Team Learning: A Tool for Maximizing Safety and Health Performance

By Birkner, Lawrence R.; Birkner, Ruth K. | Occupational Hazards, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Team Learning: A Tool for Maximizing Safety and Health Performance


Birkner, Lawrence R., Birkner, Ruth K., Occupational Hazards


Nearly all important decisions today are made in teams. Teams play an increasingly important role in the competitive business environment. The potential power of multiple minds is far greater than the sum of individuals operating separately. The key word is "potential," since teams have to learn how to function as a team before synergy is truly achieved.

Most of you have experienced the awkwardness of a sport or business team in its early days, as well as the power and excitement of the same team after spending considerable time solving problems or winning games. What happens to a team as it works together, what changes over time and what permits the team potential to be released?

First, the team must build, or believe in, a shared vision of what it is members wish to accomplish. Secondly, it is important to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each member - recognizing how each individual processes information and reacts to it - learning how to think and create together. Next, the team must learn how to align the skills and strengths of each member to achieve the team's maximum potential. Lastly, team members must not sacrifice their personal interests to the larger team - that would work against the team's best interest. The shared vision of the team must become an extension of each member's personal vision.

For a team to be truly successful, it must master the art of discussion and dialogue - the two ways a team communicates. The distinction is critical. Dialogue is the process where individuals suspend their own views, beliefs and biases, creating an environment where ideas and complex issues can be explored in great depth, from every angle, to achieve deep understanding. By contrast, the word discussion stems from the Latin word "discutere," which means to smash to pieces. "Skillful discussion"[1] differs from unproductive discussion because participants develop a penetrating understanding of the forces at play among the team members. In skillful discussion, one makes a choice; in dialogue, one discovers the nature of choice.[2]

Used effectively, these skills complement one another and facilitate learning, synergy and maximum performance. The value of systems thinking (see our October 1996 column) is it allows a team to explore conceptual interrelationships and support the dialogue process. Again, we refer you to Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline for a more in-depth description. Mastering dialogue and discussion, and maintaining their distinction, is challenging and requires great discipline. …

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