Reflections on Work Groups and Teams

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Abstract

This paper takes a reflective look at my key learning throughout the course and proposes action steps for me to implement the teaching into my daily life.  In the first section, I summarized my three main learning from the semester: reflection and critical thinking, national cultural dimensions, and team effectiveness (Levi, 2016).  Firstly, I explored the intertwined relationship between reflection and critical thinking.  In addition, I examined my organizational culture at my workplace and practice of public reflection in the office.  Then I compared Hofstede’s (2001) national dimensions between countries, especially the different conflict resolution approaches and the two cultures’ views on leadership personality traits.  I further connected and compared my two group experiences through the lens of team assessment.  I also drew support from my work team experiences to further examine the concept of team effectiveness.  In conclusion, the paper provides action steps to help me apply my learning, both at work and in the OLL cohort setting.

Keywords: reflection, critical thinking, national cultural dimensions, team effectiveness

Reflections on Work Groups and Teams

For people with a teachable spirit, learning and applying the newly obtained knowledge has always been an ongoing process.   The primary objective of the paper is to take the first steps of the journey to evaluate my key learning from this semester.  By starting with an in-depth look at the power of reflection and critical thinking, this paper walks through three concepts that impacted me the most from the course.  This paper further discusses practical approaches I could take to implement the learning into my everyday life.

Learning Highlights

Reflection and Critical Thinking

As one of the first theories we discussed, the ideas of reflection and critical thinking served as the learning foundation throughout the course.  Before I joined the Organizational Leadership and Learning (OLL) program, I proudly called myself a reflective person.  Back then, I viewed reflection as simply rumination and self-introspection.  After all the reflective exercises we did this semester, the concept of reflection now meant so much more than going over the event or new knowledge I had encountered in my mind.

Joseph Raelin (2001) defines reflection as “a practice of periodically stepping back to ponder the meaning to self and others in one’s immediate environment about what recently transpired” (p. 11).  For me, the act of reflection is intentional.  It requires one to deliberately pause then take a look back, to think about how and why of the event or new knowledge.  The next step of personal reflection involves bringing the discovery to the current stage of life; which leads to the next phase of learning – application.

Reflection often goes hand in hand with critical thinking.  According to the Center of Critical Thinking: “Critical thinking is the ability to think about one’s thinking in such a way as 1. To recognize its strengths and weaknesses and, as a result, 2. To recast the thinking in an improved form”(Glaser, 1996, para.6).  Part of the critical thinking process overlaps with reflection. Both practices require one to track the thinking process as a way to bring light to the current situation or decision.  In the ladder of inference TED video, Trevor Maber (2012) showcases people’s thought process through relatable life experiences to help viewers identify their assumptions by practicing reflection.  Once the assumption is recognized, critical thinking comes into play.

This course showed the gap I have from my action-oriented mindset to the art of reflection, especially the distance I still need to cover to reach public reflection.  With my busy schedule, I often find myself running around and spending my energy on result-driven efficiency.  This semester encouraged me to take breaks from my daily routine to stop and ponder on the impact of my actions and the result of future decisions.  The final post on every Sunday became a safe place to practice my reflective skills and show it through critical thinking.  Not only I need to reflect on my learning through the readings and teachings of the week, but I also need to bring my cohort mates’ comments into consideration in my final post. When my colleagues’ sharing, or questions challenge me, I try to track my thoughts through the ladder to find the root of my assumptions.

One of the pleasant surprises of this semester came from all the reflection and sharing I did about my workplace.  Before the OLL program, I did not realize how much learning I could still have from my current job position due to my assumption.  I thought I had learned my ropes after going through the same project cycle at work for almost the third year.  Nonetheless, week after week, my learning challenged me to take a more in-depth look into my workplace to actively reflect and apply the new concept we have discussed in the course.

