Successful Collaborations

As the last stretch of the academic year winds down, I’ve been reflecting on the big projects I’ve been working on this year. Over the next few weeks, three of the projects will reach their culmination or conclusion in some way, which has been the impetus of my reflective journey. Looking over the three projects, one of the clear aspects that I want to celebrate is the collaborative nature of the teams and people I had the opportunity to work with. For example, our university is revising its general education curriculum and I’ve had the pleasure to work with a group of diverse colleagues from across campus to develop new curricular models. The campus is currently selecting which model to adopt, but regardless of the outcome, I know the team we assembled for the project were the best folks for the job. I’m proud of the work we did.

But it’s not the only project I’m proud to have worked on. I’ve also been collaborating with a colleague on a research project that we’re almost ready to submit to a journal. The project has been time consuming and thought provoking, but it has also been tremendously rewarding personally and professionally. Additionally, I’ve also been working with a bunch of science teachers and teacher educators to lead a series of professional development workshops across the state in support of the science teaching standards that were recently adopted in Pennsylvania. While most of the workshops have been virtual, the overall project culminates with a two-day, face-to-face workshop in a few weeks.

To be clear, I’m not sharing these projects as a way to pat myself on the back in any way. Sure, I’m proud of this work and I think it’s impactful. More than that, I’m sharing these because they represent awesome examples of successful collaborations. Again, I’m not saying “Hey, I’m an awesome collaborator” or anything. I’m just highlighting these successful collaborations because unless you work in a solitary profession, you know how rare these types of collaborations can be. To be involved in three projects simultaneously where the collaborations have been so effective is a true blessing.

At the end of a meeting with one of the groups recently, I shared these feelings. I said that I didn’t know what made our group function so positively and effectively, but I wanted to celebrate it. About an hour after the meeting ending, one of members emailed me a research article that might offer a clue to the success.

In an article published in Physical Review Physics Education Research, a group of researchers studied a physics class to better understand what factors made some groups more effective than others. Over the course of a semester, thirty students in a university-level physics course were given activities and problem to discuss in small groups. Students were randomly assigned to groups and the groups would change weekly. The researchers collected both video and audio recording of the group discussions and coded how individual students positioned themselves within their groups and how effective the groups were. For me, the positioning aspect of the article was the most interesting part. The researchers identified five different “positional” roles that students can hold during group conversations: expert, intermediate expert, intermediate novice, novice, facilitator. For example, when students made “firm statements of fact or firm or strong disagreement” they were identified as an “expert.” When students “asked questions” or “made softened statements or disagreements,” they were identified as “intermediate experts” or “intermediate novices” respectively. From these roles, the researchers examined what combinations contributed most to effective collaborations. In their discussion, the authors write:

“We have found a correlation between group effectiveness and group equality as indicated by the amount of time group members spend positioning themselves in the positions of intermediate novice and intermediate expert. From our quantitative and qualitative analysis, it appears that the most effective groups display a cluster of behaviors that complement each other in a myriad of ways…. they have more equal conversations and are better able to sustain their attention during periods of adversity and frustration... Our analysis shows that the underlying factors of respect and psychological safety are also key for a group to be successful. We suggest that the theme of respect that emerged from our qualitative analysis is connected to positioning because it is difficult or impossible to convey mutual respect if group members are constantly positioning themselves as experts” (Brookes et al., 2021, p. 11).

This description really resonated with me as I reflected on my experiences with these successful collaborative projects. While the collaborators were all really smart people and experts in their respective areas, they positioned themselves in a way to provide space for other contributors and their ideas. Their positioning also helped our group navigate the disagreements and debates that eventually happened. And that’s the real takeaway. There’s that old adage about being able to disagree without being disagreeable. The research shows that how we position ourselves in collaborative groups can contribute how disagreeable we are and how effective the overall group will be.


Brookes, D. T., Yang, Y., & Nainabasti, B. (2021). Social positioning in small group interactions in an investigative science learning environment physics class. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 17(1), 010103.


