Monday, January 27, 2014

6 Things That Make a Cohesive Staff

Guest Post: 6 Things That Make a Cohesive Staff

Think of your favorite team you've ever been a part of.  Got it?

Now think of the worst team you've worked on.  Ick.  Yeah.  Bad memories.

What made the difference?  What leaves us wanting to never leave a job vs. wanting to leave and erase the experience from our memories?  Here I investigate the 6 traits of a cohesive staff.

I write this not as a master of organizational leadership and/or a sage on how to build team.  I write this merely as a gal who's had opportunity to experience both sorts of jobs.  What follows is a compilation of what stands out to me as the characteristics of a cohesive team.

Mission/values alignment
The mission is why we are here.  This ought to be crystal clear.  Any team that expects to be successful must have a common goal, even when individuals within the team possess varying motivations for the work.

The mission directs the choices we make.  There will always be competing interests; there is so much to do!  But the mission helps us determine which actions are most necessary, and thus, what steps we take next.

Values are how we accomplish our mission.
Consider the mission of my school: prepare all scholars for college success, equipped with the passion and tools to begin innovative and world-changing pursuits.

A tall order for sure.  College success can seem nearly impossible when a junior gets her ACT scores back and the composite staring her in the face is 14.  14?!  There's no way, right?

But when a staff has collectively committed to the mission, it uses its value of perseverance (defined as "We never give up") to work and push and keep on, even in the face of such brutal realities.  It uses its value of achievement ("We focus on results and do whatever it takes to accomplish our goals.") to determine solutions to knock down the barriers that stand between her and college success.  The values are what a cohesive team uses to think about the challenges it faces.

A cohesive team talks about the mission and the values all the time.  They are more than nicely worded verbiage for posters in the hallway.  They are the inner monologue that come to live in the day-to-day actions of a cohesive team.

The Diff-Co
Just so we're clear, this isn't my idea.  The idea of the Difficult Conversation comes from this book.  At my school, it's a framework for how we approach the conversations that are hard to have, and we endearingly call it "Diff-co'ing" or "getting diff-co'ed."

Why have the conversations that are hard to have?
Because the work we do is hard.  And we are also human.  We make mistakes.  We also misunderstand others' intentions.

A cohesive team who has collective commitment to the mission and values has "organizational trust," meaning each member trusts that each other member is acting in alignment with achieving the mission.

But sometimes things happen.  A deadline is missed.  A teacher loses emotional constancy with a scholar.  A teacher loses emotional constancy with another teacher.  A schedule is changed last minute. <Insert recurring frustrating school event of your choice here.>

These things happen and our human emotions get involved.  A cohesive team knows that it needs to deal with these moments in a healthy way.  A cohesive team knows that it's actually a priority to deal with these things.  We have incredibly important work to do (as our mission reminds us constantly).  Our work is too important to waste working memory on adult issues.  You can't just bury it.  Anyone who's taken a Psych 101 class knows this.  A cohesive, healthy team encourages its member to address these concerns.  And why?  Because difficult conversations are how we remind ourselves and remind one another that we are committed to the mission.

A difficult conversation is always a learning conversation.
I could go very in-depth on the how to's of the Diff-Co, but that book's already been writ.  I stand here just to say that on a cohesive team the chain of events goes like this:
1.) Frustrating event happens.
2.) I get myself curious and to a place where I want to learn more about how and why it happened.
3.) I have the conversation, no matter how difficult it may feel.
4.) I have it so that I can learn and so that my teammate can hear the impact on kids, on the mission.  
5.) We leave with clear next steps of what we can both do to better act aligned with the mission.

Servant Leadership
There are many places where you can read about this concept.  I'm not attempting to steal anyone's idea here.  Uh, you can read about it in this book.  Or, the Bible.

The Servant presents an image of servant leadership that's simple to grasp.  The image "inverts the pyramid."  Instead of thinking of leadership as top down (where the CEO/principal is at the top and everyone looks upward), servant leadership ought to be thought of as bottom up (where the the CEO/principal is at the bottom, meeting the needs of everyone above her).

Servant leaders set clear goals and meet all legitimate needs in order to achieve them.

In the school context, the kids are at the top.  Every effort of the school is in service of the kids.  This hierarchy is clear for a cohesive team.

