they attempt to reject norms, that don’t coincide with what they already know. Within a team working environment, especially one that is enforced, even the most narrow orientation of learner within the team is forced to be more receptive and open themselves to new, uncomfortable experiences, that don’t accord with their “cognitive structure” (Mezirow 1990).

Such a process, enhances the “learning shock”, as the new team presents an unfamiliar, learning opportunity with a “bewildering set of new norms”, provoking a highly emotive response (Winstanley 2005). As such, self-doubt sets in, with the learners forced to re-evaluate their own identities and establish their position within the new group (Hills 2001). Winstanley’s “learning shock” theory can further be connected to her “thinking faults theory”, in which each learner experiencing the shock, goes through an array of emotions (2005).

Applying the “thinking faults”, theory to our team formation, the first stage is “catastrophising” in which the group change is perceived to be a much larger and extreme change that will have a huge fall out of impact, than in reality it is (Winstanley 2005). The second stage, is magnifying the negative, in which the team seeks out negatives within the new team and blows them out of proportion superficially (Winstanley 2005). Consequently, we sought out the perceived negatives we’d heard about our new members and instantly dismissed them and exaggerated within “this is never going to work” scenarios.  We then move onto “externalisation and blame”, involving the learners to place inappropriate blame onto the external environment (Winstanley 2005). Our new team became extremely angry towards lecturing staff and coaches, in which we felt pushed into an uncomfortable situation. Moreover, this tension was even present in our interaction with each other, in which several members displayed the attitude of “I didn’t want this or you in my team”. The fourth stage of the thinking faults theory is “emotive reasoning”, which involves members desperately trying to make sense of their emotional responses, even if unexpected (Winstanley 2005). For myself, this involved romancing the previous team initially and considering that potentially we should have stayed as we were and it would have been easier. The final stage is “mind reading”, which is potentially the most damaging of all the stages (Winstanley 2005). Within this stage learners become aware that their frustrations might be shared by others within the team and try to guess what others are thinking about the situation and about them.

The theories of “learning shock” and “thinking faults” (Winstanley 2005), although difficult and frustrating, when applied to our team, go to some lengths at explaining the often unexpected emotional responses experienced. Moreover, this emotive situation, provoked positive discussions the next week, in which we found that most of our emotional responses and reasoning, had been completely unfounded. Consequently, applying Mezirow (1990) “Meaningful learning” theory, we began to establish a new cognitive structure within a new learning environment, forming new norms. Such constructivist theories of team learning ring true here (Gibbs 1981), in which our growing bond and progression through the weeks to the end of the module, can be considered to be a direct output of our construction of a new team learning environment.

Construction

It is interesting to explore through theories, that the response experienced during the formulation of the new team, was an emotive response to a change in learning environment and being placed into the unknown. It is positive that we turned these emotional responses into productive outputs and began building the team. As such, in future team changes and formation, it can be taken forward that such emotional responses are part of the process and can be used to make “transformative action” within team learning (Mezirow 1990).

Gibbs, G. (1981) Teaching Students to learn. Oxford: OUP

Hills, H. 2001. Team-Based Learning, Hampshire: Gower Publishing.

Mezirow, J. (1990) Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood – A guide to transformative and emancipationary learning. San Franciso: Jossey Bass

Winstanley, D. (2005) Personal Effectiveness. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

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Learning is an Emancipation of the mind

Stating
Within week five, the business teams were shuffled around and new teams created. Within our learning in team’s module, we had an immediate task to consider group coaching as a tool and our team’s ability to coach itself. The team did not engage with the task collectively and only three people completed it, with the rest not taking part in the task. Consequently, learning as a team did not occur. In comparison, within week 11 we were asked to complete a financial task utilising a variety of formulas to assess a business and construct a financial spread sheet model in which these formulas would work. All members worked on the task and contributed and at the end of the task, after we’d received feedback, we concluded that as a collective we’d learnt by researching, experimenting, from each other, by actively being involved and through requesting lecture feedback. The question is why did team learning occur in one situation and not in the other?

Deconstruction
Such a question considers learning in broader terms outside of those two incidents and to an extent, considers what have the team learnt and how have the team learnt across the whole module? Winstanley defines learning as “acquisition of knowledge/skill that enables the realisation of something new” within “an active process of developing meaning, transferring knowledge into action and developing competence” (2005:3).

I’m sure by now in my reflections, that my learning preferences and styles have been stated, so there is not much value expounding them again, consequently, it is much more interesting to reflect on our team learning preferences, how we are actually learning and the impact of the learning on each individual learner.
To deconstruct the two tasks, task one involved exploring a theory based concept of team coaching in which the team had no knowledge in. As a collective, the task was supposed to motivate us to research the concept, challenge it, interpret an opinion and apply it within our team, providing a conclusion of whether we are able to coach within the team and to evaluate the value of that. We initially identified there was a knowledge gap surrounding team coaching and around the value of coaching overall. This knowledge gap did not provoke collective engagement in the task and to learn more about team coaching, instead within the team frustration was felt, confusion around the concept and aggravation that another theory based task had been given. The lack of knowledge within the group disengaged the collective and the task was completed by three team members, who are not dwarfed by theory based tasks. As such after the task, there was further disengagement as the team felt they’d learnt nothing and still didn’t understand coaching as a concept and the three who had been engaged in the task had expanded their individual knowledge, but struggled to see the benefit for the team as a whole.

Conversely in the finance task, the team identified the huge knowledge gaps in order to complete the task. This involved areas of finance, calculations, equations, theory and spread-sheets, a cross section of skills in which our team are weakest. However, it was not met with frustration and instead our team took a different approach. By this point, we were able to identify strengths within the team and learning preferences, so strategically we exploited them. Theorists were reading the theory to understand the concepts, pragmatists were breaking down the tasks that needed to be done and setting up mini groups to work on and activists kept the momentum and got on with completing calculations. Moreover, we made sure that the learning was spread around and we used it as an opportunity not to simply complete the task, but to challenge and to understand the concepts. We had members working in groups, with one member weaker in that area so they could observe the stronger member and further their understanding. For each calculation we made sure the whole team knew where it came from and we had a few people completing the calculations and then others checking them, meaning that firstly they were right but also, if things were wrong (and they often were the first time, second, third….) we could work out why and put it right as a collective. Then when it came to the construction of the spread-sheet, as no-one was an expert, each group worked with one person supervising, to place their figures in to replicate the equations and calculate the same answers, to try and coordinate the building of the model. As such, every member had a go at inputting on the spread sheet and understanding how it worked.

Consequently, as a collective, we learnt a lot from this task and we would be able to apply the knowledge onto our own business and create a functional model and understand where the appropriate equations came from and why they are needed; something which as a collective, we could not do before. In fact, due to the feedback we requested from Tony Blackwood, we’d be able to complete the task to a higher standard and more effectively. Furthermore, unlike the coaching task, which was instantly discounted, within the finance task, we actually found out within the group we had more expertise than what we originally thought via experimentation and exploring skills and different members were able to bring their own knowledge and experience into the group. Moreover it wasn’t expertise that pushed us through task, but the symbiotic relationship of learning together and motivating each other, within a safe environment. Consequently we have a group of individuals who all learn in distinct ways and attach different interpretations to information, which when brought together brings an added value to the learning experience. Within this task, it was not the completion of the task that was important, but our motivation to make sure we could all do, practice, understand, experiment and learn within the task.

