“Simply feeling like you’re part of a team of people working on a task makes people more motivated as they take on challenges.”
- Gregory M. Walton, quoted in “Just Feeling Like Part of a Team Increases Motivation on Challenging Tasks,” Association for Psychological Science (February 2015)
The Power of Collaboration and Community
A 2014 Stanford University study by Priyanka B. Carr and Gregory M. Walton found that even the mere perception of working collectively on a task can supercharge performance. Participants in the research who were primed to act collaboratively persisted at their task 64% longer than their solitary peers, reported higher engagement levels and greater enjoyment in the work, experienced lower fatigue levels, and reported a higher success rate. Indeed, we have seen organizations such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft devote millions of dollars in recent years to redesigning their workspaces to foster collaboration — replacing cubicles and traditional private offices with large open spaces and smaller team spaces.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been keeping us physically apart for much of the past several months, which seems to make collaboration difficult. But Stanford psychologist Gregory Walton, who co-authored the above-mentioned report, reminds us that “‘togetherness’ is both an objective experience and a psychological one. You can be physically apart but still feel together.” So it is essential for all of us in leadership positions to remember the power of collaboration and to continue to work to bring people together (safely, of course). While we miss being together face-to-face, collaboration remains possible and powerful through our virtual workspaces.
On November 12, DMGroup brought together over Zoom our DMCouncil members and guests for our Leadership Development Meeting, normally held annually in Boston. It was inspiring to see 50 districts from 22 states representing almost 700,000 students across the country. Together these participants learned about DMGroup’s change management framework and spent time in breakout groups organized by district to plan for the implementation of a district change opportunity. The energy in the breakout sessions was palpable and the potential for this community to make innovative change was clear.
Inspired by the momentum gained from that collaborative experience, I wanted to take the opportunity to reground us in the power of collaboration that is possible even in a virtual setting. I hope the thoughts shared here might help you re-energize your efforts to bring your teams together to push forward with your important work to make the world a better place for our students. As Director of Operations and Strategic Initiatives at DMGroup, I lead a team of outstanding folks who innovate on our current work as well as provide the operations and logistical support needed for our company to deliver superior services. My team must constantly be in lock-step so that we don’t miss an opportunity to support our clients and colleagues in doing their best work. Additionally, it is my job to help define the culture we strive to model across DMGroup, and to support the team in growing towards that end goal. Any culture builder knows this can be a big task.
I believe that all leadership efforts start at home and within yourself. Below are four pieces of advice I think are helpful for leaders to keep at the forefront to foster a collaborative team culture during these periods when we are often physically apart.
- Deliberately make time to bring your team together to connect and check in with each other on a personal level. Virtual meetings are very efficient, but we all miss the time to connect with one another on a more personal level. Fostering these connections is important to build a sense of accountability (as individuals and as a whole) to the team. One of my favorite prompts is to ask each person on the team to share with the group “What do you want to be acknowledged for?” I learn so much about how my colleagues see themselves and their strengths when they say “I want to be acknowledged for…” and then I mirror that for them in return. One of the greatest gifts we can give each other is to truly listen. Through these informal conversations we’ve been building even deeper relationships than we had when we went about our day in the office setting and took for granted the relationship building that happened in our in-person interactions.
- Set a very clear strategy for your work together this year. Support each team member in articulating their role in that strategy and planning for how/when they will work together to accomplish the work. During this pandemic, we are building routines that often have us living in silos to keep ourselves and our communities safe and stop the spread of the virus. However, that doesn’t mean we have to be working in silos. Meeting virtually to discuss the challenge at hand and coordinate the work is especially important when we are not physically together. It helps to make clear the plan for getting the work done, creates accountability, and fosters the sense of connection that we are all craving. On my team at DMGroup, we named very clearly what our company goals are, how those are connected to each workstream on our team, what each person on the team owns in each workstream, and how they will know they are successful quarter by quarter and at the end of the fiscal year. At the beginning of each week we have a team huddle to highlight projects and areas for collaboration for the weekly priorities that align to that greater goal. Through these conversations and clarifications of our roles, our outputs have grown stronger and more efficient. When one person celebrates a win, we all do; when one person has a challenge, we all have a challenge.
