Would I want to work with a colleague like me? Nicki Smith, OLEVI Lead Facilitator, reflects on how Group Coaching and Team Effectiveness could influence the answer.
One Friday afternoon I was reeling off my work to-do list to my friend Maisie, who wanted us to go out for dinner and have some much-needed quality time, and her response was: “We are human beings, not human doings.” After initially brushing this off, I did think about how, just by the very nature of how schools work, it leads to a focus on what people need to do, rather than how they want to be.
It is of value to explore the purpose and process of the teams that we are a part of as well as the products, considering the impact of all three on how we develop as professionals and whether we grow or deteriorate as a result of the dynamics of the teams that we are in. Most teams that I am a part of at school include a random mixture of people with different agendas, motivations, intentions, characters and approaches, which can be a beautiful or dangerous cocktail.
The outcomes of any investment made into coaching these groups of people to understand and appreciate themselves and each other and thus work and learn together effectively will influence the path of the team moving forwards, with the potential for it to be transformative in a hugely constructive or seriously damaging way, depending on the coaching experience.
A touchstone of mine throughout my teaching career has been a question that a previous leader regularly asked staff to consider: “Would I want to work with a colleague like me?” I have always used it as a simple YES/NO question to benchmark my professionalism or to remind me about the impact of my thoughts, words and behaviour at work. To be honest, some days the answer is “Yes, I would absolutely love to” and other days it is “No, I would avoid me in the corridor at all costs”.
Recently, however, I have used some coaching questions to explore what this question really means to me and to consider how my current team would answer. What is it that makes my answer so different from one day to the next? Does the answer to this influence the effectiveness of the teams that I am a part of? What is it that makes the difference between the colleagues I love to see and work with and those I really don’t? How could an experienced coach increase the number of staff who answer yes to this question, especially by coaching groups of staff together rather than individuals in isolation? When pondering this, three big questions came to mind.
1. Would I trust me?
The recent focus on ‘wellbeing’ is a necessary shift and one which I celebrate; however, using it as a buzzword or giving me an occasional lunchtime yoga session is unlikely to make my ‘being’ more ‘well’. A genuine and sustainable impact has been made on my wellbeing through experiencing a coaching culture where I feel trusted and able to trust my colleagues – making me feel safe and confident to work at my best.
“A team is not a group of people that work together. A team is a group of people that trust each other.”
After two decades of research, Harvard researcher Paul Zak found that “compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report 74% less stress, 50% higher productivity and 40% less burnout”. The trust created through coaching isn’t just about honesty and reliability but also about the impact of the integrity and empowerment that it cultivates. Simon Sinek suggested that “A team is not a group of people that work together. A team is a group of people that trust each other.” So, would I want to work with a colleague like me when I am trusting and trustworthy? Absolutely! Do I role-model this? Sometimes.
2. Would I want to collaborate with me?
A common scene at the end of the school day is of tired and stressed teachers and leaders working in isolation in classrooms and offices, often on things that would be richly enhanced by collaboration. It can be a lonely profession at times, despite being surrounded by people. My personal vision is that these people make time for honest and reflective professional dialogue with those they work with day in and day out.
“The colleagues I love to work with are those who support and challenge me to be a better teacher, leader and person.”
I am intrigued by the idea of people being compared to a drain or a radiator in terms of their effect on the energy of a group and often consider what I bring to the party to improve things at school and develop the people I work with. How could I use coaching to support co-workers to achieve shared goals by understanding them better as people? When am I sensitive, positive and supportive to make their job easier and when do I quite frankly make things more difficult or frustrating? When do I allow and encourage people to do their job better by the way that I do mine? Why are we moving forwards as a team and why are we getting stuck? The colleagues I love to work with are those who support and challenge me to be a better teacher, leader and person. So, would I want to work with a colleague like me when I am collaborating effectively? Absolutely! Do I share and receive the skills and expertise to enable this? Sometimes.
3. Do I recognise what others contribute and our progress?
During these times of increasing demands on teachers for accountability, a constantly changing educational landscape and when many talented teachers are considering leaving the profession, I found myself questioning what keeps me coming back every September, and the answer is clear: because what we do is valued and it makes a difference. How do I know? Because my coach supports and challenges me to evidence this.
“What we do is valued and it makes a difference.”
Many teachers don’t feel this way, making it even more important to be grateful for the contribution of others and to be recognised for the impact we make. With so many challenges in education, it seems important to learn from the research about personal and professional appreciation. Korb describes the positive effects of gratitude on determination, optimism and energy, and the links to the neurotransmitter dopamine and reward pathways within the brain. Tanner also outlines the impact of appreciation on the sense of unity and the ‘we’re in this together’ mentality in the workplace, and it makes sense that I would want to work with a colleague who recognises progress.
An optimistic approach is to keep my fingers crossed that I end up in a cohesive team with people who acknowledge what everyone contributes. The realistic side of me suspects that I will need to be more conscious and deliberate about creating this, explicitly investing time in nurturing and empowering teams with skilful support and challenge. So, would I want to work with a colleague like me when I recognise others and our progress? Absolutely! Do I make time to do this? Sometimes.
Some school leadership are already providing a coach to improve how effectively their teams work together and how they are ‘being’, as well as what they want to achieve and what they are ‘doing’. It could even be seen as an entitlement for teams to receive this support and investment of coaching by someone who has a deeper understanding of how groups function, so that people can work together more successfully, enhancing their own wellbeing, performance and the success of the school.
The impact of this cannot be underestimated, as the collaboration or lack of it within the teams that we are a part of may well be the deciding factor in whether we skip or crawl out of school at the end of the day. So, in answer to the question “Would I want to work with a colleague like me?” – sometimes. Do I want to make this answer a confident ‘absolutely’? – absolutely!