The value in team learning is that it is no longer a process in which I continuously learn in my own preference. I learnt as an individual far more within the team on the finance task, than I did within the coaching task, which I was able to stick to my learning preferences and comfort zones unchallenged. Within the team, we “interact and transform received information” within the team “actively constructing, modifying and revising it” (Nichol 1997). Consequently, as a collective we attach meaning to it but as an individual (and as a team), we benefit from other members revisions, interpretations and modifications, that are outside our sphere of learning (Nichol 1997). Moreover, as a collective we become far more proficient, at adapting our bank of knowledge to new situations, as it is no longer just the replication of one learner, it becomes a collective reconstruction, in which more innovation, experimentation and value is derived to further push the learning process forward (Gibbs 1981).

Theorising
Learning can be described as a mode of “transformative action” (Moon 1999:116). Consequently, lack of knowledge is not an issue itself where there is the willingness to learn. Moon (1999:116) illustrates the five stages of learning in any situation:
1. Noticing – Identifying gaps in knowledge and enhanced self-awareness.
2. Making sense – ordering ideas and thoughts.
3. Making meaning – New material Assimilated
4. Working with meaning – Guiding further learning, accumulation of ideas and manipulation of knowledge.
5. Transformative learning – Application of knowledge onto new concept, self-motivated.
Considering Moon’s theory as a check list, it can be used to consider if learning, either individually or in our collective team has taken place. This linear progression through learning makes pragmatic sense as in order to learn, you need to acknowledge at some point you don’t know something and need to learn to fill a knowledge gap or that you are actually learning something, in order to apply acquired knowledge in the future. Consequently, this model is dependent on learner engagement with learning, but it can provide a check list to enhance learning self-awareness and an acknowledgement of future knowledge empowerment (Van Grinsven, M and Visser, M. 2011).
Applying this model to our two tasks, within the coaching task whilst our team was able to identify the knowledge gap, only three people engaged and learnt from the activity and collective team learning did not take place, as the team couldn’t make sense of the concept and would not be able to apply the concept in future. Conversely, the finance task, team learning did occur and as a collective we progressed through Moon’s model of learning, with members helping each other make sense and meaning out of the concept, concluding with transformative learning as a collective and on an individual basis.

Consequently, using Moon’s theory of learning, as a model to use diagnostically to assess if collective learning has taken place, it is now necessary to consider why in one task the team engaged and why in the other it refused. Whilst it could be pointed out that a variety of factors could contribute to this including that one task was more business related, the other was heavily theory based and one was more practical and tangible. These conclusions are all true, however I perceive that within the team, there was a shift between how learning was perceived within the group and how the team learning progressed within the five weeks. Learning as a process transformed from not occurring collectively at all and being dismissed, to a symbiotic experience embracing a variety of mediums. It is no longer focused on what the learner, within their isolated personal space, chose to learn and became more about experiential learning and learning through other team members preferences, interactions and learning becomes deeper and more unpredictable in direction and scope (Hills 2001).
Learning is now no longer an “individual self-autonomous experience” (Winstanley 2005: 14) and is much more intertwined with the team and individuals within the team’s learning styles, preferences and approaches to learning. Whilst, I’ve already made the point many times, that my team is full of activists, consequently I consider it of more value to consider other theories, instead of Kolb’s learning cycle (1984) and apply them to our team.

Winstanley et al (2003) states there are four distinctive learning orientations, with learners falling either side of the interpretation of each orientation. As with most models and theories, I find them often simplistic and too involved in the process of labelling, where I consider learning is a fluid process, adaptable to situations. Winstanley’s (2003) theory adds value regardless of its simplistic nature as it explores potential motivations behind learning, an issue that may have been behind the initial discounting of the coaching task and the engagement with the finance task. As such, the key is to identify team motivation for learning and to potentially exploit it in future tasks to try to ensure engagement.

Winstanley et al (2003) theory expounds that a learner can be an:
1. Implementer – Either an experimenter, someone who practices their skills in the open or a concealer, someone who actively hides their skills.
2. Lover of learning, someone with an intrinsic love of learning – Either a seeker, someone who actively seeks out new learning opportunities and reflects on them or a sponge, less active and absorbs from surroundings and others.
3. Badge collector, seeking out a qualification or recognition – Either an earner, someone who works hard to earn a qualification or purchasers, someone who believes they have the right to gain the qualification.
4. Affirmer – Either a validator, an active learner confirming their identity or an observer, passive learning role.
Such a theory provides an interesting frame work when considering the motivations behind learning within our team. Initially in the beginning we had a lot of frustrating disengagement with many members seeking to be taught. As such, the team sought out structured learning sessions with lecturers validating the process and only work which had some element of a contribution was embraced. Consequently, as a unit, no value was seen in what we could learn from each other and tasks that whilst not contributing to our degree, did present a significant learning opportunity which would benefit our business. Applying Winstanely’s theory within the coaching task, collectively the team was displayed itself as a badge collector, advancing the motivation to learn as being about recognition only, and as the task formally wasn’t assessed it was collectively discounted. The finance task also added nothing to our qualification, a part from a learning opportunity, yet learners within the team displayed more of an experimenter, seeker, observer and validator attitude. The difference in behaviour and approach to the task is suggestive that the motivation behind learning was different, with the team advancing the collective learning as a priority above completion of a task that wasn’t assessed.

On an individual level, within both tasks and within my education, I am a seeker, a learner who loves to learn. I seek out knowledge not only because I’m interested in the subject and love to learn (although that is a huge part), but because of “cognitive dissonance”, where my motivation to learn stems from recognising a knowledge gap and acting upon that (Festinger 1957). Whereas, individual members in my team can experience a gap, acknowledge it but have no motivation to fill the gap by learning. Moreover, learning within this module has evidenced to me, I am also a validator; I use learning and knowledge to flesh out my identity. Doing well and working hard is a part of my identity, but I didn’t realise until recently that gaining good marks, beating others (and myself from previous times), is so implicitly important to me and is linked tightly to my self-confidence. Whilst being a seeker makes me learn being a validator makes me highly focused and competitive with the application and interpretation of my knowledge.

However, it isn’t just orientation and preferences that I consider to have significantly altered our attitude towards learning. It’s the progression of group dynamics and attitudes itself; thanks to Belbin, insights and working alongside each other, we have a greater sense of each other and our tasks have forced us as a collective and individually to do things outside of our preferences and to take ownership of our learning (Rogers and Freiberg 1994). Consequently, our team has pushed learning as the goal in tasks, experimenting and supporting each other to learn new things within the team and for the team. This core of support that has developed over the five weeks wasn’t present within week one of our new team for the coaching task; where we approached the coaching task as individuals and faltered; we approached the finance task as a team, exploiting each other and the team in order to learn as a collective. Irrespective of the fact the activity wasn’t “mandatory”; the team’s attitude had changed.

Taking learning within the team and from each other a step further, we can apply O’Connor and Seymour model of competences, by which the learners have unconscious competence, conscious competence, conscious incompetence and unconscious incompetence (1990:27). Applying these broad labels, each team member including myself, will have started the module with a fair idea of what they perceived their competences and incompetence to be. However, team learning challenges these assumptions. Taking the finance task as an example, similarly to the coaching task, the initial assumption was that we don’t know how to collectively do it and no-one has the appropriate skill set. However, within the team we found that we did have competences in certain areas that could be utilised in the task, which we can take forward into another similar task. We also discovered incompetence and gaps in knowledge, which provoked research and reflection pre and post task completion. Moreover, working within the team as a collective and learning, brings to light competences and incompetence that you were unaware of, making unconscious, conscious, which you only can learn from learning with other people (O’Connor and Seymour 1990). These incompetence and competences can be exploited within the group to rectify others incompetence and vice versa. This model of learning is very insular but has a distinctive value as it is people inclusive and is a prompt that team learning is about learning about the team and yourself. It invites feedback as a mode of learn in a non-threatening way, as it becomes all about learning for the team.

