Good teams are great

In Joseph Conrad’s 1904 novel Nostromo, a main character commits suicide when he has to hide on an island alone for months. He ultimately found the loneliness unbearable and hanged himself. Until then, he was part of a tight team of good friends on the mainland. His team defined him. 

Most workers would not describe their work teams as fundamental to their being. People generally dislike teams at work, yet lacking a team can be a punishment, too. If working together was rooted more deeply in basic human needs, teams personally and professionally would be much more effective.

The last several pieces in this series have addressed the value of big data in education and why teams of coworkers often fail. As the last part of this series, the two come together to put forth some answers about how to create the high-power teams so sorely needed in educational institutions.

The advantages humans gain from being together provide a window into the advantages of teams. People come together to provide each other support and take advantage of collective strengths. High-performing teams start with the same premises. Members of the 1986 Mets, The Beatles and The Manhattan Project included teammates with technical strengths and relationship value beyond individual members’ technical expertise.

Democracy amplifies the importance of teams. If Louis Brandeis was right and the states are “laboratories of democracy” then local school districts are hyper local opportunities to see democracy’s successes and failures. There are almost 100,000 public school districts in the United States today. Taking the passions, competencies and drives of each of those district’s stakeholders, the possibility for innovation is vast. High-performing local school boards are effective teams that substantially alter children’s lives for the better. Great school boards are great teams and evidence of the effectiveness of the democratic model.

Work itself is fundamentally a form of teaming. As the old saying goes, people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. They also quit their colleagues. If a team is effective, then the outcome is shared, work is enjoyed and the next success will be even greater. Finding a really successful team at work is tough, but when they arrive, their impact is undeniable.

Using data to find effective teams leads to some important lessons.

Regardless where one falls on the team-individual preference continuum, improving teams is crucial. Google researched teams and learned that effective teams can be much more easily destroyed than created. Team effectiveness decreases with bad chemistry among members. That is obvious. Team effectiveness improves when team members increase the psychological safety of other team members. If the team is a safe place to take risks, team members come up with better ideas and improve the team’s outcomes overall.

High-performing teams start with mindful leaders.

School leaders need to know how to develop high-performing teams. Creating psychologically safe spaces is a challenge when diverse groups of stakeholders hold wildly divergent agendas. Teachers, parents, students, administrators, board members, community leaders, legislators and staff have few aligning intentions. Starting meetings with a check-in to ensure everyone is psychologically present, getting agreement on the term of team participation and calling out team members that violate the integrity of the team are essential beginnings for building risk-taking, high-performing teams in complex educational environments. 


John Heintz and the Second Rail team provide this resource to aspiring and practicing educational leaders - like you. Second Rail never sells your personal information. Nothing here is intended to be taken as legal advice, and, should you need legal advice, Second Rail encourages you to contact an attorney sooner than later.

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