Questioning Things

“Whose needs are being served?”

I know I often bury the lead with my posts, but I thought I’d start this post differently. Instead of wading through some personal story which leads to the main idea, I’m offering this question right at the start.

“Whose needs are being served?”

I’m offering this question as a litmus test for questioning all sorts of things, but I’ll apply it to the work we do in schools and institutions of higher education. Like many industries today, education is faced a host of new initiatives and innovations to position itself for the future. Some colleges are closing their doors while others are consolidating with other campuses. My institution (thankfully) isn’t facing these challenges, but we’re still in the process of change. We’re currently revising our general education curriculum to better serve our students for the careers their likely to face after graduation. As a liberal arts institution, my university seeks to provide a broad-based education across science, technology, arts, humanities, and the social sciences. These diverse disciplines help students see the world through different lenses and can better prepare them to solve the complex problems and careers they’re likely to face after graduation.

That’s the plan at least. Our current general education model was approved almost fifteen years ago. And while it has gone through some minor revisions and tweaks over the years, I’m working with a group of faculty to propose significant changes to the general education curriculum. Although we’ve only been collaborating for the last six months to develop new models, the work actually stretches back several years through campus conversations, self-studies, external reviews, and more. It’s an arduous process that isn’t likely to wrap up in the near future.

As we’ve been working through the redevelopment process, it’s clear that people on campus have different perspectives on what a general education curriculum should encompass. Some believe that it should be really flexible. Others believe that it should be highly prescriptive. Some want to see the curriculum organized around skills and ways of being. Others want to see the requirements dedicated to specific academic disciplines.  As we discuss these different options and solutions, I believe it’s critical for us to regularly return to the litmus test I offered at the start of this post.

“Whose needs are being served?”

As we weigh innovative proposals and hear challenges to their merits, we need to make sure that we continue to serve our students and their needs. We may have different approaches for how serve our students, but we need to remember that it’s our charge.

Process over Product?

A few weeks ago, I attended a week-long institute on General Education and Assessment organized by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. My institution is in the midst of revising and updating their General Education program and the university assembled a team of faculty and administrators to attend this virtual institute. Ultimately, this team will develop a few different options and share them with our campus community before settling on a new General Education program that will go into effect a year or two down the road. Our group is really just at the beginning of our work. If this were a thousand-mile journey, our group and university would only be a dozen steps in. We have a long road (and a lot of work) ahead. Attending this institute was designed to be a kick start to our efforts.

In one of the sessions, an attendee commented that any reform effort needs to be mindful of campus culture and consider what the community values and how it operates. Sharing the famous quote from Peter Drucker, the attendee said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Without a moment of pause, the presenter responded, “You need to really focus on the process. Process eats product for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

I’ll admit that I’ve heard the Drucker quote a bunch of times and even used it in a few professional presentations. But the “process eats product” quote is a new one for me. As often happens, it’s been bouncing around my head the last week or two and I’ve shared in it a few conversations with colleagues. I know it’s not really that novel. The quote is just a repurposing of the “ends vs. means” and “journey vs. destination” debates.  The quote is an important reminder, though. The road you take is just as important and as where you go.

While this reminder is critical to our group’s General Education reform efforts, it is also important whenever some new initiative or change is undertaken. I would argue that it’s important in how we teach our classes, how we interact with our colleagues, and … well, you get the picture. Process is important stuff. So, how do we focus on process in the work we do? For me, it comes down to a few simple mantras.

  • Be transparent.
  • Be inclusive.
  • Be willing to listen.
  • Be open to change.

I know those may sound trite, but they should be guiding principles for any organization or individual who values collaboration. When we focus on process, we demonstrate that we value the people with whom we work. We can’t be so blinded by some desired outcome that we sacrifice our relationships with our colleagues or our core values to get there.

