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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

5 Reasons Your Teaching Team May Be Dysfunctional

By Peter DeWitt — May 15, 2016 6 min read
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There is an old saying among educators that, “Elementary teachers love their students, high school teachers love their subject and college professors love themselves.” I’m not sure where the quotation originated but I have heard several teachers, administrators and thought leaders use the quotation in conversations or presentations (no mention of middle school teachers, which means they might just be perfect).

I do not believe it is completely accurate, but it does help articulate the idea that there are teachers who get into teaching because of the children, others because they have a passion for a subject, and those who have a passion for hearing themselves. I don’t necessarily think it can be separated fairly by the level one teaches.

The reality is that we all entered the teaching profession for a reason, which fall somewhere between personal and professional reasons. Some of us felt we found our calling, while others found their passion in education after first pursuing another profession. I just wonder, however, if we got into the profession fully understanding that the job entails more than just entering a classroom, knowing your content and pedagogy, and closing the door behind us.

Education, along with being a member of a school community, entails a great deal more than what just happens between the sounds of the morning and afternoon bells. Part of the job entails understanding district initiatives and how we, as school staff, fit into those initiatives...both negatively and positively.

There are plenty of teachers and leaders who may not believe in the initiative that their district is diving into, and that’s where the dysfunction begins.

The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team
When you leave your house and forget to bring the book you’re presently reading doesn’t seem like a crisis, but when you travel a lot, it can be a minor catastrophe...or a 1st world problem. Luckily, as I walked in circles at the isolated terminal during my connection at the Newark International Airport on the way to South Carolina, I happened upon a bookstore selling The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.

It’s not that I wanted to impulsively buy another book that I wouldn’t read fully, but something about the title intrigued me, so I decided to go ahead with the purchase. I’m glad I did because I read it within the flights that took me to South Carolina and back to Albany, NY.

In the book, Lencioni eloquently uses a fable to illustrate how a team can dysfunction. Although the story was set in the tech world, there are many correlations within the winding story that can be used in the world of education. Personalities, egos, the need to be right, or wanting to be a part of something bigger than ourselves isn’t isolated to the world of technology.

If you can imagine Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, then you can see these 5 dysfunctions starting from the bottom and working their way up. And each one has a lot to do with the dysfunction that comes next.

The five dysfunctions that Lencioni illustrates are:
Absence of Trust - Not shocking. The absence of trust happens when people don’t fully want to make themselves vulnerable to the group. When individuals in a group don’t feel that they can fully trust those around them, the group is not really whole. There will be a major fracture in how the group moves forward, and may prevent the group from moving forward at all.

Fear of Conflict - This is a huge issue for many groups. There are members of stakeholder groups who do not like conflict, and they do everything they can to avoid it. This also happens when they don’t trust that their input will be taken seriously. Stakeholder groups may see this in teachers who feel a low level of self-efficacy (Bandura), which may be very well be the reason that they were asked to be a part of the group because the leader who chose them knows that individual will go along with whatever the leader decides. Unfortunately, when we avoid conflict, we are at a greater risk of being part of a consensus, which means we may have given up on the idea of giving our input about the initiative being implemented, and are no longer fully engaged in the process.

Lack of Commitment - Lencioni writes that, “Without having aired their opinions in the course of passionate and open debate, team members rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings.” If the initiative fails, they may be the ones who begin saying they never wanted it in the first place, although they never spoke up.

Avoidance of Accountability - It’s not that all members of the group don’t take accountability, although some may not, but this also means that groups members never feel comfortable “calling each other out” if those members are not fully engaged in the process. People stay in the “Land of nice” even though deep inside they may want to scream. Therefore, the work starts to fall on the shoulders of a small number within the group.

Inattention to Results - This happens when team members put their own ego, needs or career development before the focus of the team. Remembering that all of these go up a scale like Maslow’s Hierarchy, it’s easy to understand how someone gets to this point because their input was either ignored, or they never offered it in the first place because they lack trust. It also helps to illustrate that the focus that a team decides on really has to be strong, and there had to be open and honest dialogue on getting there.

In the End
Although Lencioni was writing about the business world, there are clearly many implications for the world of education. Districts often go after initiatives, and not everyone on the leadership team may believe in that initiative. If those on the leadership team don’t believe in it, they can’t possibly go back to their own building community and carry the initiative forward in a positive way.

District initiatives need to encompass the thoughts of a diverse group, and not just someone who negotiates their way around to build consensus because they believe they have a better idea than anyone else.

Candidates apply for jobs at particular businesses because they like what the company stands for, but in education many teachers and leaders are solely focused on students rather than the idea that a district may go in a direction those individuals don’t believe in. What happens then?

Perhaps the most important thing we can take away from Lencioni’s fable of dysfunctions, is that district leaders need to understand that pushback on the part of team members will hopefully result in making the initiative stronger, instead of trying to silence them because they don’t like what the other member of the team has to say. However, the other side of the coin is that if a member of a team doesn’t agree with the direction a whole group decides to go in, perhaps that district is no longer the place for them.

All of this helps us to understand how very important Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions are to the way a team operates.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press. Foreword by John Hattie). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Geralt.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.