Better Team Development and Interpersonal Skills: AALL Course on “Managing Your Work Environment”

By Connie Chang, Knowledge Management Research Analyst at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt

Editor’s Note: We are happy to post two takes on a recent course on “Managing Your Work Environment” offered by the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), and facilitated by Judith Millesen, Ph.D.  Both authors were recipients of grants from the Private Law Librarians and Information Professionals (PLLIP) section of AALL.  Thank you to Connie and Janet for taking the time to share their thoughts on their experiences and takeaways from the course.

Thanks to a grant from the Private Law Librarians & Information Professionals Special Interest Section (PLLIP-SIS), I attended the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) course, “Managing Your Work Environment.”  The course focused on team development and interpersonal skills.  It was held over three weeks (Sept. 13 to Oct. 4, 2022).  There was also some pre-course work on the importance of having a growth mindset and taking time to reflect about work experiences.  I am so grateful to PLLIP members for supporting the PLLIP-SIS grants through your dues.  I am also very grateful to the PLLIP-SIS Grants Committee for managing the grants program on behalf of our section.

There were 18 learners in the course, half at law firms, three in government law libraries, and six at law school libraries. The course format was virtual and mostly asynchronous, concluding with a synchronous group discussion via Zoom.  Our instructor was Judith Millesen, PhD, Director of Strategic Planning, Fundraising, and Capacity Building at Association Options.  Her experience includes teaching as a professor for 20 years and advising nonprofit organizations throughout the United States.  Through recorded video lectures, carefully selected course materials, and insightful feedback on each learner’s discussion board posts, short reflective essays, plus a short video that each learner made, Professor Millesen skillfully guided us in our quests to be better team members (or team leaders).

During our Zoom meeting at the end of the course, it was clear that the course enriched learners with information and suggestions we could employ immediately to help improve our work (and personal) lives.  The coursework helped us to identify areas where we wanted to become stronger.  Some common themes that also came through in our discussion board posts and in our final meeting were: learning from our mistakes, becoming more mindful and more comfortable with discomfort that can lead to growth, and keeping in mind what we can and cannot control.  Though I learned many things from the course that I plan to explore further and implement, I share below only one key takeaway from each week in the course.

Week 1 – Working in Teams

The course began with a definition of a high-performing team from an article by the Society for Human Resource Management titled “Developing and Sustaining High-Performance Work Teams“:

A “high-performance work team” refers to a group of goal-focused individuals with specialized expertise and complementary skills who collaborate, innovate and produce consistently superior results.  The group relentlessly pursues performance excellence through shared goals, shared leadership, collaboration, open communication, clear role expectations and group operating rules, early conflict resolution, and a strong sense of accountability and trust among its members.

I personally found this definition so idealistic and aspirational as to make a high-performing team seem something of a unicorn, but nevertheless worth striving toward.

The takeaway (from the same article) that was the most illuminating for me is that teams typically develop in four stages: forming (getting acquainted), storming (conflict and working through conflict), norming (appreciating team member differences and starting to work together), and performing (moving together toward shared goals).  Related to the idea of a team truly coming together only after a period of time and after working effectively through conflict, Professor Millesen emphasized that team development is a marathon, not a sprint.  This information helps me to temper my expectations and be more patient and willing to work productively through inevitable conflicts whenever I am part of a newly formed team.

Working through conflict, however, is sometimes easier said than done.  With the two takeaways from Weeks 2 and 3 that are described below, I feel better equipped to navigate through conflict, though it will surely take practice.

Week 2 – Presenting Your Ideas

During this week, we learned techniques for better oral communication.  The course materials included 9 Tips for Crafting Your Message & Presenting Ideas Effectively and a memorable 2017 TED Talk by behavioral coach Louise Evans titled “Own Your Behaviors, Master Your Communication, Determine Your Success“, based on her 2016 book, 5 Chairs 5 Choices.  (As one learner described in a discussion board post, the TED Talk itself is an example of an excellent presentation of ideas.)  In the TED Talk, Evans encourages people to choose wisely how we respond to situations because our responses can alter the course of a situation—and our relationship with the other person involved—for better or for worse.