Perry ‘s(1999) model takes learning within the team further providing answers for the difference in attitude towards the tasks due to differing attitudes to learning, and further advances my point that learning within the team is no longer autonomous and the group dynamic within learning triumphs. Perry (1999: 198) theory illustrates a hierarchy of learners, in which they progress from tutor dependence to independence becoming more confident and competent. A learner starts at the bottom in “dualism”, believing everything the tutor/teacher says is gospel and seeks out learning opportunities from them; they want to be told things (Perry 1999). The learner then progresses to “relativism”, in which they seek out knowledge, but believe everything they read as fact and they don’t distinguish journal articles as opinions (Perry 1999). Thirdly, the learner move into “commitment”, in which the evaluation takes place and they begin to ask questions and assess a sources validity or motive (Perry 1999). Finally the learner, moves to the top which is “deep learning”, in which a learner strategically asks questions, compares sources and makes their own evidenced judgements out of sought out materials; they can criticise and confidently completely disagree or agree (Perry 1999).

Applying this theory to our team learning, we can consider the team began within dualism within the coaching task, in which a knowledge gap was not filled by the tutor and the team was not confident to collectively fill it themselves, they were waiting to be told the right answer, right opinion or direction to go in. When this didn’t happen, the team disengaged. However, within the coaching task, the team had progressed into relativism, where we exhibited confidence to seek out the knowledge we’d needed, but we did take everything we read as fact and we were unable in the spread sheet model to adapt it into our own interpretation for the task. Hence we ended up with spread sheet that whilst functionally and right, was not quite the right fit for the task. Consequently, Perry’s theory provides an explanation of the change in attitude towards learning, based on growing confidence, psychological safety and the formation of a team (Hills 2001).

On a personal level, I consider I was in between commitment and deep learning. My learning tendencies have been very informed by my upbringing, in which I was encouraged to find things out for myself, question and develop an opinion. My law degree, in which most things I read were highly persuasive, biased, evidenced (no such thing as a balanced argument in law) and had the simply motive of convincing the reader of a legal theory or argument, we were taught to not criticise by looking at reputation of sources and research, but whether we agreed with it and why. This involved reading case law, judgements, opposite sides of the arguments and making a judgement through evidenced and reasoned opinion, with a constructed argument and rebuttal. Consequently, I’m very pragmatic and I struggle to go “on gut feeling”; I’m rational, researched and planned. But this is where, having a team learning culture adds value in our business, as alone I’d be too busy learning, formulating opinions and planning to start the business. As such, having learners within the team at different stages on the hierarchy is essentially a bonus, as I get to be immersed with people who do go on gut feeling, immerse themselves in doing and don’t need to understand a concept before acting. This drives my learning forward and I learn things, I wouldn’t in isolation and puts my learning into action, helping others in the team learn by doing and explaining complex concepts tangibly.

Consequently, team learning enables us to grow, try out new orientations and learning from each other becoming more team and self-aware. As a team of learners, we no longer approach tasks with a “narrow orientation”, only accepting new learning if it relates to what they already know and their “cognitive structure” (Mezirow 1990), as illustrated with the coaching task. As a collective we are now more receptive to foreign concepts and new learning (Mezirow 1990), seeing the finance task as a learning opportunity and engaging. Consequently, the team works through as a collective, where other members can help a narrow orientation learner make sense of the new material and adapting it into their learning preference style. Therefore, variety and differences, learning from each, other becomes the motivator behind team learning (Hills 2001).

Construction
By utilising Moon’s model of learning, to distinguish when learning has taken place and when it hasn’t on an individual level and collectively within our team, we will be able to distinguish when learning has taken place. Moreover, we could incorporate the model into our group reflective practice after a task, to assess the extent knowledge has been acquired.

Many of the learning theories above propose why the team successfully learnt as a collective in the finance task and didn’t within the coaching task. Whilst I’m able to utilise learning theories to reflect on the team and on myself, and conclude different things, my personal reflections here enhance further my self-awareness but it is reflections on the team that advances collective learning as the important ideal and a further step, as evidenced in the second task towards a learning culture. But obviously, as just one member, reflecting and theorising on the tasks, I’ve applied theories from my view point and the value I think they add in explaining the difference. However, each theory has the common thread that the value of team learning is ,learning as a team, in which members are motivated to learn by each other and the learning opportunity itself and that everyone’s need to feel active within the learning process. As such, members equally learn from researching, interactions, feedback, questioning, experimenting and doing, alongside from each other. Consequently, team learning becomes more of a journey, in which personal preferences are counterbalanced and cognitive dissonance is approached undaunted as a formed collective. Therefore, the journey is still on going and as a team, we may be at completely different stages within each model by the end of semester two.

References
Festinger, L. (1957) A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance: Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Gibbs, G. (1981) Teaching Students to learn. Oxford: OUP
Hills, H. 2001. Team-Based Learning, Hampshire: Gower Publishing.
Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Mezirow, J. (1990) Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood – A guide to transformative and emancipationary learning. San Franciso: Jossey Bass
Moon, J. (1999) Reflection in Learning and Professional Development. New York: Routledge Falmer.
Nichol, D. (1997) Research on Learning and High Education Teaching, UC OSDA briefing paper 45.
O’Connor, J and Seymour, J. (1990) Introduction to Neuro-Linguistic Programming: the new psychology of personal excellence. London: Harper Collins.
Perry, W. (1999) Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years: a scheme. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Rodgers, C. and Freiberg. H. (1994) Freedom to Learn. 3rd edn. New York: Macmillan College Publishing Company.
Van Grinsven, M. Visser, M. (2011). Empowerment, knowledge conversion and dimensions of organisational learning. The Learning Organisation, 18 (5), 378-391
Winstanley, D et al. (2003) From Learning to Practice. Report of research funded by Imperial College Teaching Research Grants Scheme, Imperial College, London: Tanaka Business School
Winstanley, D. (2005) Personal Effectiveness. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Brilliant Leaders excel at integrative thinking

Stating

The feedback session highlighted that my greatest weakness is my inability effectively orally communicate ideas or complex information to my business team. My oral communication strategy has been highlighted as ineffective, confusing and can overwhelm, disengage and demotivate my team mates on occasion. Within our team, where we are newly forming and exploring ideas, whilst being in different locations, ensuring effective communication is a top priority. In line with my personal learning contract and the feedback, I consider this to be a really significant area that needs to be addressed for the benefit of the business team, to enhance our ability to learn as a team.

Deconstruction

My ability to effectively communicate to my team effectively is crucial not only to our business but to our team based learning and engagement. My past experience and love of learning is a potential asset to our team but is ineffective if I can’t communicate back into the team. Moreover, when I come to communicate within the team I often feel like there is a preconception, and not a misconception, that I am going to launch into a long ramble, which is often true. Whilst I have tried to research different strategies and approach oral communication differently, I find in the moment, I make the exact same mistake.

This has led me to question my approach and thinking process, before the point of communicating orally. The problem seems to stem from the pragmatic issue, that I always have far too much I want to say, in far too much detail and once I start talking, I’m unable to effectively organise my thoughts, so they can come out disjointed and fragmented. In stark contrast, my written communication, as I am able to spend time considering it, is very organised.  As an introvert, I have a constant internal dialogue with myself, which in terms of academia and business, means I have the potential to over think, which can steer my thoughts out loud or mean I’ve have too many things I want to say.

