Elephants are on the loose, Part 1

When we talk about creating disruptions to make schools better for all learners, we are talking about agency. The agency inherent in being part of a school community to make it better so learning is at the heart of everything we do.

It’s useful to become aware of the layers of leadership to create the environments, which make agency a positive force in schools. It might help us to examine some of the things we don’t like to talk about when we talk about schools and change. Those elephants, such as barriers to collaboration and effective teamwork. (Personally, I dislike conflict and I used to think confrontation was terrifying. My mother sometimes says that if I were any calmer, I’d be comatose. Inside the zen-like exterior, those who know me well know, is a little rebel. Talking about elephants is my disruption. And the principle that guides me as I write this is that I believe every single person wants to get better at what they do.)

Because we lead learning, we rely on support functions to help adult humans learn our way through to understanding and action. And because these groups and teams are charged with creating the environment for learning to flourish, it helps teams to examine closely how teams work, how they don’t work, and what we can do about helping our teams become effective, interdependent agents in our schools.

Anatomy of the Elephant named “Team Dysfunction”

Patrick Lencioni’s classic work The Five Dysfunctions of a Team names the barriers to effective work.

Dysfunctional Teams by Patrick Lencioni
Lencioni’s pyramid of team dysfunctions.


This is about Growth, not Blame

Our goal in reflecting on team dysfunctions is not to label people. Reflection is about growth, and the conversations we have around how our teams function begin from the positive intention to be intentional about our growth. If we can make this elephant visible, our individual and collective agency will be a magnificent force to energise our schools, our programs, our classrooms.

The base of Lencioni’s pyramid of team dysfunctions is “Absence of trust.” Trust is necessary for groups to function effectively. Without trust:

  • People conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from each other
  • Members hesitate to ask for help or give honest feedback
  • Individuals jump to conclusions about the intentions of others
  • People might generalize about the aptitude of team members
  • Team members ignore or do not recognize each other’s strengths, skills and experiences
  • The team wastes time and energy managing how others perceive them
  • People might hold grudges
  • People avoid meeting or find ways to avoid working together

When there is an absence of trust, there is “Fear of Conflict.” The team creates a false collegiality and avoidance of cognitive conflict.

  • Meetings are boring. Usually the most talkative ones are allowed to dominate because other team members do not want to challenge thinking.
  • Because nothing much gets challenged at meetings, what might emerge are parking lot meetings or back-channel political discussions and personal attacks on each other.
  • Controversial topics that are essential to understand and make decisions about are ignored, so programs do not move forward.
  • Perspective-taking and collaborative problem-seeking and resolving do not happen much.
  • The group wastes time and energy posturing and managing personal interests.

When teams avoid conflict, there is “Lack of Commitment.”

  • Because the team has not spent time in cognitive conflict to understand issues, team direction and team priorities are not clear to all members.
  • There is often long-winded analysis which delays decisions and work. Opportunities to move forward are cut short or unnoticed due to excessive attention paid to narratives of “why this won’t work.”
  • People start second-guessing each other.
  • People also get tired of the tirades and excuses, and this breeds a lack of confidence in the team. It might also let emerge a fear of failure.
  • Discussions go around and around in circular fashion, and nothing gets done.

Because there is lack of commitment, the team also experiences “Avoidance of Accountability.”

  • Some team members resent other team members who are trying to reach higher standards for their work.
  • Generally, to fit in, team members encourage mediocrity by giving each other comfort feedback for poor work.
  • Deadlines are missed, and not much in the way of products are delivered. This places an undue burden on the team members who are trying as the sole sources of discipline. Some individuals on the team feel resentful of being the hard worker while perceiving others to slack off.

Finally, avoidance of accountability results in “Inattention to Results.”

  • The team becomes stagnant. It doesn’t grow as a team and individuals in it do not experience professional growth, either.
  • The overall organization is surpassed by the competition.
  • Employees who are achievement-oriented leave.
  • The team members left behind focus on their own careers and individual goals, whereby depriving the organization of a resource for agency and positive contributions. Inattentiveness to results creates a workplace, which is easily distracted, focusing on personal politics, personal interests, scapegoating, power struggles, and other unproductive behaviors.

All of which take away from student learning.

An organization should not be a place for the mere function of transferring income from one population (students’ families) to another group (teachers). If being a leader of learning goes beyond being just an occupation, it can become an identity infused with agency. And this agency, to become a positive force of change, is fueled by trust, cognitive conflict, commitment, accountability and attention to results.

Disinvested teams create conditions, which effectively place organizations underneath the elephant, barely able to breathe.

We need to move that elephant.





Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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