Facing the anti-implementation dragons in the building

In her recent Voice Lesson, Jennifer Abrams writes, “This idea of understanding ourselves can be ‘no fun.’ If collaboration isn’t productive or working well, we want the other person to be wrong because it can’t be us who are at fault!”

Either-or thinking produces bad eggs like the us-versus-them assumption that may arise from the messy work of developing collaboration in teams.

Personal beliefs and feelings about our colleagues, our work, and ourselves require reflectiveness and reciprocity, and the presupposition that each person has positive intentions toward the other.

Often, holding positive presuppositions are the most difficult and most powerful challenges to collaboration.

Lack of positive presuppositions are dragon eggs and can hatch anti-implementation dragons.

Three factors influencing team leadership

Hall and Hard (2015) found in their research that three factors influence successful instructional leadership: 

  1. Having specific reasons for personal investment in the organisation’s vision which the researchers call “personal mastery”
  2. A commitment to collaborative inquiry and the sense of interdependence, which they call “team learning”
  3. Having a common vision of what the school aspires to become, which they label “building a shared vision”

Personal mastery or specific, personal reasons why a team engages in its work, rest on the personalisation of school for a person. Personalisation is more than a sense of belonging or membership. Researchers like Lynch, Lerner and Levanthal (2013) have suggested that school climate factors make up how an individual perceives his or her experiences and makes it a part of their self-concept. The experiences of how people are treated, how connected they feel to community members, and support that is extended when they struggle are some of the important experiences that add to how individuals feel connected to their organisation and how they feel their context is personalised to them. 

Some of the signs of healthy climates can be found in how students respond to a school. If students perceive “unfairness, hostility, and victimisation” (see Lewis, et al.) there are bound to be high absenteeism and low engagement in the classroom, which lead to lower achievement. A positive climate is signalled by the opposite: high engagement, positive attendance rates, and high achievement (see McClure, 2010). Similar factors affecting positive engagement can be observed in adult learners.

The one thing that rules them all

A condition that teams need to be highly functional groups is the presence of positive relationships. High conflict relationships tend to squash motivation. In their discussion of factors that create motivated teams, Chen and his colleagues (2010)  caution, “For team members to effectively handle the heightened levels of autonomy, control, and self-management encouraged by highly empowering leaders, they need to work collaboratively with each other, and such a collaborative and functional work environment is more likely to be evident in teams with lower, rather than higher, levels of relationship conflict (p. 555).”

Relationship conflict can be described as overpowering interpersonal disagreements among team members characterised by ineffective communication and poor cooperation among team members. Team members’ interactions may reveal anger, distrust, fear, and frustration. Thinking Collaborative calls this affective conflict and contrasts it with cognitive conflict, which is about ideas. The relationship conflict that presents barriers to team effectiveness seems to lean more toward affective conflict, which pits people against each other in personal ways.

Behaviours that might be present in interpersonal conflict are verbal attacks, gossip, undermining, and backstabbing. Of these, attacking the person during a collaborative work session is one of the most common face to face relationship conflicts that team members experience. Personal conflicts create anti-implementation dragons, those micro-political episodes that stall productivity. 

Ignoring the dragons of affective conflict over time can result in these dragons growing very, very big. They can eat everything in the building and breathe fire on agency, sometimes burning agency to crispy and useless bits of waste.

See how the dragons grow

Patrick Lencioni’s classic work The Five Dysfunctions of a Team suggests that beneath the behaviours that send teams into destructive spirals of interpersonal conflict are patterns of team behaviour and beliefs that create the dysfunctions in a team. In this section is a summary of Lencioni’s ideas in the context of how they prevent buy-in to collaboration.

One of the triggers of resistance and a barrier to buy-in is when team members have an unclear and disparate set of expectations about collaboration. 