When I come to write down my thoughts or prepare for oral communication, I go through an organisational process, where I brain dump all my thoughts and research, unrestrained  and refine them down into coherent, well-structured ideas. By preference, I like to research and explore unconstrained and make sense of the information I find in my own way and thought processes. Whilst I am aware, this method takes longer, it is one that I personally enjoy learning within its structure and has always enabled me to produce high quality work and research. Clearly, this process, heavily contributes to the fact that whilst I like an information overload, that when I start speaking on a topic or idea, it can be perceived like an information avalanche. As such, my way of working has always been to put all the information on the table and let people make sense of it and judgements however feedback has been so far that this is overwhelming and for some disengages and they are unable to follow. As such, I don’t actively seek out engagement; I wait for my audience to engage on their own terms.

Consequently, Hills (2001:105) defines effective team based learning, as being dependent on the whole team being able to contribute to created ideas and solutions. Pragmatically, my ineffective communication style stops this occurring.  As such communication within the group needs to be at a bare minimum understandable and straightforward before members can engage. During this early stage of idea incubation and business formation, it is crucial that as a team we build effective communication channels and utilise the knowledge each person is bringing into the team.

Moreover, within our coaching sessions, whilst I’ve taken huge amounts of time to prepare for knowledge sharing sessions, on reflection, my learning preferences dominant how I communicate the information back and I haven’t considered the learning preferences of my team.  As such, when I read journals, I like to really understand, to challenge and to question; I like to make sense of it in my own way. This deep level learning preference isn’t mirrored across my team mates and they become disengaged when I go into detail. Moreover, my coaches’ feedback has been that my interlinking of themes means that I attempt too much and whilst I understand, I lose my team.  Consequently I need to develop communication strategies that harness the way I like to learn and perceive things, but communicate the information back in a more accessible, coherent format; once which considers the audience.

Theorising

Ludlow (1992:2) defines effective communication as an active process involving the transfer of information which has the outcome of shared understanding. Ludlow’s definition is interesting as it highlights in its simplicity, the three areas in which my oral communication fails, as illustrated by my deconstruction. Firstly, the communication must be an active process on both sides, involving the engagement of both parties. This is a strategic issue and doesn’t just consider the imparting of information but how to ensure it is absorbed and engaged with, provoking an element of response. Secondly, the transfer of information is suggestive that the communication should have a clear, coherent message and shouldn’t consist of a myriad of concepts and ideas. As such the receiver should be able to pick out the main strand of information being communicated with ease. Thirdly, my misconception that communication finishes once the person speaking has finished, completely negating the fact that the end goal of effective communication must be that the information has been successfully imparted and understood (Ludlow 1992). As my oral communication is a distinctly one way process, involving the expression of a whirlwind of information in which I wait for the receiver to engage if they wish to, it is no wonder that it is ineffective.

As mentioned above, my communication strategies are dominated by my learning preferences and where I lie on the Kolb learning cycle (Kolb 1984). I prefer to reflect and think my responses are considered and researched. I hate being placed into situations where I have to respond to something I’m unprepared for; hence my reflective nature leans towards over preparation. This can lead to an overwhelming amount of information being imparted verbally, which to my predominantly activist team mates, is a completely ineffective approach. As such communication should not be about conveying a message in isolation, it should focus on the audience, their learning preferences and understanding their modes of perception and judgement (Ludlow 1992).

Moreover communication with a team with a learning culture has collaboration at its heart, as such communication should involve sending, then receiving, then understanding and then accepting; four distinct, active stages with prompts for engagement (Ludlow 1992). All parties involved including the sender, need to actively listen, to seek out signs of misunderstanding and disengagement. The aim here, isn’t just to deliver a one way message, Ludlow’s model seeks to involve, requires participation and facilitates the receivers to make sense of information with the sender.

Taking this to another level, Ludlow suggests a meeting structure in order to facilitate participation from large group teams, ensuring a common purpose and that multiple ideas are progressed through (Ludlow 1992). As such each point delivered could follow the same process:

  • Introduction and objectives of point – The outcome needed is presented to the team, whether it is a brain storm or a concrete end decision.
  • Introduction of broad themes and purpose – Point explained following communication model of sending, receiving, understanding and accepting as above- information and facts are clearly presented to the group.
  • Team engagement with themes – Opened up for discussion and exploration, to test understanding and to encourage collaboration of ideas. Group divergent thinking.
  • Integration of thoughts – Team movement to clear acceptance and convergent thinking.
  • Conclusion and action plan – Reaching the end objectives and moving forward.

This model within meetings and coaching sessions stops communication of information being a one directional process without engagement and stops tangents and potential incoherence, as the end point is identified at the beginning and at the end. This method further enhances our team’s aim of building a learning culture with high levels of psychological safety, as is invites collaboration of ideas, collectively breaking down ideas and rebuilding them as a team. Moreover, and most importantly, it effectively manages nine people’s contributions within a structure and enables the separation of facts, feelings and opinions into the relevant sections of the interaction, avoiding disengagement occurring as facts miscommunicated as feelings or vice versa. Such confusion is a pivotal cause of disengagement and misunderstanding within teams (Ludlow 1992).

Now with an effective model in place to ensure engagement and effective communication for the team, the next issue is to explore how to make sure my messages are clear and coherent. Lake (1997) points to the indisputable truth, that if 90% of what you say is perceived as unnecessary and overly complicated, then the 10% that is crucial to their understanding will be completely missed. As such, my personal challenge is to become more disciplined, more concise and to consider my audience.

My pitching has been an area commented on as strength due to its clarity and persuasive nature. Within pitching I adopt a completely different method of communication, developing key messages and objectives that I constantly refer back to using them to structure my pitch. As such Lake (1997) suggests a similar approach to all oral communication. This involves the same process I go through for a pitch, researching and organising my thoughts in any way I wish, but before I write the pitch, I pull out at three key messages for the audience ensuring I remain concise. The pitch therefore communicates effectively what I’m trying to say, as it hammers clear points home.

Furthermore, Lake (1997) suggests that preparation for any big or small presentation shouldn’t start with “what do you want to tell them?” as for someone that loves researching and exploring ideas, I can often want to tell my audience everything I know because I’m passionate about it. Instead, I need to start with the questions “what do they need to know?” and the realistic “what do they want to know?”  This is especially true within my activist team, as they don’t want to know the theory and details that I crave. As such whilst my learning preference is still exploited, the communication of the learning is about what the audience receptively wants to hear.

Lake (1997) proposes a model to approach oral communication preparation, that involves prioritising what the speaker says, a discipline I currently lack. Lake (1997) suggests breaking down the information into four parts…..

  1. What is necessary to say?
  2. What would be useful to say?
  3. What you’d like to say?
  4. What is superfluous?

Adopting this model, into practical use within my preparations, I consider whilst the first two should be included, point four should be dropped if the audience don’t need to know it or wouldn’t be interested in it. In terms of what you’d like to say, it should be approached with the view that it must have a significant supporting relationship to the core message and needs to be justifiable, over and above, than me just wanting to say it. Thus, I approach communication like I approach a pitch, with the mantra that everything I say must have an impact.

Another method of oral communication I’ve began to engage with is “story-telling” (Hills 2001:114) in order to convey more complex information. Relating a journal article or theory to a practical example, seems to restrain my train of thought, keeping it relevant and brings it to life, making it more tangible for the audience. This approach, whilst I’m testing it, certainly engages my team mates more than another other form of communication I’ve tried.

