I currently teach with an organisation called ACS International Schools. My first love, however, is philosophy; and in my free time I do research in philosophy, education, and organisational dynamics. I am particularly interested in something called self-organising systems theory. But I won’t talk about that here, at least not directly.
Recently, I participated in a workshop put on by the London Centre for Leadership and Learning, which is part of the University of London. At this workshop I was re-introduced to Tuckman’s stages of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing). I had forgotten about Tuckman’s stages, and was surprised to discover, when I reflected upon my own recent team experiences, that he seemed to be on to something.
Why were groups of people seemingly going through these stages? And why, in particular, was conflict a consistent feature of the development of a team? After all, unless people are involved in playing a game, they are generally averse to conflict.
But the conflict that I experienced in my own team certainly did not appear to be game inspired. Surely, some aspect of the group developmental process must be driving people into conflict; but what was it? Two rather obvious possibilities suggested themselves to me.
First, group members say or do things that I do not like. Second, group members say or do things that I think they ought not to say or do. Of course, most of the time these two factors coincide; that is, I usually do not like it when someone does something that I think they ought not to do, but occasionally someone does something that they ought not to do and I find it quite amusing.
Now, these conditions are met with frequently in teams; that is, people often say and do things that I do not like and think ought not to be accepted; and this is the case not just for me, but for each member of the team who are, therefore, all potentially in conflict with each other. In fact, perhaps the defining characteristic of being a team member is that I am authorised to publicly disagree with all the other members of the team. But the fact that each team member is always potentially in conflict with all the other team members means that teams, much like living things, are characterised by the constraining influence of their parts. And this kinship between teams and living things has significant implications for organisations that wish to employ the use of teams.
What organisations need to be mindful of
First, the constraining influence of each part on all the other parts has the capacity to generate a global constraint as an effect, in accordance with which all the parts appear to be governed (as a cause).
In order to quickly get a grip on the significance of this insight, imagine a forest of trees. Each tree orients itself to get as much light as it can. But in so doing each tree cuts off light to the trees that immediately surround it. These other trees then engage in exactly the same behavior. The result of all this jostling for position is that, as if in response to a command, all the trees grow straight upward. Thus, there appears to be a convert co-operation in nature among trees with overtly conflicting interests, by means of which all the trees become a forest of straight tall trees. This same kind of covert co-operation, I am arguing, appears in teams.
Second, but while a group of trees can be united into a forest in accordance with laws of nature, a group of people can only be united into a team in accordance with laws or norms of reason; and these must be established.
When is a team a team?
The first priority of any organisation that wishes to employ a team must, therefore, be to establish those conditions by means of which a group of people is able to become a team. Since a team can only form through its establishment of laws or norms of reason, which invariably involves some type of conflict (hopefully rational disagreement), the coercive power of the organisation should, in the first instance, be limited to removing hindrances to the free exchange of ideas. Thus, for example, if one member of a team is persistently belligerent or persistently stonewalls other members, the organisation ought to intervene, since such behavior is a hindrance to the formation of a team.
To review, teams and living systems depend, for their emergence and continued existence, upon the mutual constraining influence of their parts. Anything that hinders that influence, threatens the team. And this is why, as I recently read in an article in the Financial Times, “a failure to address conflicts at work is one of the main reasons executives lose respect on a team.” The very existence of the team depends upon its capacity to resolve conflict in a just manner; and so for someone to avoid conflict when it is necessary is an abrogation of duty.
Michael D. Kurak, Head Teacher at ACS International Schools