- Find ways of communicating virtually on a regular basis (via Slack, text chains, etc.) so that team members can get the people connection they crave. Life is hard and wonderful at the same time, and sometimes I just want to be celebrated on a Monday for all the “adulting” I did all weekend at home with my family. We are all human, and it is important for me as the team leader to find ways to share my humanity with my team so that others can feel brave enough to do that for themselves. I often send over Slack on a Monday morning a picture of an activity I did with my children, and encourage my team to share their weekends as well. Sometimes people just send a meme showing how they are feeling. It provides a laugh or a smile and a fun way to feel connected. The community you build sustains your team through the hard times. Technology can play a serious role in helping you to build the community of your dreams. Invest in a chat platform for quick questions and banter (don’t rely on email). Set expectations for being on or off camera, being on time, flexible work hours, etc. You may have teammates resistant to learning something new (I have been that teammate), but the payoff is worth the initial investment of time and money.
- Find communities (and support your colleagues to do so as well) where you can be part of a group of peers who understand the reward and struggles of leading a school district through the pandemic. I may be biased, but those of us who are in education tend to put the weight of the future on our shoulders. Every decision ultimately comes back to students. What if it were my child in that class? What will my students say about their education in 20 years? How will I have a positive impact on that narrative? We can do hard things, but we can’t do them alone, and we can’t solve all of our teachers’ and staffs’ struggles at work. At DMGroup we use a routine culture survey to determine the engagement and satisfaction of our staff. One of the questions is “Do you feel you can maintain a healthy lifestyle while working at DMGroup?” We use the data from this question to inform our workload, hours, expectations, etc. We don’t use this question to make dramatic plans for how to support our staff in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Self-care is important, and we are all adults and can only provide that for ourselves. We should bring our whole selves to work so that we can build a vulnerable culture, but we should also invest in communities outside of work that we can lean on and that understand the immense pressure we put on ourselves to have a positive impact on our students. It is not fair for me to use my team as my sole community — that added pressure is not professional. Likewise, I am not qualified to serve as manager, therapist, bestie, and mom to my team. We can best thrive together at work when we get fulfillment from others outside of work.
These are just a few strategies I’ve had in mind as we navigate this new life we are living. The Stanford study provided proof that collaboration drives performance, which is an exciting finding and one that affirms a lot of what I have experienced in my career. And, research aside, collaboration and community feels good to us as human beings and enriches our sense of relevance and belonging.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to invite you to engage with our DMCouncil community (https://www.dmgroupk12.com/membership). We felt firsthand at our Leadership Development Meeting how powerful this community can be — even in a virtual setting — and we are excited to foster even more collaboration moving forward. Just as the open-space working environments at Google or Facebook foster collaboration, we have seen our active DMCouncil members thrive from the “open space” superintendent community where they can share and discuss ideas and support one another. There is always room for new perspectives. Join us! Or just keep on trucking with your own community because WE WILL make it through this challenging time TOGETHER.
 Gregory Walton, quoted in Melissa De Witte, “Simple Cues Can Make People Feel Connected, Even While Being Physically Apart, Says Stanford Psychologist,” Stanford News, April 16, 2020, https://news.stanford.edu/2020/04/16/inspiring-connections-working-apart/. The original research was published in Priyanka B. Carr and Gregory M. Walton, “Cues of Working Together Fuel Intrinsic Motivation,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 53 (2014): 169-184, http://gregorywalton-stanford.weebly.com/uploads/4/9/4/4/49448111/carr_&_walton_2014.pdf.
 See Adam Anderson and David James, “Leading Change That Lasts,” District Management Journal 28 (Winter 2021), https://dmj.dmgroupk12.com/publication/?i=683225&article_id=3814529&view=articleBrowser.