Conversely, whilst I am struggling and exploring this communication area, as a personal development area for the benefit of the team’s learning, Hill’s feedback loop could add some value to the process, which is a tool I’ve used within teaching and workshops I run before, but never within my business teams (2001). As a collective we make the assumption that we understand and that because we have spoken, the communication has been effective, however we constantly stumble across instances where there is complete miscommunication within the group, which is suggestive that ineffective communication is an issue across the whole team. Whilst, the models outlined above, provide a structure and potential solution, the feedback loop invites the team to repeat back information and assumptions, ensuring clarification and correct interpretation (Hills 2001). Such a method also promotes team engagement ensuring the correct communication models are in place and can be reflected upon, whilst providing a means to gain feedback in regards to my personal development in this area.

Construction

Successful communication relies on the communicator beginning with the response they want to achieve, which for my oral communication is to be understood, to be clear and to encourage the team to engage with I am saying. Consequently, I need to focus on the clarity of my message and the learning preferences of my audience. Pre-planning and preparation should focus on ensuring I’m effectively understood and engaging, not knowing every detail of the presented subject (Lake 1997). I need to embody Hill’s (2001:114) mantra, “seek to understand and then to be understood”. I need to understand my audience before I expect that they understand the information.

My learning style whilst effective personally, is ineffective within the team learning environment, consequently I need to step outside myself and ask the questions “what am I trying to communicate back to the team?” and “How can I effectively communicate this to them?” this process involves discipline. As such, I will utilise Ludlow’s (1992) interaction model and meeting module to shape my oral communication and I will utilise Lake’s (1997) approach to prepare for oral presentations.

Hills, H. 2001. Team-Based Learning, Hampshire: Gower Publishing.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Lake, C. (1997) Open Learning – Communication. Oxford: Pergamon Open Learning

Ludlow, R and Panton, F. (1992) The Essence of Effective Communication. London: Prentice Hall

Feeding feedback

Stating

Feedback is a controversial process and one that was completely rejected within a recent session in our team.  The issue is how to imbed feedback into our team as a learning tool and create an environment where we feel comfortable to give and receive feedback within the team. This was a process, that as a team, we did not want to engage in and during the specific feedback session, it was a highly emotionally charged atmosphere. Whilst members felt their feedback was honest and considered, there was a real block in terms of utilising it as a tool due to negative preconceptions, feeling constrained by the model suggested to us and a sense of fear surrounding member’s reactions. Moreover, there was a stark contrast between my engagement with the task and the rest of my team mates; a few refused to participate at all.

Feedback I received:

Elliot

Stop

  • Rambling too long in discussions.
  • Doing so much work in comparison to the rest in terms of article reading.

Start

  • Being more precise with your ideas and concepts – deliver the headlines.
  • Listen to other people’s opinions about your ideas more.

Continue

  • Being organised and efficient
  • Being a planner and getting the team organised
  • Helping the team out with assignments, seminars and things they don’t know.

Alice

Stop

  • You know too much and it can be overwhelming to those who don’t know anything; this can worry people or demotivate.
  • Bombarding with information, it is too much to take in.

Start

  • Working on your communication skills, improving your ability to be concise and clear when presenting information – you’re already doing this!

Continue

  • You are very approachable and will help anyone, I feel very comfortable approaching you when I don’t understand things outside class. You explain things very well.
  • You organise and direct the team – reminding everyone of deadlines and setting agendas.

Dean

Stop

  • Using so much detail – sometimes less is more.
  • Doubting yourself – your experience is useful.

Start

  • You are a strong leader; time to start leading.

Continue

  • You put 110% into everything- it is inspiring.
  • Organising the team and forcing us to plan before-hand.
  • Using your experience.

Katie

Stop

  • She can sometimes go into too much detail, so the team loses the key points to holding on to.

Start

  • Being more concise.

Continue

  • Producing high standards of work individually and within the team; you always meet the deadlines.
  • Being really enthusiastic and motivating.
  • Being a very reliable team member.
  • Organising and structuring our meetings.

Deconstruction

Starting with the difference between my view of the feedback task and the team’s; feedback used to be a process I’d avoid. I perceived it as wholly negative making evaluative judgements of others or inviting negative judgements of myself. Moreover, I considered that I wasn’t within a position of any authority to give feedback and I viewed the process as unconstructively criticising. Consequently, I’d take feedback personally and I’d typically give a defensive response, deflecting it and justifying the behaviour without listening. If I gave feedback, I’d likely apologise for it and worry about upsetting the other person, reflecting my own views of feedback.

As I’ve progressed through my education and career, I’ve repeatedly encountered feedback as an unavoidable process and one that delivers the opportunity to improve and enhance self-awareness. I’ve developed a sense of self-acceptance and ownership of the consequences of my behaviour. Feedback has rationally become a personal development and communication tool and one that I see positively with the sole purpose of enhancing performance, an inarguably positive thing.  After all, you cannot change or continue doing what as an individual or team, you are unaware of.

Feedback, alongside reflection, has become a tool in which teams I have been involved with have rebuilt and enhanced their performance; learning at one unit as well as individually. One of the reasons many of my teams initially struggled was because they did not know why they were failing, regular feedback and reflection, gave the opportunity to assess and identify issues and deviations from plans (Bee 1998).  As such feedback became a non-threatening tool in which we could explore successes and communicate areas of development, all united under the goal of enhancing performance. Furthermore, I personally utilised this process as a way of improving and reflecting on my own performance and it was this feedback process within these teams that developed the leadership skills I have today. I always invite feedback on a regular basis, with the aim of imbedding it into any team’s culture.

Feedback became an essential tool in the identification of my lack of team playing during competitive tasks.  I used to simply focus on outcomes and team performance, above team learning. I received the feedback that if tasks weren’t being done to my specification, I took over the task ensuring the performance, instead of supporting the team to reach required standards. This led to team dependence on me and the lack of communication surrounding why I was taking over, was demotivating. However, I perceived I was only doing my best for the team.  Receiving the feedback that I was behaving in this way and the effect, enabled my own learning that I needed to give more initial guidance, but then more autonomy and to give feedback regularly instead of simply taking over a struggling task without communication. Engaging in the process was initially difficult, but this two way dialogue built a better team, one that made mistakes and learnt from them and made me a more effective leader.

Consequently, I viewed the team task to give one another feedback as a learning opportunity and I found it the least difficult within the group. Unlike the others I didn’t have an emotional response and viewed it as simply learning. The feedback regarding my struggle to present information in a concise manner has been brought to my attention before within the team. I know that it can cause disengagement or confusion and I experience personal frustration with myself for not effectively communicating. However, Ali’s feedback that I can “worry” people and bombard with information, was an effect I was unaware of and is clearly demotivating for some members. As such, I see this as a real area of opportunity in which I can improve on within the team.

Conversely it was positive to see that my strengths are being recognised; organisation, planning, motivating and hard work; that I’m adding value and a unique layer to our team dynamics. In terms of the feedback, I gave to the other members, I spent time making it justifiable with examples and I didn’t feel nervous to share it. I saw it as an opportunity to recognise certain members, who seem completely unaware that they are such a valuable contribution to the group. People like Ali, who underestimate and show a distinct lack of confidence in their own abilities, but yet get out there and always give things ago, try new things and add real value to our team projects, alongside the opportunity to be honest.

I can only deconstruct my own feedback experience fully and I can only make assumptions about why I believe the team rejected the feedback task. As a collective, our team rejected the process, with many members refusing to take part or exhibiting very defensive responses. Moreover, whilst the feedback was justified with examples, there was a distinct amount of back tracking and disowning the feedback via blaming the lecturer for forcing them do it. The process pre and post feedback was incredibly emotional, with members very worried that others were going to be upset or they may get upset. After the process, there was a sense of heightened emotion, dismissiveness towards the structure and that something unwarranted had been imposed. The dismissal seemed to stem not from the content of the feedback, as every member communicated within a following team meeting that they stood by what they had written, but the structured process it was being forced into was unrealistic.

