A Psychologically Informed Approach to Team Working — ‘Stronger Together’
09.10.2020: As I reflect on another week passed as the Lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at the national youth homeless charity; Centrepoint, it has been very sad to say goodbye to one of our team members in London; Dr Natalie Seymour. Even during the relatively short time she has been within the organisation, Natalie has made a huge impact on the staff and team(s) that she has worked with. Despite much of this work being remote because of the UK lockdown, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, she has developed positive relationships with her Support and Housing Team(s), offered support and reflective practice sessions to staff and made a valuable contribution to our vision for PIE within the charity. I am sure all those she has worked with since the start of the year, including myself, will miss her energy, humility, knowledge, skills and compassion hugely and will join me in wishing her all the best in her future role.
Positively however, there have been additions to our PIE team over the past week, as we have successfully recruited for our recently advertised North PIE Clinical Psychology roles. I am therefore very pleased to be welcoming our first PIE Clinical Psychologists for the North; Dr Jess Guilding, specifically for our Yorkshire region (covering our services in Bradford and Barnsley) and Dr Claire Thompson, specifically for our Sunderland region. Both come with excellent knowledge, skills and experience and we are looking forward to welcoming them to the PIE Team later this year, and for them to develop our PIE offer in these areas. We have also now shortlisted to replace Natalie’s role in London, and consequently alongside Dr Louise Peters and myself, we will soon be able to deliver a full PIE offer across the charity.
All these changes within our PIE team has therefore got me thinking more generally about ‘teams’ and how we work not only as a PIE team, but also within the wider team(s) within the charity, and particularly what the psychological evidence highlights about ‘team working’. In 2018, a special issue of the American Psychologist (c.f. https://psycnet.apa.org/PsycARTICLES/journal/amp/73/4) outlines some of the most up to date thinking about team-working, and highlights that in whatever field of work we operate in, ‘team-work’ is key to getting things done. As McDaniel (2018) notes “the world is so complex, no one-person has the skills or knowledge to accomplish all that we want to accomplish”. Consequently it is critical, as argued by Tharp (2013), that we collaborate with others, which is argued to be ”a practice — a way of working in harmony with others — but it begins with a point of view” (p.13–14). What this means is that have to move from a position of ‘me’ to ‘us’ or from the notion of a ‘traditional hierarchy’ to a ‘team’. I would also argue that in the current times, working together has never been more important or essential, whether that be face to face within one of our supported accommodation services or remotely within our support teams.
So what does a psychologically informed approach to a team or ‘team working’ look like? The ‘science’ of teamwork is substantial, and of course, a short blog like this cannot do the huge research literature justice. However, I have been reflecting this week on some of the key points, that I think will not only be helpful in building our future PIE team, but also are relevant to our many different team(s) within Centrepoint, as well as the ‘whole wider team’ across our organisation. When a team works well together, it functions to its optimum level, and this will consequently be to the greatest benefit for the staff within the team, as well as the homeless young people that that a team may be directly or indirectly supporting.
Over several months of reflective practice sessions with both our frontline and support team(s), I have been privileged to see and hear about how teams are coming together within the organisation to manage the current challenges. This has enabled them to build on what is working well but also has enabled them to not be afraid to highlight and discuss where there have been challenges to team working, which of course can then lead to ideas and actions to address or improve these. Most importantly, these reflective practice sessions have helped to reduce team ‘splitting’, wherein individual members of the team are working to different ends, which can create confusion, toxicity and damage relationships both within the team, and with those the team is working with (e.g. homeless young people, external stakeholders). Consequently, being willing to speak openly about our team dynamics, and the role or position that we all hold within a team ‘system’, even when this may be difficult is beneficial and can bring about positive change. As the research notes (e.g. Allen, 2018), teams learn and do best when they have time and space to think about the ‘context’ of any issues in order to create a wider understanding them.
Consequently, I would argue that the first aspect that makes a ‘psychologically informed’ team is ‘good communication’. Being able to speak up, albeit with compassion and sensitively that our view or position is only one way of looking at an issue, and feeling heard when we do so, is important. As the saying goes ‘it’s good to talk’ and importantly, this is not a one off process, but is an ongoing commitment to openness and transparency, so that issues can be addressed early or ‘nipped in the bud’ before they fester and impact more widely on the team dynamics. Processes such as shift ‘handovers’ (c.f. Fiscella et al, 2018), ‘open door’ policies, provision of clear and constructive feedback and defined role responsibilities are helpful as they create psychological safety and assist with good communication and build positive team working relationships. Good relationships are built on good communication, and as noted in previous blogs, ‘relationships’ are the heart of what makes a Psychologically Informed Environment or PIE (Keats et al, 2012), and what ultimately improves outcomes both for staff and the homeless young people we work with.