Revisiting Start with Thanks

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled “Start with Thanks” where I unpacked my missteps with some colleagues. In the post, I wrote about how a group of faculty had collaborated to plan an event for students on campus and when the event was held, I forgot to thank them for their efforts. That oversight mistakenly communicated that their work wasn’t important. It also left their efforts unseen to the attendees. I wrote that post as a way to reflect on my mistakes and to offer a plan for doing better. In the post, I drew on an NPR interview with David DeSteno, the author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, where he discussed the long-term importance of saying “Thank You.”

In the short-term, you can kind of be selfish and be a bit of a jerk and you can profit. But over time, people are going to realize that you’re not a good partner to work with, you’re not someone they want to have around. And what beautiful evolutionary models have shown is that over time, people who show gratitude, who cooperate, who are trustworthy, who are generous have the best outcomes. Feeling this emotion helps ensure that we do the right thing.”

So, I wrote that initial post as a reminder to “start with thanks” and to communicate my gratitude to the people whose work, time and contributions I value.

If that post was written as a reminder, this post is being offered as a revision. While I feel like I’ve been pretty successful at remembering to “start with thanks” and acknowledge the contributions of my colleagues, I’m reconsidering how best to express my gratitude. I’ve been reading a book titled How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (Kegan & Lehay, 2001). As the title suggests, the authors introduce different “languages” and discuss how we often don’t communicate in the most supportive ways. While the first four chapters are dedicated to the “internal languages” we use with ourselves, chapter 5 focuses on gratitude and the “language of ongoing regard” we express to others. I have to admit that this chapter has really shake me to my core. It has also prompted me to reflect on how I communicate my gratitude with my friends, my family, and my coworkers.  Here’s why.

According to the authors, I’ve been doing it all wrong. And maybe you have, too.

Let me provide an example. Over the last few months, a group of colleagues, community members, and I got together to plan a large community event. I was asked to give some introductory remarks where I channeled my “start with thanks” mantra and thanked the planning committee. Here’s what I said.

“I want to thank the planning committee for their hard work and dedication in planning this event. While I’m standing up here, they’re the ones whose commitment and efforts made this event happen. Thanks.”

According to Kegan and Lahey, that offering of praise and gratitude falls short of “ongoing regard” because I haven’t fully expressed my appreciation or admiration for their work. They write:

Ongoing regard has two faces, one of appreciation and the other of admiration… When we are expressing appreciation, we let the other person know that we have received something we value. We feel we have been given something – not necessarily a material something- that we are happy to have, or feel benefited by having. When we express admiration, it less about something value entering our sphere and more about our taking up temporary residence in the other’s sphere. We imaginatively inhabit the other’s world and find ourselves instructed, inspired, or in some way enhanced by the other’s actions or choices.” (pg. 94)

To do better, I need to revise how I communicate my ongoing regard by including three elements: being direct, being specific, being nonattributive.

Being Direct
When communicating gratitude, I need to thank the person (or persons) directly and not place them in an eavesdropper role where they’re hearing my thanks offered to others. In my thank-yous, I need to avoid using third-person pronouns (they, she, he, etc.) and use more second-person pronouns (you, your, etc.). While that change in language may seem minor, it changes so much of how the communication appears. “Being direct” means the expression of gratitude is less of a performance for others, but a genuine recognition of the admiration and appreciation of the one being thanked.

Being Specific
Like the first element, “being specific” appears pretty straightforward, but has larger implications for how we communicate gratitude. To embrace a “language of ongoing regard,” I must identify specifically what I appreciate and what I admire.

Being Nonattributive
This element was the hardest for me to get my head around. To express a “language of ongoing regard,” I have to avoid identifying other people’s attributes but focus on my own experiences. What did I witness or experience that I want to acknowledge? I have to avoid characterizations and generalizations about the person and focus on the activity. The authors’ rationale for this one is pretty compelling. They write:

If we characterize people, even if we do so quite positively, we actually engage, however unintentionally, in the rather presumptuous activity of entitling ourselves to say who and how the other is. We entitle ourselves to confer upon people the sources of their worthiness.” (p. 99)

Rather than focus on what I see as the person’s attributes, a better approach is to focus on the actual admirable work that I witness and want to recognize.