Friday Night Happy Hour
I have nothing more to say about this.

Teachers are soooooo good at accountability.  We hold our students accountable every day. We do this through homework, tests, merit/demerit systems, private conversations.  Why do we do we go to these lengths?  Because we care about our students and want them to become their best selves.  We know that their best selves is realized beside their best work.

Students do their best work when they are held accountable to doing it.

I know we are grown up and all, but adults are the same way.

As adults we tend to get a negative feeling when we hear the word "accountability."  Maybe this is because many of us have had some really horrible experiences with accountability.  A boss who only cared about the bottom line.  A work environment where "accountability" was synonymous with "punishment" for not hitting a certain standard.  Those sorts of experiences leave us reluctant to engage positively with the idea of "accountability."

I propose, however, that we flip the concept and consider accountability synonymous with respect.

We have much work to do.  And the work we do is hard.  We are reminded of this from our mission.  The mission, when appropriately ambitious, dictates that we must do our best work if we are to achieve it.  When a cohesive staff is collectively committed to achieving its mission, it realizes that accountability is nothing but pushing each other to do our best work in order to reach the mission.

So why is that respect?  Let me ask you a couple questions.
Do you want your students to do their best work? (yes)
Do structures exist in your classroom to help ensure students are doing their best work? (yes)
Would you be a good teacher if you did nothing to push scholars to do their best work? (no)

Now flip it.
Do you want to do your best work? (yes)
Do structures exist in your school to help ensure you are doing your best work? (they better!)
Would your principal be a good leader if he did nothing to push you to your best work? (no!!)

A cohesive team realizes it's actually the leadership's job to make sure the team is doing its best work.  When accountability is viewed and applied as respect, a cohesive team will expect its leadership to hold it accountable.  Accountability is respect because its constantly pushing me to be the person I want to be.

I read in a book recently (How Full is Your Bucket) that the #1 reason people leave their jobs is because they don't feel appreciated.

It makes sense.  Our work is hard.  We work long hours.  The pay, arguably, isn't that great.  Kids are kids, and so yeah, we put up with a bit from them (a lot of input and not a ton of thank you's received at the end of the day).

A cohesive team recognizes that recognition is a necessity.  Our teammates do thousands of acts of heroism on the behalf of kids on a daily basis.  Most of them will go unnoticed.  Calling attention to a hand full of them, and simply stating your appreciation of the act, goes a long ways.

Recognition can be elaborate (awards, ceremonies, gifts), but it doesn't have to be.  In fact, I think more informal recognition is more powerful because it gets at the daily acts we do on a regular basis that most often go unnoticed.

At my school, each day starts with a simple routine called Value Village.  During this ritual, teammates give shout-outs to other teammates, calling out acts team members have done that have shown one or more of the core values.  It's a chance for teammates to say of one another, "Hey, I saw you do this thing, and I thought it was really nice."

A couple of powerful things about value village:
1.) You are expected to have a shout-out ready to give.  It's not like, "Hey, there happened to be a good thing that happened this week."  It's more like, "There are always things that my teammates are doing.  It is incumbent on me to notice these things and share what I'm noticing."
2.) This is how we start our day together.  Not with lingering anxiety about the copy machine that jammed, not with a mad dash into our classrooms hoping we get there before scholars.  But rather, we begin our days by sharing statements of appreciation for one another.  It completely changes the outlook for the day.
3.) Once you do this kind of ritual long enough, the thinking becomes a habit, and you start noticing more and more of the wonderful things your teammates are doing.  I actually think this kind of habit creates an identify for the team to do wonderful things and to be wonderful to each other.

That is a powerful habit that absolutely leads to a cohesive team. Try it out and see what you can learn. 

Kelsey Lambrecht is a higly-valued teacher of Special Education as well as the Director of Intervention at SCI Academy in New Orleans, LA. "She has the heart and the warmth of a Mother Theresa. She has the patience of Buddha, and the dry sense of humor of Robert Downy Jr." See her in action and talked about here. She is not on twitter. 


  1. Great motivation to continue on even when things are seemingly impossible. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Some really solid information here, and just in time as we enter the month of February. Well done, Farmer.