Using the idea of public reflection for example, with the help of cohort mates’ questions under my weekly post, I discovered probing and testing reflective approaches might not work best in China due to the collectivist culture.  In a typical Chinese workplace, where “fit in” is more important than “stand out”, the act of critical thinking might be viewed as a threat to the stability of the culture at first glance.  Though more and more people get to see the importance of critical thinking, especially in academia, the way they deliver and share their critical thinking is crucial in this culture settings.
National Cultural Dimensions

As someone who has a passion for cross-cultural environment and diversity, the idea of national cultural dimensions was not foreign to me.  Most of my knowledge of diversity and cultures came from personal trips over the years and leisure reading.  This semester provided the first opportunity to learn about those cultural dimensions systematically. As Cooper, Hellriegel, and Slocum (2017) pointed out “Cultures do not exist as simply static differences to be celebrated, but compete with one another as better or worse ways of getting things done” (p.71).  Culture not only shapes societal and family values but also sets the expectation of various roles in society.

Developed by Hofstede (2001), the national cultural dimensions theory is one of the foundational concepts of cultural values.  It offers the basic framework and insights of how cultural values define members’ roles and behavior along six cultural dimensions: Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Masculinity/Femininity, Long-term/Short-term Orientation, Individualism/Collectivism, and Indulgence/Restraint (Hofstede, 2001).  Hofstede compared countries’ position on each dimension’s spectrum with each other to help researchers and learners gain a more holistic view on the cultural differences and similarities.

One thing I have learned from the culture dimensions came from comparing conflict resolution styles between countries.  While the individualist Western culture might be more comfortable with confrontation during a conflict, collectivist cultures in East Asian solve a direct conflict with an avoidance style (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 2012).  For example, at my workplace when I have a direct disagreement with a team member about a work assignment during a staff meeting, instead of in front of the team most likely we would try to talk it out afterward.  China’s High-Power Distance Index impacts people’s conflict approach choice because it makes staff much more likely to seek conformity or compromised solution with their leaders (Hofstede, 2001).
Before I signed up for the cause, I thought to work in a cross-cultural setting automatically means I have an advantage on diversity issues, but the cultural dimensions helped me to see my work culture was more homogeneous than I like to admit.  Though cross-cultural, my workplace lacks demographic diversity.  The nature of our work determined our work population only consist of Americans and Chinese nationals.  However, one type of diversity we do demonstrate at work lie in the area of psychological diversity.  Our staff professional variety goes from recent college graduate to senior staff with decades of experiences.  The Chinese staff includes people from all over the country, while the American Officers bring in even more psychological diversity with their different religious background, previews posting experience, and expertise.  This dynamic also shows in the way staff differ in task approach, educational background, and skill (Levi, 2016).
I discovered another connection with cultural dimensions and self-realization when I compared the individualistic and collective cultures’ view desired leadership personality traits.  As someone who identifies more with the collectivistic culture, my introverted personality fits in with the culture’s emphasis on group identity and unity. Susan Cain (2012) argues in her well-researched book on introversion that the western society has always favored action over contemplation.  Being an introverted leader in Chinese culture indicates someone who listens, focuses on the group, and contemplative; someone who is not here to steal the spotlight.  On the contrary, the idea of a leader in the U.S. is someone who speaks up, who is assertive, charismatic, and self-promoting.  Cain’s book provides me the cultural understanding and support I needed as an introvert.  The cultural dimension further helped me to discover the Western society’s view of favor on extraversion and leadership.

Team Assessment for Group Projects

This course has also helped me to view team effectiveness in a new light.  When we formed the teams for our R1 assignment, we signed up for groups based on project topic preference.  The teams were grouped randomly instead of out of personal choice or acquired skill-set.  Similarly, I joined my R4 at the beginning of the semester without knowing much about my teammates.  For both groups, we scheduled video calls to walk through the assignment requirements together early in our communication.  We also developed specific norms for the project, such as dividing the workload and assign different roles to each member.

Since we established our norms very early on during the project, we did not experience much storming stage.  People completed their tasks on time, and there has not been any direct conflict or relationship conflict.  The only disagreement we have encountered were task-oriented, such a group call schedule, division of labor and other logistical issues.  According to Levi (2016), when handled well, task-conflict brings positive results to the team because it builds a bridge for different opinions to merge.  During the performing stage, we tried to set different checkpoints to talk to each other about our project progresses.  With our regular calls and other opportunities to connect during the semester such as peer-to-peer calls, our meetings became less formal.  Eventually, we transitioned into an informal group and developed a genuine friendship over the course.