Isolationist practices, when everyone is used to ‘doing their own thing’ is a remnant of the old factory model of schooling. In the past model of schooling, departments are separate entities and individuals within them are specialists who deliver a set of pre-determined materials and experiences to students. The student is ‘processed’ through the factory, level upon level until they are complete. The assumption is that if the teachers follows the parameters for whatever subject or grade level they were handling, students would learn and become complete products at the end of the process. This was a highly teacher-centric model.

In more recent revisions of schooling, the student is at the centre of learning design. Student centred frameworks consider the influence of the whole system on the child’s learning, and this strongly points to networked planning by teams of teachers.

The potential challenge of new models of school that require whole-system planning of instruction and assessment is that now, teachers have to get together to create coherence in the student experience. Collaboration is a challenge because the skills that combine into effective collaboration are internal resources, and tied to belief systems. Belief systems and their close cousin mental models are often embedded in identity and this makes it difficult to change them. 

In his work, Lencioni describes five dysfunctions of a team. It is worth reflecting on team dysfunctions because reflection is about growth, and the conversations we have around how our teams function begin from the positive intention to be intentional about our growth. If we can make this dragon visible to all members of the team, we can address them. And perhaps, our individual and collective agency will be a magnificent force to energise our schools, our programs, our classrooms.

Our goal in reflecting on team dysfunctions is not to label people. Reflection is about growth.

The base of Lencioni’s pyramid of team dysfunctions is the parent of all anti-implementation dragons: “Absence of trust.” Trust is necessary for groups to function effectively. Without trust:

  • People conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from each other
  • Members hesitate to ask for help or give honest feedback
  • Individuals jump to conclusions about the intentions of others
  • People might generalise about the aptitude of team members
  • Team members ignore or do not recognise each other’s strengths, skills and experiences
  • The team wastes time and energy managing how others perceive them
  • People might hold grudges
  • People avoid meeting or find ways to avoid working together

When there is an absence of trust, there is “Fear of Conflict.” The team creates a false collegiality and avoidance of cognitive conflict.

  • Meetings are boring. Usually the most talkative ones are allowed to dominate because other team members do not want to challenge thinking.
  • Because nothing much gets challenged at meetings, what might emerge are parking lot meetings or back-channel political discussions and personal attacks on each other.
  • Controversial topics that are essential to understand and make decisions about are ignored, so programs do not move forward.
  • Perspective-taking and collaborative problem-seeking and resolving do not happen much.
  • The group wastes time and energy posturing and managing personal interests.

Creating a culture of collaboration is a complex process. Team leaders who recognise the value of developing collaborative cultures are mindful of the need to nurture both individual and group agency, toward healthier patterns of group behaviours. 

The anti-improvement dragons teams face are a common enemy to collective success. How might we collaborate to face these threats to our success?


Abrams, J. (2019, June 30). Living On Our Patch of the World. Retrieved July 4, 2019, from https://jenniferabrams.com/living-on-our-patch-of-the-world/

Chen, G., Farh, J.-L., Campbell-Bush, E. M., Wu, Z., & Wu, X. (2013). Teams as innovative systems: Multilevel motivational antecedents of innovation in R&D teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(6), 1018-1027.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0032663

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2016). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Lencioni, P., & Stransky, C. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. NY: Random House.

Lewis, J., Asberry, J., DeJarnett, G., & King, G. (2016). The best practices for shaping school culture for instructional leaders. Alabama Journal of Educational Leadership,3(September), 57-63. doi:10.18130/v31r6g

Lynch, Alicia Doyle; Lerner, R.M.; & Leventhal, T. (2013). The role of school-wide social norms in individual academic achievement and school engagement. Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. Seattle, WA.

McClure, T. K. (2010, April). Driving Engagement among Older and Younger Workers- Not All Drivers are Created Equal. Paper presented at the 25th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Atlanta, GA.

Featured Photo by Emanuela Meli on Unsplash

If you are interested in collaboration, the Learners Toolbox newsletter often explores the many ways we can build solid team collaboration practices in our schools. On 31 July, we are launching our practical suggestions for getting things done with your team in this book The 8 Hour Action Plan.

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    Author: alavina

    Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at http://myptoolbox.com.

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