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October 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 2

Principal Connection / Group Effectiveness Is No Accident

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Guidance and transparency lead to meaningful meetings.

Social-emotional learning
I looked at my calendar and saw that I had two committee meetings scheduled for later in the day. Each group was coming together to focus on a meaningful task and each would consist of wise, caring people, but that was all the groups had in common. I dreaded being part of the first group—almost wishing I could go to a dental appointment instead—but I was eager to be part of the second group. Both meetings were important. Why did I have such different reactions to participating in them, and what did my reactions imply about the effectiveness of both groups?
No doubt you've had feelings like this. Maybe you've even led a group whose meetings you dreaded attending! We principals spend much of our days in meetings with different groups, gatherings that vary in purpose, composition, and frequency. What's consistent is that some groups are effective and others, too many, are not. The effective groups accomplish their desired tasks, do so in a timely manner, and ensure that everyone leaves with a smile, or at least without a frown. Other groups, however, are characterized by difficult communication, a lack of trust and learning, and failure to get the job done.
Such polar opposites—with groups at one end being more than the sum of their participants and those at the other end being somehow less than the sum of their members—can occur whenever people come together to solve a problem, whether in businesses, schools, or book clubs. Why is this? What can we do about it?

Highlight Purpose and Participation

If we want any group to be effective at problem solving, we must begin by asking, "Why is this group meeting?" We need to be clear about what problem is to be solved, and whether we're meeting to share information tied to that problem, elicit opinions, or something else. Never meet just because it's on your calendar! It's always good to begin each gathering by reminding everyone of the purpose of the meeting; this leads to more people feeling responsible for the group's effectiveness.
In the New York Times article, "What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team," Charles Duhigg (2016) points out that effective teams are characterized by equal participation among the group members and a sensitivity to one another's words and actions. In an effective problem-solving group, each participant speaks about the same proportion of time as everyone else. The group isn't dominated by any one person—including the leader. Principals have an opportunity to create and reinforce each of these norms in groups we're involved with. We may need to work to limit how much we talk, or perhaps we'll need to constrain someone else's loquaciousness. Conversely, we'll probably need to pull a bit more dialogue out of some folks.
It's important to be intentional and transparent about such expectations. Before the first meeting, talk about how effective groups are characterized by a nearly equal proportion of comments by everyone—and offer a reminder of this at each subsequent meeting. Being explicit reduces the likelihood that people will be offended if they think they don't get enough air-time or if they're asked for their opinion.
When I facilitate meetings, I often say, while making eye contact with everyone: "At times I may cut you off if you're going on a bit too long, or I may call on you to enter the discussion before we move to the next point." In some groups, I've used the norm that no person can make a second comment on an issue until everyone else in the group has spoken on it once.

Insist on Listening

In effective groups, participants really work to understand one another. This means listening to what's being said, and it also means paying attention to facial expressions and body language. "Part of our effectiveness will be based on our sensitivity to one another," I might say when facilitating, "and I want you to listen and look, to hear and see how others are feeling. Please try to observe how others react to what's being said, work to hear what others believe, and make eye contact to ensure that whatever we seem to agree on is truly accepted by all." Again, being transparent about this helps everyone become part of the effort. No one wonders about what's happening or about the leader's motivation. In fact, being explicit about the importance of these factors is good modeling and increases the likelihood that group members will incorporate these behaviors in meetings, whether or not you're present.

End Well

Endings matter, too. Everyone's time is valuable, and when meetings go longer than planned (or needed), it takes a toll. Five minutes before a meeting is due to end, I find it helpful to remind everyone of that fact: "OK, let me hear from two more people, and then I'll close." Closure should include information about when the group is meeting next and what needs to happen before then.
In my November 2012 EL column, I cited the work of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman in differentiating between memory and experience. Kahneman (2011) showed that we remember most vividly the end of any experience, so we should design carefully how a meeting will end. For example, I've found it useful to conclude by asking folks to think about what they learned that they can use tomorrow or next week, and to share this with someone sitting near them. Doing this increases the likelihood that people will reflect favorably on being part of the group—and look forward to coming to the next meeting.
By establishing norms of purpose setting, pervasive participation, and intense listening, leaders can attain both group effectiveness and individual growth. Before the next meeting you lead, consider what you might do to elicit these behaviors in the group. Chances are, this will make it a better meeting for everyone—including you! 

Duhigg, C. (2016, February 28). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. New York Times. Retrieved from: www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html

Hoerr, T. (2012, November). Musing over meetings. Educational Leadership, 70(3), 86–87.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Ferrar, Straus, and Giroux.

End Notes

1 Apologies to all friends of dentists in the audience!

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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