‘Team Work in a Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) — The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts’
22.10.2021: For this week’s PIE blog, as the lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE), at the national youth homeless charity; Centrepoint, I have been reflecting on a very busy couple of weeks working across the organisation. For example, last week I attended a Strategy Workshop with other senior leaders in Centrepoint, wherein we started to reflect upon our new strategy, which is focused on ending youth homelessness by 2037 (so that any young person born this year will hopefully not need to access youth homeless services when they turn 16 years). This week, I also had the pleasure of finally meeting all of the PIE team face to face at our team away day. This was a real highlight as our current team has been entirely on-boarded remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore opportunities to come together as a team have been severely limited, particularly as one team member is based in our North region so hasn’t been able to travel to our Head Office in London due to pandemic restrictions. I have also continued to deliver reflective practice sessions to several ‘frontline’ teams as well as ‘support’ teams from across the organisation, many of whom have been reflecting on what it means to be a ‘team’ and how they can work together most effectively in the future. This has led me to therefore considering the role of a ‘team’ in a psychologically informed environment (PIE) further as well as how we develop our teams within the organisation moving forward.
When thinking about ‘teams’ over the past couple of weeks, what has been clear is that there are many ‘teams’ that we might work as a part of. Whilst the most obvious ‘team’ might be the team that we do most of our daily work within (i.e. a supported accommodation service, or team that is focused on delivering one aspect of the organisation such as finance or fundraising), we are also part of a bigger team, that of #TeamCentrepoint. We are all part of the wider organisation, each of us having a piece within the wider jigsaw that makes up the charity and our campaigning, fundraising or delivery work with homeless young people. If we are ‘frontline staff’, we might also be part of a wider ‘team around a young person’, wherein we are working with a homeless young person alongside other external agencies (e.g. statutory partnerships such as mental health or social services, criminal justice services or with other charities).
Moreover, we may also be part of other ‘teams’ or in Centrepoint terminology — ‘Directorates’ within the organisation focused on delivering one particular aspect of work. For example, the PIE team sits within the Strategy and Performance Directorate, alongside the Data and Insights Team, the Helpline Team and the Information Technology (IT) team. Or as I have joked on occasion, the ‘hardware’, ‘software’, the ‘eyes and ears’ (i.e. on the current issues of homelessness for young people) and the ‘measurement of everything in between’! However, in order to make the progress within the organisation on PIE to date, our PIE team has also formed an ‘ad hoc team’ with colleagues from across the charity from different areas or teams within a ‘PIE Steering Group’. Working across teams in this latter case has reduced ‘silo’ working and enabled us to get our objective of rolling out PIE across the organisation to the current point. Without this cross-collaborative working, our small team (2.5FTE) would not have made the progress we have made to date. The strategy workshop last week was another example of individuals coming together from across the different ‘teams’ within the organisation to work more effectively on our #endyouthhomelessness2037 strategic objective.
When thinking about ‘teams’ there are lots of psychological resources and evidence that focus on ‘team working’. The concept has been a particular focus within Occupational Psychology (a branch of psychology concerned with the study of human behaviour at work including methods of staff selection, improving productivity and managing work related stress). However, I am not an Occupational Psychologist by background, and so for the focus of this blog, I have been thinking more generally about what underpins teams and in particular how to conceptualise how we want our team working to be within a PIE. One saying has been something I have found myself coming back to many times over the past two weeks; “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” . This apparently originated with the Greek philosopher Aristotle, but was adopted by the Gestalt psychology tradition in the 20th century in their study of human perception. Specifically, it was used to account for the observation that humans naturally perceive objects as organised patterns and objects due to their proximity, similarity, continuity, closure and connectedness to each other (Wolfe et al, 2008; Goldstein, 2009). However, I think that these principles can be applied to the concept of ‘teams’.
If you look at the picture accompanying this blog, what do you see? I would propose that you see a white triangle in the centre of the picture. However, there is no white triangle drawn. Rather there are three black circles with a slice cut out. The positioning of those individual black circles (and their proximity, similarity, continuity, closure and connectedness to each other), creates the white triangle in the centre. Thus, the ‘whole’ is more than the individual ‘parts’. This is like a well-functioning team. When a team is working successfully, it may be made up of individuals but the coming together of those individuals, creates something more than just those individuals alone. That is the essence or the ‘magic’ of good team working.
Building such a team based on these ideas of Gestalt psychology, and the related Gestalt psychotherapeutic approaches, has been developed by Herman & Korenich (1977), who noted the following key principles. Firstly, that all members of a team function as a whole, possessing positive and negative characteristics which they should be aware off, and owned or accepted by the individual as part of their authentic selves. This enables the individual to ‘come to terms with oneself’ and accept responsibility for one’s actions in the here and now within the team. Without this, there may be an expression of dysfunctional behaviour due to a suppression of their inner self. In addition, within a team the members must be able to express their feelings fully, both positive and negative and ‘get in touch with where there are’ on issues and relationships with other team members. Where there are natural differences or conflicts, then individuals must learn to work through these to resolution rather than supressing them so that they lead to productive and positive behaviours within the team rather than toxic dynamics or blocks to team working. Of course, this requires a level of emotional intelligence, and can be challenging. Therefore, individuals or wider teams may need support to work through this through team spaces or away days, supervision, reflective practice, meditation or other approaches.
Of course, the benefits of working together are significant, we all do better because we are more than just the sum of a group of individuals when we come together. Centrepoint cannot #endyouthhomelessness by itself, we need to work in partnership. As McDaniel (2018) notes ‘the world is so complex, no one person has the skills of knowledge to accomplish all that we want to accomplish’, and therefore that ‘interdisciplinary teams are the way to make that happen’. Humans have always joined forces in teams to achieve shared goals, but psychology can inform us now about the methods and processes to make these collaborations more efficient and successful (c.f. see more details in a special issue on Teams in the American Psychologist here: https://psycnet.apa.org/PsycARTICLES/journal/amp/73/4).
I would argue however, one of the most important aspects of team working is an ‘attitude’ rather than necessarily a list of behaviours. As Tharp (2013) notes, in order to move from a sense that a team is a just group of individuals to a sense that it is something ‘more’ we need to have a willingness and openness to collaboration rather than competition. This might be hard within our society where ‘individualism’ can be prized or rewarded so highly in our culture. Nevertheless her point is that “collaboration is a habit and one I encourage you to develop … collaboration may be a practice — a way of working in harmony with others — but it begins with a point of view, essentially moving from ‘me’ to ‘us’, from traditional hierarchy to team’ (p.13–14). Having an attitude of, or willingness towards collaboration is that key first step.
Finally, as per a PIE, the importance of relationships and communication is also critically important. For example, as noted by Cooke (2015) ‘teams with ideal knowledge but ineffectual interactions will not be effective as a team, yet teams with sketchy knowledge, but effective interactions, may succeed’ (p. 418). This research highlights that teams that can share decision-making, planning and problem solving through effective communication have the best performance outcomes. When ideas are shared, owned and enacted together, outcomes are usually better than ‘silo working’ or an undue focus on individuals’ performance. Therefore, as part of the many discussions, I have had over the past two weeks, I have been exploring with teams how they can focus on creating spaces to have conversations and build their inter-team relationships. It is only through this communication and collaboration that we can achieve our strategic aims and positive outcomes for homeless young people, because working together we will be more successful than we could ever be working alone…