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Earlier this week I returned from a month-long visit to my family in Idaho where I grew up. I drove across Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Kansas before making it back to Saint Louis. These long solo road trips are something I really look forward to because I can completely immerse myself into an audio book or two during the drive, which is something I’m not able to do as easily when I’m at home and working/teaching.

The book I re-listened to was Dan Coyle’s book, Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. There were many nuggets in this book that I think are relevant to the work of a person who works in a consultant role, as many IDs, trainers and educators do. In this blog post, I reflect upon some of the points made in Coyle’s book and how they are relevant to creating optimal work relationships and group culture.

Expressing Vulnerability & After Action Reviews

Some of the different groups that Coyle examines in the book include Pixar, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Navy Seals. These different groups served as case studies in bringing to light different characteristics of effective (and not so effective) cultures. In his example of Seal Team Six, Coyle highlights the use of an After Action Review (AAR), a debriefing and reflective tool used by the military for assessing accountability. For those not familiar with the AAR, it is roughly made up of the following components for analyzing:

  • What happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How can it be done better? (How can strengths be supported and weaknesses improved upon? )

What makes this tool powerful when deployed effectively is that the group walks through this process without regards to any hierarchy in terms of superiors or subordinate. It lacks judgement. The group simply walks through the different points and points our their observations and reflections. When it gets to the last step, the facilitator or leader can welcome this stage of the process by asking for constructive criticism and reminding the group of the importance of this type of feedback for improvement. Key to making this process successful is that the leader or facilitator is open to being humble and vulnerable. For groups like the Seals, this evaluative process helps isolate the weaknesses while working for constant improvement. This is why the elite military units I’ve encountered usually seem to shun flaunting their rank or being addressed by it because the hierarchy and ego can get in the way of change and self/group improvement.

As a non-commissioned officer in the Army, I used this tool within my own unit when I would conduct Sergeant’s Time Training. My success with using this debriefing technique was mixed, mostly because I was new in my role and suffered from imposter syndrome. But I also think I lacked mentors who showed me how this process could be facilitated effectively and supported me in developing this facilitative process. In reading/listening to Coyle’s book, I also realized another missing aspect in that before I and others could be make themselves vulnerable in the debriefing activity, the other components of creating and communicating safety need to be built in first.

Cues of Belonging and Building Safety

One of the ways Coyle suggests effective cultures build that safety is by communicating cues of belonging. These cues are characterized by the energy in the exchange, that individuals are valued, and that their relationship will be sustained in the future.

When IDs work with faculty in a consultant role, I think it is worth thinking how safety can be communicated. Even experienced educators can suddenly feel like a beginner all over again once they begin teaching online, and that their expertise is not valued. Then the imposter syndrome can creep in and they might not be very open to feedback. I know experienced educators who seem to have adopted a fixed-growth mindset when it comes to using technology in their own courses. “I’m not good with technology” is a popular refrain I hear a lot.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to start a dialogue around what makes them experienced and trustworthy in their own field. How did they become the subject matter expert? Then guide the conversation into developing this expertise in the online environment using a Plus One approach.

This semester, for example, my Plus-One approach for course revision is focused on creating synchronous sessions that apply aspects of Gagne’s conditions for learning and the Dick and Carry Instructional model through Zoom/Nearpod. My approach is unique to where I am at in my own learning, teaching and professional development. Many of my fellow teachers might just be gaining a grasp on designing effective asynchronous modules, so jumping into synchronous instruction may be intimidating.

Last week I provided a Nearpod training session where I invited my colleagues to an overview of this student engagement platform. In the first activity, I asked them to use the collaborate activity in Nearpod to share their experiences and approaches with synchronous teaching. I modeled this by sharing my own failures with synchronous teaching via Zoom that I experienced in the spring during the pivot to remote learning. I was putting into practice Coyle’s cues of belonging and openness to vulnerability by highlighting my own failures in trying out synchronous teaching. What I wanted to communicate is that we are all learning this together and we are all new to this and safe in this learning community.

Coyle’s reminder for building successful group culture is something that we might want to keep in mind, especially working with our colleagues and our students who may feel vulnerable at risk during a time of upheaval in higher education when forced online:

“Culture isn’t magic. It’s about tuning into a series of small moments that send powerful signals: You are safe. We share risk here. We are headed this direction.”

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