However, as a collective, the exercise was useful to highlight key areas of behaviour that we identified with as part of our team identity and things we wanted to improve on (Harms and Roebuck 2010). Consequently, the feedback was tool for our team to explore the behaviours we’d like to see exploited and the behaviours we’d like to remove, as such the process further cemented the foundations of our team “culture” (Harms and Roebuck 2010:414). Subsequently, the team saw value in the feedback process as a learning tool, but the structure and negative preconceptions made it ineffective for our team.

Theorising

The team’s initial difficulty the majority identified it as a negative process, instead of as an opportunity to capitalize on strengths and develop weaknesses (Gratton 2008). Many individuals consider feedback “irritating” and negative (Harms and Roebuck 2009); consequently we are conditioned to see it as a critical tool highlighting negative behaviour. However Harms and Roebuck, consider that feedback must be used constantly to explore team culture, giving praise and highlighting ineffective behaviours, with the aim of improving performance (2009:416). Feedback within the team should only be the starting point of a dialogue and in order to add value it needs to be combined with self-reflection, providing information and support to an individual (Harms and Roebuck 2010). Our team feedback lacked the two way dialogue as individuals didn’t respond to feedback honestly as felt constrained by a structure, consequently dismissing the process before reflection occurred and mutual agree was only reached superficially because the model of feedback imposed agreement.

Moreover, as a team we proved Cleveland et al’s (2007) hypothesis that giving performance feedback is more difficult than receiving. There was a distinct anxiety about giving feedback, as it was viewed as unproductive and critical but conversely each member was willing to receive it. The struggle featured not only in the compiling of the feedback but also the delivery, in which members back tracked on comments. However, the team was willing to hand over the full feedback sheets afterwards, demonstrating the team was not comfortable making evaluative comments in a face to face forum (Fredrick T. 2008). This suggests our team has a lack of psychological safety and feared retribution disabling the feedback process (Hills 2001); consequently as a team we need to concentrate on building trust into our team culture so we can own it.

Our team unwillingness to engage, negates feedback as a crucial element of effective team learning, as such we need to accept it; ensuring that it is frequent, timely and imbedded into the review of performance within a team is not only the cornerstone to learning but the cornerstone to improved team performance (Harms and Roebuck 2010). As a collective, if we tackle the lack of trust within the team, which should develop over time as we concentrate developing our team culture and normalise the process, the team will be more willing to engage.

The next issue to address was the imposed structure and the difficulties surround it. The structure that was suggested to us within our feedback session:

feedback

The above visual depiction combines elements of Arnold et al (2010) and Hills (2001) writings on feedback. As a model in theory, it clearly structures the feedback, gives the process a clear purpose and ensures a two way dialogue. However, the model constrained our team and disengaged the majority of members from the process. The unnatural aspect of it and the rigid structure, stopped the fluidity of feedback in which, individuals are supposed to be able to reflect, respond and reject if they wish. The model turned an alien process to many, into a highly artificial process. Consequently, this model of feedback delivery, whilst it has merit, is not practical within our team.

Our team whilst wanting a structure for the feedback process wants flexibility and ability to make it into our own. Furthermore, we want a model that does not necessarily seek agreement at the end of the feedback process, but one that focuses on communication and reflection. Foster (2002: 112) feedback models embody all the elements of feedback as outlined by other academics, but they are simpler and less prescriptive. Foster (2002) depicts two feedback models, which concentrate on feedback as a positive learning tool; the two models are “BET – behaviour, effect and thank you, in which positive behaviours can be recognised. The second model is “BEAR-Behaviour, effect, alternative and result” in which negative behaviour can be presented to a participant, the effects communicated and the result is that the behaviour is reflected upon (Foster 2002). These models whilst directing the feedback, giving clear stages concentrating on the effects of the behaviour, allow participants to frame the interaction how they chose and it doesn’t force any conclusion or agreement; focusing on communication and reflection as their aims (Foster 2002).

Having the two models run side by side, engages with the idea that feedback should be predominantly about positive reinforcement, in which 75% of all feedback should be positive (Harms and Roebuck 2010). The “Bear” model has two different stages, surrounding alternative and result (Foster 2002). As such alternative modes of action can be suggested and the results of not changing outlined, but the recipient in this model, is left with the final choice.  As such these feedback models don’t exist to forcibly change behaviour or to induce superficial agreement through a restrictive structure, but to communicate, increase self-awareness and improve team learning (Foster 2002). Regardless of whether, the receiver choses to act on the feedback, they are now aware of the effects of their behaviour within the team and they can make a more informed choice surrounding how to behave. Consequently, “blind spots are eliminated” (Harms and Roebuck 2010: 422). Moreover, this model encourages a natural and honest response from the receiver, which is enabled through freedom and flexibility (Lake 1997).

Construction

The team rejection of feedback is a stumbling block within our team learning. But it is clear from the deconstruction above, why the team has rejected it, surrounding the two issues of viewing it as a distinctly negative process and one in which, a rigid, false structure was suggested to our team, one that didn’t suit us. Subsequently, using Foster’s BET and BEAR models, gives our team the opportunity to engage in feedback in the way we want to, focusing on communication and reflection, whilst utilising it as a mode of communicating predominantly positive behaviour.

In order to further imbed the process of feedback into our team learning culture, we need to embrace it as a regular and continuous process, featuring weekly in our team meetings as a reflective and reflexive tool, normalising the process (Hatton 2007). It is a tool that potentially enhances and steers team learning, communicating the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us (Armstrong 2006). This can only be a positive process focusing on improving performance, as illustrated with the feedback I received about my poor verbal presentation of ideas, I knew this was an issue but was unaware of the effect of it on members of the team. As such we intend to embody Arnold et al’s (2010) view of feedback as something that is mutually supportive, informative, constructing a stronger group and recognising accomplishment.

Furthermore, we need to confidently own the interactions as a positive method of improving performance, instead of disowning it as something we are being forced to do within coaching sessions, lessening its impact (Hatton 2007). Such ownership will embody our aims to become a “learning team” (Hills 2001); one that embraces feedback. Consequently, we need to deepen our team trust and believe in Foster’s models as an effective way to improve team performance and one that recognises we are all individuals with different levels of feedback receptiveness (Armstrong 2006). Consequently, we should assess the capacity to digested feedback; Bee 1998 draws upon the idea that some members will only take thimbles of feedback on board at a time, whereas other members will happily accept bucket loads of it. Subsequently Foster’s models don’t force agreement, leaving the individual with a choice.

Finally, reflecting on my personal feedback, I think I need to consider why I find the process of presenting information back into the group difficult and to research communication strategies to counteract this, to avoid demotivating and disengaging the team. Furthermore, it is a hugely positive step that the team see me as someone who shares back their learning and helps when others don’t understand, as this is truly exemplifying team learning culture and ethos, our team is trying to establish.

Armstrong, M. (2006) Performance Management. (3rd ed) London:Kogan Page

Arnold, J., Randall, R. et al. (2010). Work Psychology. (5th ed.). Harlow:Pearson

Bee et al. (1998) Constructive Feedback. London: Institute of personal development

Cleveland, J. N. et al (2007) Feedback phobia? Why employers do not want to give or receive performance feedback. In J. Langan- Fox, C. L. Cooper & R. J. Klimoski (Eds.), Research companion to the dysfunctional workplace:management challenges and symptoms (pp. 168-186). Northampton, M A: Edward Elgar

Foster, P. (2002). Performance documentation. Business Communication Quarterly, 65, 108-114

Fredrick T. (2008). Facilitating better teamwork: Analyzing the challenges and strategies of classroom based collaboration. Business Communication Quarterly, 71, 439-455.