By comparing the two group project teams to my work team, I learned how long-term team functions differ from the short-term teams in terms of public reflection and conflict resolution.  My work team also added more insights into how cross-cultural teams deal with conflict differently.  At work, my team includes three program specialists (myself included), one Chinese supervisor, and one American diplomat as the team leader.  As a team, we work on various exchange programs based on both Chinese and the U.S. academic calendar.  Our program timeline lasts for a whole year, which means revisit a mistake or setback can be a challenge.  If we missed something during this year’s program or we wanted to implement a change, we had to wait for the next year.

Our Chinese supervisor is not a fan of significant changes.  His working philosophy heavily leans on getting a job done first, and get it done fast, with as little modification as possible.  He takes pride in how little difference we had to make for the program in the past two decades. This Chinese supervisor’s leadership style and conflict resolution style often contrast with our American officer’s method of choice.  His non-confrontational conflict resolution style means he prefers to talk to the person of conflict in one-on-one settings instead of on the spot, in public or during team meetings.  By dealing with conflict indirectly, the Chinese supervisor honors the other person’s or “saves their face”.  While this reflects well on the high avoidance culture of China, this method also adds a challenge in my office with the lower power distance culture American staff implant in the workplace (Tuleja, 2017).  Our American Officers often welcomes teammates to deal with disagreement or small conflict directly during meetings to “talk to out”.

Depends on the type of conflict and the present audience, sometimes a task conflict turns into a relationship conflict due to the pressure leaders put into to deal with it on the spot, instead of giving it time to cool down.  The struggle of bringing balanced cultural view on conflict resolution resonates with me.  After a closer look at conflict resolution from the course, I took it upon myself to bring more understanding of the cultural dynamic in the office by offering compromise solutions to the Chinese supervisor or ask the American Officer for some processing time for the team to think things through.  I have learned during conflict management, part of the leaders’ responsibilities came from the help members separate their emotions from figure-pointing blaming during a conflict (Runde & Flanagan, 2008).  As Cooper et al. (2017) suggest, depending on the level of trust leaders establish in the situation, they could influence the type of conflict and consequently, the outcome.

Action Plan

In OLL Program

As an online cohort, our group projects are conducted through virtual teams.  In the article Rethinking Teambuilding, Hart and Mcleod (2003) note the teams with the strongest personal relationship also exchange more task-oriented communications.  Drawing insight from my experiences thus far, I found a certain level of personal exchange and relationship building is essential in building trust.  I would argue it is even more important for virtual teams since the quality of the scheduled calls already determines the task-oriented nature of the exchange.  When my teammates spend that few extra minutes before or after our project discussion to connect outside our school work, the teams grow closer.

One practical step for me to take is to be more open about my strengths and weaknesses based on the tasks.  During the first set of group assignments, I felt a little shy to admit my hesitation to take the lead on the writing portion.  I also sensed other team members were hesitated to claim their preferred tasks directly.  It took us two group calls to came up with specific roles and deadlines for our R1 group.

Secondly, I also plan to initiate clearer communication during our group calls in the future.  Due to the limitation of virtual teams, we could not always see each other during video calls; sometimes we had to do voice calls only due to the connection limitation.  Because of the lack of visual aid and the inability to read my colleagues’ facial expression, there were times I did not fully understand our discussion point.  Out of respect of the scheduled call time and my own value of efficiency, I chose to not to my team members to repeat themselves too much.  Alternatively, I have emailed the group my follow-up question.  The same principle applies to myself when I explain my expectations to the team.  As Erica Dhawan and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (2018) put “In our efforts to be efficient, we sometimes use fewer words to communicate” (p.4).  As part of the team, I bear the responsibility to seek clarity with my understanding of the project and my part in it.