To illustrate the types of responses we could have to a particular situation, she analogizes to different chairs that we could choose to sit in:

  • Red Chair (the Jackal Chair) – This is the chair of judgment, blame, gossip, and aggression.  We attack others from this chair.
  • Yellow Chair (the Hedgehog Chair) – This is the chair of self-doubt.  In this chair, we engage in self-judgment and self-blame.
  • Green Chair (the Meerkat Chair) – This is the wait chair.  Here we are very observant and aware, but we have yet to take action by choosing which chair to sit in next.
  • Blue Chair (the Dolphin Chair) – This is the detect chair.  In this chair, we have learned to be a detective of our own emotions and our needs, so we are self-aware.  From this chair, we engage assertively, but not aggressively, in self-care (such as setting boundaries).
  • Purple Chair (the Giraffe Chair) – This is the chair of connection.  We attain connection when we keep our egos in check and engage in empathy, compassion, and understanding.  In this chair, our priority is to connect with the other person, so our first consideration is to be curious and ponder what is most important to them.

As humans, we will of course spend some time in the Red and Yellow Chairs.  Now that I am aware of these choices, my goal is to recognize when I am about to sit in the Red or Yellow Chair and instead take action to move myself into the Purple Chair.

As much as I had gained from watching (and later re-watching) this TED Talk, I learned even more from my classmates and Professor Millesen; the discussion board posts from other learners and the responses to them from Professor Millesen opened my eyes to the following perspectives, which I would not have come to on my own:

  • Just as we can realize which chair we are sitting in (and think about whether our behavior in that chair reflects our true intent), we can see the chairs that others are sitting in.  If a co-worker sits in the Red Chair, we might react judgmentally, thus climbing in to the Red Chair too, or we can consider why they are in that chair.  If a co-worker moves toward the Purple Chair, sitting in the Blue or Purple Chair allows us to learn from them.
  • Having the negative emotions that are associated with being in the Red Chair is draining, but sometimes the Red Chair seems the shortest distance away.  At times, this might be because we are depleted and do not have the energy needed to be empathetic or curious.  So taking care of ourselves is vital in order to move toward the Purple Chair, where we have the capacity to welcome others in and be collaborative.

Week 3 – Valuing Inclusivity, Civility, and Respect in the Workplace

The final week’s course materials included a helpful description of productive versus unproductive conflict and an inspiring toolkit‎ on acting with civility in our communities.  For me, however, the most valuable lesson came from the lecture.  Professor Millesen described negative conflict as occurring when we struggle against an idea proposed by another person, rather than struggling with them to understand how their idea might achieve the shared objective of the team.  She encouraged us to act with curiosity in order to reach a resolution, rather than acting with certainty that our path was the only correct one.  Since there can be different paths to the same goal, acting with curiosity creates more space for new information, creativity, and innovation.  In contrast, acting with certainty closes us off to discovery and new ideas.

If we become involved in a negative conflict and want to re-center ourselves to be in a more curious mode, Professor Millesen offered this advice:

  1. Change your physical position.  For example, stand up or go for a walk outside.  This can help you to be more open to new information.
  2. Stop talking because it is difficult to be curious if you are talking.  Listen instead, and give yourself permission not to respond to everything.
  3. Suspend your disbelief and see if you can see how the other person sees things.  Think about whether you could benefit from that point of view.
  4. Write notes to remind yourself to suspend judgment, be curious, ask questions, and listen for understanding.

I took this advice to heart.  A few days after hearing the advice and after a meeting in which I felt that my enthusiasm for the meeting topic might have dissuaded others from speaking, I wrote this note to myself at the top of my electronic notepad in preparation for my next meeting:  BE CALM AND SPEAK SLOWLY, HUMBLY, AND WITH CURIOSITY.

If AALL offers this course or a similar course again, I would highly recommend it.  I have read several books on dealing with conflict and improving communication skills.  I have also taken several self-assessments of my workstyle in order to learn how to work well with others.  Yet this course (and the discussion board posts from other learners) introduced me to useful new ways of thinking about how to contribute effectively when working in a team and provided pragmatic recommendations on how to do so.

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