DegreeElectrical & Computer Engineering ’17
Lessons Learned about Team Dynamics
My Bass Connections experience has been instructional in two key areas: firstly, it has shed insight upon the dynamics of a successful team, and secondly, it has allowed me to explore pathways to institutional change. I joined my Bass Connections team in its second semester and had to quickly catch up in order to be a useful contributor. A major reason I had chosen this team was specifically because its members had spoken very highly of their team working dynamic. Since I had to observe and adopt their habits upon entering a semester later, after their dynamic had already been set, I had a unique vantage point on the team’s working dynamic. Here are some of the elements that I think contributed to its success:
1. Buy-in from a critical mass
Expectations are everything. If members of a team agree on what is expected of each member, which is to say that they consciously internalize and act in accordance with these expectations, then their behavior encourages others to conform to expectations as well. For example, when team members complete action items on time and deliver useful information during meetings, it creates an atmosphere that positively reinforces team expectations and constructive team behaviors. I think this was the most important factor contributing to the team’s success. A good team is built of people who feel responsible to each other and to their common goal.
On the flip side, behavior that defies team expectations can lead to a chain reaction of destructive team behaviors. On occasion, a person would miss a meeting or be extremely late, and this had a strong psychological effect—it made me feel like the team wasn’t as important as people pretended it was; it chipped away at the expectations that were set by constructive team behaviors. However, it is possible for a team to bounce back from damaged expectations so long as there remain members of the team that are steadfast in their commitment, and as long as members committing destructive behaviors are able to recognize their behaviors as destructive. Key takeaways here, on both the positive and negative ends of the spectrum, are that individuals make a difference, and that leading by example is powerful.
2. Productive meetings
A culture of responsibility is foundational to a good team, but it is possible for members to feel strongly responsible to their team and still have unproductive meetings. Some of our less successful meetings involved talking circularly around a point instead of deriving new insights or arriving at action items. This generally occurred when we used the meeting time to figure out things that could (and should) have been figured out prior to the meeting: there was a stretch of a few weeks where we would all sit down at the table and have more or less the same discussion as we had the week prior, because we had neither taken the time to review the conclusions we’d arrived at previously, nor defined concrete to-dos. This was fixed, fortunately, when one of our team leads called us out on our repetitive conversations, forcing us to recognize that we were stuck in a rut and take action to fix it.
Based on the experiences of our team, here are steps for breaking out of an unproductive loop:
1. Recognition that the team is being unproductive. If your team is talking in circles, call them out on it. Only then can you start to plan how to get back on track.
2. Each meeting should have a purpose. Prepare an agenda that explicitly lays out this purpose—whatever it is you want to achieve by the meeting’s end—and budgets time for everything you need to accomplish. The agenda will keep you on track while you’re talking.
3. Each meeting should finish with action items. Before the meeting is adjourned, everyone should know what they need to do to prepare for the next meeting.
This experience echoed some of my other experiences with group projects, but joining the team mid-project allowed me to appreciate these lessons all the more clearly. I would say that my Bass Connections team has been one of the best teams I’ve worked on, and I’m glad to have had the experience.