So, while I’m still working on “starting with thanks” to acknowledge the amazing work of my colleagues and collaborators, I’m finding that I need to revise how I offer my gratitude in ways that are “less subject to formulaic insincerity” and more fully communicates my recognition and admiration of their work.

Working on Work

Classes started this week and faculty and students have returned to campus. After fifteen or sixteen months of online and remote instruction, the hallways and classrooms are abuzz with conversations, lessons, and activities. While everyone is wearing masks according to the university guidelines, I’m finding it weird to interact with people in the face-to-face world again. After more than year of communicating with people primarily through Zoom, these face-to-face interactions are offering an odd mix of the familiar and the novel. And that combination is honestly causing me some personal dissonance.

My dissonance is magnified by news articles, podcasts, and posts I’ve seen which are challenging our traditional views of work. After a year of working online, lots of people are questioning what work looks like after the dust settles on this pandemic. Take this opinion article that appeared in the New York Times last week. Priya Parker is the author of the Art of Gathering and the host of the Together Apart podcast. In her Times article, Parker writes:

After the pandemic hit, we began to sense what we can do even better virtually (the use of chats, breakout rooms and polling), as well as the limitations of not being in the same physical space (lively unmuted brainstorming, complicated coordination, spontaneity). With millions of hours of virtual meetings under our collective belts now, we can pose a question too rarely asked of workplaces: What is worthy of our collective time, and how should it be structured?

So, while the campus is stirring again, there seems to be this unspoken collective questioning of “Do we need to be here? Could this be online?” Thankfully, Parker offers some guidance. Parker references an article written by Rae Ringel that appeared in the Harvard Business Review last July. In the title of her article, Ringel asks the question directly “When do we actually need to meet in person?” To guide our decision making, Ringel offers a series of questions we should consider before scheduling a face-to-face meeting. Of the questions, the one that stands out to me is when Ringel asks: “Are my meeting goals relationship-based or task-based?” Digging deeper into these contrasting goals, Ringel writes:

Relationship-based goals, which involve strengthening or repairing connections among team members, are usually accomplished most effectively in person. People should be given difficult feedback face-to-face. Challenging group conversations should also take place in person, where destructive and distracting parallel side chats can’t overshadow the central discussion.

I’m sure after a year away from our colleagues, many of us could benefit from spending some time “strengthening or repairing connections.” Beyond focusing on the goals of the meeting, though, Ringel also includes a question which helps individuals evaluate the complexity of the meeting’s objectives. To Ringel, complexity includes “emotional complexity, the range of interdependence, or the need for intervention.” Like relationship-based goals, Ringel recommends that meetings that focus on really complex objectives should usually occur in person. Ringel also includes a graphical tool to assist with deciding how the meeting should be offered.

While examining the goals and objectives of a meeting is important to consider when deciding whether to meet online or face-to-face, Ringel also challenges us to evaluate how inclusive our meetings will be. An in-person meeting requires that people are actually able to travel to the site to participate. This requirement may create a burden on working parents or people who have sick family members or other responsibilities that may limit their participation. I think the pandemic has opened a lot of eyes to the personal challenges with which some of our colleagues have to deal. And we should definitely consider these as we move forward in this (hopefully) post-pandemic world.

As I’m wrestling with the nature of our work moving forward, another quote has been bouncing around in my head for the last week. It’s from an unrelated podcast on “How to Forgive.” In the episode, Elizabeth Bruenig says that she grew up in an environment where “my virtues could flourish, and my vices could be contained.” And maybe that should be another guideline as we move forward. I know virtues and vices aren’t things we typically discuss when talk about work, but I’m betting we could identify a bunch of “workplace vices” and “workplace virtues.” Let’s choose modalities that contain our “workplace vices” and help our “workplace virtues” flourish. I know it’s not a simple metric, but what about this last year has been easy? Moving forward isn’t going to be simple either.