Of course, a team needs to have a ‘shared vision’, whether this is to #endyouthhomelessness or #changethestory for the homeless young people that we work with, and all the members of a team need to be working towards the same end goal (i.e. to improve outcomes for homeless young people in the UK). Whatever decisions we make on a day-to-day basis, whether as an individual or as a team, should always be underpinned by this guiding principle. Moreover, Driskell et al (2018) specifically note, “teamwork is the process through which team members collaborate to achieve [shared] task goals” (p.334). Knowing why we come to work every day, and that this isn’t just for the money(!), but for a wider shared purpose can motivate teams to work together. Consequently, sometimes it might be helpful to ‘refresh’ this vision and remind ourselves of the ‘bigger picture’ especially when perhaps the daily grind, complexity or frustrations of our working day can feel a bit too much.
Research from teams in the military (c.f. Goodwin et al, 2018) notes that we need to distinguish between ‘task work’ and ‘team work’. The task is the actual work we are doing to complete an assignment or activity, whereas teamwork is how we work together effectively. This ‘team cohesion’ or shared vision or mental models is argued to be the special ingredient in our PIE to help us work together, and that this may be more important than how well we individually work on a particular task. This latter point is worth perhaps all of us reflecting on in our teams this week. For example, how do we work together? Do we ‘have each other’s back?’ Do we offer to help and support each other in a team? Do our current processes and procedures encourage team work or put unnecessary barriers in place? Moreover, whilst team members benefit from clear roles and responsibilities, and clear plans, the most successful teams also create opportunities to shape these as appropriate (Rosen et al, 2018).
The formation or composition of a team is also key in terms of its effectiveness. Research is now suggesting that having a diverse range of views within a team (e.g. Feitosa et al, 2018) is important in terms of creativity, innovation and problem solving. Although a less homogenous team can sometimes be more challenging at first, through working to develop a ‘shared’ or ‘hybrid’ team culture, the benefits outweigh any early adaptation to others who may view things differently from us. However, considering who is actually in our team isn’t just about having teams consisting of the right skills and knowledge to perform the tasks required, or the right surface level attributes of different team members (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity). It is also about being aware of the ‘deeper level factors’ that maybe aren’t immediately obvious but research studies show they have a huge impact (c.f. Bell et al, 2018). These include the team members’ personality traits and their values. In Centrepoint, we have shared organisational values, but it is important not just to know superficially what these are, but also how they specifically translate to our individual roles. Specifically, Bell (2018) calls these ‘deeper level’ factors the ‘ABCs of Teamwork’ and note that the attitudes, behaviours and cognitions (or thoughts) that exist within a team can collectively influence whether a team achieves its goals. For example, one team member’s mood, behaviour and outlook can significantly influence all other members (e.g. if negative or pessimistic versus inspiring or resilient), so may need to be explored, addressed and resolved either through additional support, training and/or supervision.
There is also value in ‘team building’, and creating shared opportunities for teams to socialise and come together outside of their usual working environment. Of course, at the moment much of this is more difficult or may be virtual, but in our wider directorate team in Centrepoint, one of the highlights of the team meeting has been the ‘Q&A session’ we start each meeting with. I have certainly got to know my colleagues over a video call more by each of us asking each other random questions (e.g. If you were a crisp flavour or plant, what would you be and why? What box set or film have you recently enjoyed and why?) than perhaps I ever did in our previous business focused face to face meetings in Head Office pre-lockdown. And in some of our face to face teams in our accommodation services, how often do we create opportunities in our working week to ask about how someone’s weekend has been, or share our hobbies or interests?
Most importantly perhaps of all, the leading organisational psychologist Hackman, who has been researching team working and team effectiveness since the 1970s, has identified after more than 40 years of research that ‘what matters most to collaboration … [and] what teams need to thrive are certain enabling conditions’ (Haas & Mortensen, 2016). In other words, a supportive context or system within which a team is operating. This is why our PIE Team / HR Team work on the organisation’s ‘People Strategy’ is so important. We need to foster a psychologically informed environment for our staff to work in that considers wellbeing and inclusion, supports and develops our staff through reflective practice, training opportunities and processes that empower and develop our staff’s skills and knowledge further and don’t create unnecessary barriers or challenges. We also need a reward system that reinforces good performance and not just highlights problems, and information systems and resources that function appropriately and provide what we need to do our roles to the best of our ability. These conditions create ‘enabling environments’ in which teams can flourish. Finally, as Gestalt Psychologists have noted ‘the whole is greater than the sum of our parts’, and consequently our ‘teams’ will always achieve more working together than working individually or in silos. As this blog ‘Team’ image above notes, within a psychologically informed environment, it is always better to work together, for that way, everyone achieves more…