Another action step to bring into the next semester is the practice of reflection, critical thinking, and Q-storming (Adams, 2009).  I commit to incorporate reflective moments not only during my weekly study but also in my teamwork.  I challenge myself to ask “why” and all the other questions before I jump into actions.  This program has already stretched my mindset on my view of workplace culture, leadership, and more. I plan to exercise my ability further to identify my thought patterns and my assumptions, especially when my study challenges my cultural perspective.

In the Work Place

With the help of the OLL program, I tried to bring change slowly to my workplace.  Last month, I proposed a new method to request our fall quarter budget that allows us to explore our cultural enrichment programs for American scholars in China in a new way.  During our meeting, I facilitated some reflection time by guiding the team through our past budget plans.  Instead of budget per headcount as before, I suggested we budget per region and resource for collaborative events between the Consulates.  My Chinese supervisor was skeptical, but the American team leader showed interest and support, she even invited me to share more at our section staff meeting.  I plan to learn more about the role of facilitative leaders and lead future discussions with compassion (Schwarz, 2002).  Though this will be a prolonged process, I will take this as a small victory on the long road to bring change to the workplace.

Furthermore, I plan to demonstrate better active listening skills with my work team during our daily interaction.  Active listening has never been a struggle for me at social settings since I have a quiet temperament, I sometimes naturally take on the “listener” hat.  However, when I am in the task-oriented mode at work, I could be too focused on getting things done then listen to my colleagues’ feedbacks.  Levi (2016) suggest paraphrasing what one heard and asked the speaker for feedback can be a great way to practice the art of active listening.  This approach also shows the listeners’ care and attention lie in the speaker (Levi, 2016).  I have tried that a couple of times already at work – through the first time took some self-control to focus and repeat what I have heard.  By taking baby steps, I believe this practice will not only help me to gain more understanding of my colleagues work and my tasks, but also promote more bond between us.

Conclusion

As an old Chinese proverb says, “To learn is to know one’s ignorance.”  This course showed me how much more I need to learn about workgroups and teams.  From exercise critical thinking and reflection daily to bring public reflection to the workplace.  The last thirteen weeks also showed me the complexity and beautify of cultural dimensions and group dynamics.  With the first semester of the OLL program wrapping up, I know I still have a long way to go to expand my thinking and leadership skills.  With the tools of reflection and critical thinking, I believe I will walk through this learning journey, one step at a time.

References

Adams, M. (2009). Change your questions change your life: 10 powerful tools for life and work. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Cain, S. (2012). Quiet : [The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking]. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Cooper, C., Hellriegel, D., & Slocum, J. (2017). Mastering organizational behavior (14th ed). St. Paul, MN: South Western College Publishing.

Dhawan, E., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2018, February 27). How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/02/how-to-collaborate-effectively-if-your-team-is-remote

Glaser, E. (1996). Center of Critical Thinking. Retrieved from https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/766

Hart, R. K., & Mcleod, P. L. (2003). Rethinking Team Building in Geographically Dispersed Teams: Organizational Dynamics, 31(4), 352–361. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0090-2616(02)00131-6

Hofstede, G. (2001). Cultural’s consequences: comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE: Publications, Inc.

Levi, D. (2016). Group dynamics for teams (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE: Publications, Inc.

Maber, T. (2012). Rethinking Thinking. TED-Ed. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJLqOclPqis

Raelin, J. (2001). Public Reflection as the Basis of Learning. Management Learning, 32(1), 11–30.

Runde, C. E., & Flanagan, T. A. (2008). Conflict competent leadership. Leader to Leader, 2008(47), 46–51. https://doi.org/10.1002/ltl.268

Schwarz, R. (2002). The Facilitator and Other Facilitative Roles. In The skilled facilitator: A comprehensive resource for consultants, facilitators, managers, trainers, and coaches (pp. 40–62). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Trompenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (2012). Riding the waves of culture: Understanding diversity in global business (3rd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Tuleja, E. (2017). Intercultural communication for global business: how leaders communicate for success. New York: Routledge.

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