Gratton, L. (2008) Counterpoint. People and Strategy, 31 (3), 9.

Harms, P. L., & Roebuck, D. (2010). Teaching the Art and Craft of Giving and Receiving Feedback. Business Communication Quarterly, 73(4), 413-431

Hatton, A. The Definitive Business Pitch. Harlow: FT Prentice Hall

Hills, H. (2001) Team-Based Learning, Hampshire: Gower Publishing.

Lake, C. (1997) Open Learning – Communication. Oxford: Pergamon Open Learning

Team learning contract v team culture in business

Stating

The development of our new team learning contract symbolically represented the concrete beginnings of our new team. It was an opportunity to reflect on the old, decide where our new group wanted to go and an opportunity to consider strategically in the short term, what exactly we need to learn as a team and where our learning gaps are. Drafting a team learning contract provided us with the opportunity to learn and to consider our business learning needs; a call to learning action and a new beginning. However, what could have been a positive process was intensely difficult.

As a team we really fought against a process that forced us to sit down and plan, considering deeper learning needs of our team and pin pointing them. There was a significant lack of motivation surrounding completing it and many voiced their concerns of it being too restrictive. As a collective, we fought against thinking about the things we might need to learn, preferring to just get out there and doing it. There were significant feelings of frustration and demotivation surrounding this activity.

Whilst the process was very slow, it forced us to strategically consider ways of how we could tackle the low motivation and to ensure that this painful process, really did add learning value in our team.  The contract our team submitted was something that everyone agreed on, contributed to and saw value in for our business. We made our contract a mixture of group learning objectives that were directly focused on starting up our business and several individual goals that the team would buy into sharing out the skill sets within the team and spreading out the learning within the team alongside learning from others in the team. However, after the team contract completion, there was disengagement within the group regarding the contract’s implementation. The old lack of motivation appeared and by some members, it was disregarded.  This is suggestive that the creation of a learning contract within a team alone is not enough to absorb the value from it and that something else must support it, in order to encourage execution.

Deconstruction

A learning contract is a leading learning tool that provides direction and offers a “flexible, individualised programme of learning (Gower 1998:1).” The learning contract undeniably has potential as a tool to plan learning, but when motivation to complete one is low and the focus is entirely on its completion, instead of its value, does it serve a purpose for our team? We were introduced to a structured template, in which we had to structure our future learning and objectives. The different elements of self-awareness in regards to personal skill sets and team competencies caused an issue in terms of identifying areas we needed to work on. Moreover, the level of imposition on the team and the prescribed, structured nature of it seemed to alienate many within the team. It was uncomfortably forcing the group to sit down as a collective and plan our learning, rather than just getting out there and doing it.

Our first draft was basic, completed quickly and was incredibly superficial. Moreover, it was completely action orientated, based on quick, tangible results above contemplating any learning to go behind them. Our contract also didn’t consider what the impact of completing the objectives would mean within the team and how we could use our learning strategically to strengthen the team. Our action orientation, within a group strongly led by activists, was not a surprise and is representative of our current team culture. Reflecting on this action orientation approach within the group, this was clearly an underlying issue; as a team, we had an action focused, quick results culture. Considering an intangible like learning in a long term sense, did not fit into our culture. Our culture is to complete the tasks and perform well, any learning is incidental and rarely reflected on as a group.

The beginning of our second draft, began with two questions; 1. What do we need/want to do? 2. What do we need to learn in order to fulfil those objectives? We selected two objectives that we wanted to complete as a collective, which would have direct impact onto our business planning, bringing about tangible benefits alongside learning. Secondly, we picked out areas that individuals would like to work on for the benefit of the team, e.g. pitching and how this learning would be brought back into the team and utilised effectively. Our overall goal was to build a stronger team, one that learned from each other and built learning into enhancing our performances.

Conversely, even this team contract remained very action orientated, but it was a compromise within our current culture. In order to get any engagement we had to build in results to complete the task. The learning within our contract, although more a dominant factor than our first draft, was still very much secondary. The lack of motivation concerning imbedding learning into our teams and our process towards the learning contract, evidenced how we viewed the learning process within our team and our team culture Consequently, whilst we have completed our team contract, it remains action orientated and the planned learning elements make implementation difficult.

Theorising

A learning contract can only be effective where the learner plays a “leading role” in its development; as such it is an active process (Gower 1998:5). Whilst in theory, it promotes independent learning and an increase in group skill awareness, its functionality, practicality and value lies within the attitude and commitment of the learners to the process and the team’s culture in which it exists (Gower 1998). Each individual involved needs to not only see the team value but the individual relevance to their learning (Knowles 1986). Moreover, as a team learning contract consists of different people, it needs to embody different learning styles, action and paces of learning; it should be a challenge to the team and the individual (Knowles 1986).

Furthermore, a learning contract is only as viable as the context in which it is expected to function within. An action orientated organisation, unaware of its learning needs, will be unable to see the value of a learning contract, as they are unaware of the need to learn and planning learning distracts from the action orientation and feels like stagnating (Gower 1998). Consequently, the contract in isolation is ineffective, it is about imbedding the process of learning into the team, embracing all the mediums our team members learn by (Pedler et al). As such the contract alone should only direct learning to reach specific objectives, there must be a willingness to learn and to try, in the first place; the awareness of the need to improve must exist (Hills 2001). Therefore, creating a learning team culture is potentially crucial to imbed learning within the team and encourage it as an active process.

Team culture is defined as cultivated and developed “norms” within a team and can be utilised as a competitive advantage against competitors (Hills 2001). A learning team culture is “a wish to increase independence rather than a desire to please” and one that “values being willing more than being capable” (Hills 2001:55). It signifies a desire for improvement and a learning contract sets out the means in which such improvement can take place (Gower 1998). Moreover, a learning team in the long term is one that has higher performance levels and remains in a state of constant evolution (Gower 1998).

Therefore our success in the long term is reliant on exploring and developing a team learning culture in which a learning contract could add value within our team, moving away from our action orientation and creating a learning environment. Cottrell (2011) highlights the key aspects of any learning team is one that encourages, collaborates, challenges, co-operates and critically analyses itself. She points to changing the culture into one that learns by doing from its own experience, one that stimulates thinking, accepts that people learn in a variety of ways and one that is internally motivated to learn from within the team.

Regardless of our action orientation, of team culture has developed markedly, changing from what was once a highly procedural team into a conceptual team that values not only what members do within the team but the intangibles they bring as a contribution (Hills 2001), consequently as a team we are capable of progress and change. More than ever, we are willing to explore ideas, learn from our peers and we are increasingly growing in independence. However, as a group we still focus on a power driven culture that seeks results and action, learning has to have an immediate tangible purpose (Hills 2001).

Consequently, our team learning contract exists within a team that currently doesn’t have a team learning culture, a compromise between action and learning; a learning contract alongside a strategic plan of action. This avoids the two problems that Revans (1980) highlights as endangering teams without a learning culture, task fixation and a lack of awareness of team learning needs. By combining the strategic planning process alongside the development of a learning contract, the team is able to construct a plan of what needs to be actively done to complete an objective and the learning contract, enables the team to consider what they need to learn and how they are going to learn it, in order to start implementing the strategic plan.

Within the team contract differing levels of awareness and competencies can be an undermining issue (Gower 1998). Gower (1998:26) highlights a competency awareness model which sees the learner to label their competences as an unconscious competence, conscious competence, conscious incompetence, or unconscious incompetence. Consequently, the team learning element adds an extra dimension, as a supportive factor and learning tool in which, unconscious elements can be identified and exploited as learning opportunities through a feedback process to the benefit of the team and the individual.

