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Expert offers tips on how to get the best group cohesion
Look at bigger picture, not individual problems
Team work sometimes is a foreign concept to scientists and clinicians who were trained under the premise of solitary, individual achievement, according to an expert on team-building.
"The competition is fierce in these settings for grants, contracts, doctoral students, lab assistants, and for tenure position," says Laura Freebairn-Smith, MBA, a research associate in pediatrics, a doctoral candidate, and an instructor at the Drama School in Theater Management Program at Yale University in New Haven, CT. Freebairn-Smith also is the president of Organizational Design and Development Associates in Hamden, CT, and she has spoken in the field and been published on the topic of building teams.
"This makes it intriguing and difficult for research administrators when they are managing scientists," Freebairn-Smith notes.
However, this climate of the lone ranger researcher is changing, as the federal government has begun asking for cross-disciplinary collaboration on research projects, she says.
"So if you're looking at AIDS issues, then you may need to involve the business school, social science department, medical college, and school of public health," Freebairn-Smith says. "People are putting together cross-disciplinary teams to examine profits, and this calls on more team skills."
Academic departments may not support this trend yet, but it's driven by funding and also by the recognition that research topics are so interconnected that it forces scientists to work together across fields, Freebairn-Smith explains.
"We're starting to look at organizations as if they were organic living entities with the same complexities that you can see in certain quantum physics entities and behaviors, such as quarks," she says.
So the challenge is teaching scientists who have been trained in long ranger cultures to work well in teams.
Universities don't discuss team work and management issues with academic staff, as a rule, Freebairn-Smith notes.
"We don't expect them to bring in these skills, and we don't train them in it when they have landed," she says. "It isn't the norm yet, so when you ask people, 'Do you run lab teams, teams of colleagues?' they say they weren't trained for this."
Freebairn-Smith's solution for this dilemma is to weave management training into physicians' and scientists' existing schedule.
"For example, you spend 15 minutes on a management topic when talking to your faculty, and that's it," she says. "You come back two months later and do a follow-up of 15 minutes, or discuss a different topic."
Academic staff and scientists may not have time for a half-day workshop, and they won't see it as critical to their success, so management and team-building skills become a low priority, she says.
"I think if we honor time constraints, we'll have success," Freebairn-Smith says.
The other strategy is to provide one-on-one team-building and management training with faculty and investigators, and while this is time intensive, it can work very well, she adds.
"If an organization is big enough, they might have trainers or consultants do this, even making individual appointments with faculty," she says.
"You can't provide training in a disinterested, on the margin fashion or it won't have enough impact," Freebairn-Smith says.
Freebairn-Smith offers these pointers on how to improve team work and management skills among scientists and clinicians:
1. Remember that teams are organic entities onto themselves.
Teams are separate from any individual on the team, Freebairn-Smith says.
"They have their own developmental phases that are relatively predictable and observable if you're trained in how to do that," she explains.
"So my core premise when I teach team building is that you have to be an observer of your team's behavior," she says. "What you're doing is helping your team move through a phase at an appropriate moment, recognizing that it's an issue and working through it."
Standing back from one's own involvement in the team and looking at the team through an outsider's eyes is one way to be freed from the notion that a particular team is fantastic or horrible, Freebairn-Smith says.
"All teams have certain kinds of behaviors under certain conditions and are knowable or predictable," she says.
"If we only operate from one instance to the next, we don't understand what an aberration is and what's not," she says.
So it's important to look objectively at the team in terms of financial flow, leadership, and skills building, and then do an analysis and suggest a plan to make changes where needed, Freebairn-Smith says.
2. Pay persistent attention to the team.
"There is no ideal end state that a team reaches," Freebairn-Smith says.
"We often have people say, 'Fix my team, and then I'm done,'" she says. "But a team is like a garden and always needs feeding and care."
To manage a team, one needs to pay attention to the team's regular activities and observe checkpoints throughout the year, she says.
Checkpoints are like performance reviews, working with staff to make career decisions annually to see where their careers are going, Freebairn-Smith says.
Every few years, it's time to ask for feedback from team members by conducting a customer survey, she says.
Ask these questions of individuals and the team as a whole:
"A good team-building consultant will help an organization construct an ongoing program and activities to make sure the team stays healthy," Freebairn-Smith says.
3. Problems on a team usually are not because of one individual.
"We tend, in America, to pick out an individual and say, 'If that person wasn't here, the team would be fine,'" Freebairn-Smith says. "And 99 times out of 100, that's not true."
However, when a team has problems, usually the first step management takes is to get rid of one problem individual.
For example, there might be five people working in a lab and they're behind on their schedule, according to the grant, Freebairn-Smith says.
"Three people say, 'It's because Suzy keeps coming in late due to car breakdowns and family obligations, so if we got rid of her we'd be okay,'" she says.
"But let's stop and look at using a flexible schedule and what the work culture is like about balancing time and work," Freebairn-Smith says. "Maybe we're underpaying people, and Suzy can't afford a new car; maybe the compensation systems are screwy."
Instead of making one person a scapegoat, take a look at the bigger picture and try to identify what's driving poor behavior and performance, she suggests.
"If you only focus on Suzy's problems then other problems will manifest somewhere else," she adds.
Putting a team's problems into a greater context also is a more compassionate way to handle problems, Freebairn-Smith notes.
Increasingly, people are looking at their intentions in relation to other people, and they're moving away from the profit-control orientation to a communal benefit orientation, she says.
"Where are we going as a species?" she says. "And does our behavior as a team reflect the best for our species?"
4. Learn techniques and model a team leader's impact.
"Leaders often underestimate the amount of power they have over people on their team," Freebairn-Smith says. "They underestimate the effect of their own behavior, words, and decisions, so I encourage them to slow down and be careful."
Also, some leaders follow a scarcity paradigm where they starve people for compliments, she says.
"There's more room in people's carts than they realize for giving out compliments and compassion to others," she says. "It's one of the few sources of energy on the planet that are unlimited."
Team leaders shouldn't scoop out undeserved praise, but they should be lavish with it when it's earned.
"We use role-playing and modeling to show people how they impact others on the team," Freebairn-Smith says.
"I watch team leaders in action, and then I mimic their actions in private, and they are blown away," she says.
There are simple body language mistakes that people make, such as nodding their heads too much, which sends the message that you're not really listening, she adds.
"I work with a lot of introverts, scientists who work well on their own, and then they're promoted and are running groups," Freebairn-Smith says.
"I ask, 'What do you do when you walk into the lab or office,'" she says. "And they say they walk straight to their desk and work, getting their coffee at 11 a.m."
Freebairn-Smith coaches these introverts on how to walk into a office and first say 'Hi' to everyone.
Later, when she follows-up with the leaders, they say, "Everyone is talking to me now, and I have all of this new information," she says.
By simply saying 'Hi' to people, an introverted team leader can change the whole dynamic of his or her interactions on the team, she says.
"It's a gentle process to get people to move toward a more dynamic team to be a good leader," Freebairn-Smith says.
[Editor's note: For more information on team-building or for recommendations of books to read on the topic, contact Laura Freebairn-Smith at email@example.com or call her at (203) 773-0220.]