Considering current motivation within the team as a collective to change our team culture into a learning one, McGregor’s motivational theory is worth exploring. Potentially as a group, we have moved past the theory X stage and we are no longer looking for someone to prescribe what to do and sometimes we even rebel away from prescription, like with the learning contract; consequently we are no longer motivated by being told what to do (McGregor 1960). But theory Y doesn’t quite apply to us yet, because we’re not self-directed and open in our learning to actively seek out learning opportunities (McGregor 1960). Hence we fall in the middle and tasks that the group isn’t interested there is a lack of motivation within.

Constructing

Consequently, whilst our team learning contract is viable, there is a questionable element about the motivation to follow it through. The team learning contract will only add value as a tool, if we make a conscious effort to imbed learning into our team’s culture and lessen our action orientation; creating a learning culture. As such we need to slow down and reflect on our learning needs, creating a safe environment in which we support each other to grow and make mistakes (Hills 2001). Changing our culture is about changing our results driven mind-set and developing a culture in which our learning contracts don’t impose learning on to us, but help direct our already active learning process.  As such, we must equally take action, to change our attitudes in the team.

Cottrell, S. (2008). The Study Skills Handbook. (3rd ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gower, GB. (1998) A Complete Guide to Learning Contracts. Hampshire: Gower Publishing

Hills, H. (2001) Team-Based Learning, Hampshire: Gower Publishing.

Knowles, M. (1986) Principles of Learning : Learning Contracts. San Francisco: Jossey Bass

McGregor, D (1960) The Human Side to Enterprise. USA: McGraw Hill

Pedler et al. (1991) The Learning Company. Maiden Head: McGraw Hill

Revans et al (1980) Action Learning. London: Blonde and Briggs

Reflexivity is the new black

Stating

Within business I see the process of reflection as something that is crucial to learning within an enterprise and is something that our business as one unit is embracing. However, this reflective practice is often after the fact and as such can be deemed to a certain extent as dangerous. It can put off deconstructing and answering some important questions affecting your performance until tomorrow, things the team could address today. Through my reading, I have discovered the process of reflexivity, which is something I’d like to explore further and a process I think could be vital to our team.

Deconstruction

Reflexivity is a process which engages an individual (or team) to detect an issue there and then, exploring it and moving forward (Reynolds and Vince 2004). It is very similar to an emergent strategy, as it involves the implementation of strategy, not going in the expected way and reacting to that immediately (Worthington 2005). As such within business, where the external environment changes all the time, it has a crucial role.

Reflection allows an individual to consider a situation after it is over whereas reflexion enables a team or individual, to reflect and react in the moment. As such this is a reflective process, based on adapting to the changing internally and externally environment. It embraces the notion that it isn’t the details of the changes around you that are important, but the way you react to the changes that boosts your chances of success (Covin and Slevin 1997).

Reflexivity in practice was something that we used a great deal in Enactus Newcastle. We came back together at regular points through the week and explored how our strategy and projects were going; we reacted to any difficulties and exploited any emerging opportunities. We did not sit back and wait until the end of the full strategy implementation and then reflect on it. As such, this process is ideally suited to the activists, without our business, the ones who remain in the here and now and drive us forward. Their objectivity and drive to react, is a crucial skill that we need to harness within reflexivity. Members, like myself are more inclined to sit back and wait to see how things unfold over time or to discuss and explore situations further.

Within the work place and in business, over the past couple of years, I’ve allowed myself to be more reflexive. I realised, that you are never restrained or being forced to follow out a plan, no matter what; a detailed strategy is not a personal/organisational contract of action. As such, it “helps no one commercially or emotionally to sustain a situation that makes no sense” (McKean 2011), consequently it enables all those involved to constantly think, “is this actually working?”.  I don’t advocate, constantly chopping and changing strategy on a weekly basis, as it will fracture the business and cause damaging inconsistences (McKean 2011). But the value is within the fact, it helps a business fight fires in a more coherent manner and it makes avoiding the pit falls easier.

Moreover, the value of reflexivity is the immediate engagement with all participants. For the activists within our business, I can see the process of strategic planning, is painful to them; they just want to get out there and do it! But this provides a forum to express concerns or highlight issues in the here and now, instead of having to wait until the end of the process when the team does a “wash up” on a project. Consequently, team members feel listened to and can see short term gains within a long term strategy.

During our sustainability project, reflexivity was a tool that we could have utilised which may have benefited the project. Whilst there was a general understanding that things weren’t going well, we never addressed it in the moment. We didn’t change our strategy or analyse what exactly was happening, hence as a team we kept falling over issues, that felt obvious and completely out of the blue at the same time. When we came together as a team to reflect, a lot of what we were reflecting on was things that could have been solved and explored when they were happening. They weren’t deep rooted issues that needed to be analysed, they were simply practical issues, that if as a team, we’d addressed them, then we may have performed better. As such, utilising reflexivity in future projects and without our business, is something we need to build into our strategic process.

Theorising

I’ve explored several models for reflection. There is one model that stuck out during my wider reading that seems to be an ideal reflexive model. Rolfe (2001) developed a reflective model that based itself on Borton’s (1970) developmental model. Rolfe’s model is very simply, but unlike the other models of reflection, it involves a sense of immediacy and activism, without extensive theorising.  The model is made up of three basic questions, that go in a cycle; what? so what? And what next? As such it involves identifying an issue or situation at the moment, not in the past, then exploring what this means to the individual or business and then constructing a plan forward for change or a considered reaction to the issue.

The value in this model is not just in its simplicity, but in the directive questions that force an activist’s response, to do something rather than a lengthy considered reflective approach. Whilst theorising remains an important aspect, I do think in business, there needs to be a process which is about quick thinking and reactivity. Reflection should be the forum to explore and understand why things have happened in a particular sequence, where as being reflexive should be about tackling an issue and getting on top of it, there and then. Furthermore, within reflection, especially in our teams there is often an element of blame of culture; it is easier to blame a person, rather than to blame the process. Until we gain engage in a reflective process, that is open and honest, without “defensive routines” (Argyris 1991), reflexivity adds real value as due to the immediacy and urgency, emotion to an extent is remain. The process is about changing; achieving the common goal, not just about understanding hence the need to react overrides the blame game.

Construction

Applying this to our team and my individual processes, reflexivity alongside reflection should be built into our team ethos and process. McKean’s (2011) writings, in summary highlight a process for business success:

Success = identifying factor/need for change à reacting/reflexivityàdeveloping strategy and contingencyà implementation alongside reflexivity à outcome à Reflection.

Consequently, this is a process I’d like to see built into our team and is something I will be sharing next week. Whilst reflection will perform a framing tool around a task or business, a crucial factor in the beginning and the end for learning, in contrast, reflexivity will be a process we engage in constantly as a task progresses, enabling a flexibility, reactivity and developing our emergent strategies; something we haven’t been utilising so far as a team.

One step forward….

So today, instead of fiercely guarding my knowledge, I shared it. I didn’t do it by telling someone what to do or by doing it for them either. I facilitated them to make a choice and work it out for themselves.

The end result; they understood the end product of what they were trying to achieve because they had made sense of it for themselves. They also re-interpretted an idea and added to my ideas…….which was interesting, as I would never have looked at the task in the way they have. Whilst, I still like the strategy i have developed so far, their point of view was definately food for thought. We both took something away from the transaction. What did I take away; the tool of comparison.

Working in business teams isn’t so bad….