Effective Team Leadership: Mutual Learning Mindset

​Roger Schwarz is an organizational psychologist and President and CEO of Roger Schwarz & Associates. He is a sought-after advisor to global companies, federal government agencies, and international non-profit organizations. Roger will present the opening keynote address at the AIR 2015 Forum in Denver, Colorado. 

Interview by Lisa Gwaltney and Elaine Cappellino 

Keynote-Roger-Schwarz.jpgeAIR: What are some key principles of team leadership?

Effective team leadership is based on what I call a mutual learning mindset. The central premise is that how you think is how you lead. If you and your team are thinking in ways that are unproductive, you won't be able to get the results you need.  

To create transformational, sustainable change, it’s not sufficient for a team to change its behavior or how it's organized. The team needs to change its mindset—its values and assumptions.

For example, mutual learning leaders value both transparency and curiosity. When you are transparent, you share what you're thinking so others can understand your reasoning and intent. If everyone is transparent, teams get all the information on the table that they need to solve problems and make high-quality decisions.

When you are curious, you're interested in other people's views and reasoning. Together, transparency and curiosity enable teams to identify where they see things differently and begin to resolve the differences and create innovative solutions.

Mutual learning leaders also assume that they don't have all the information, that differences are opportunities for learning, and that they may be contributing to the problems they are complaining about.

eAIR: How do you see those principles applying to institutional research (IR) professionals in higher education?

Mutual learning is a natural fit for IR professionals in higher education. It combines scientific method principles and learning with others. For example, the scientific method requires that researchers operationalize their concepts and agree on definitions.

Similarly, one of the core behaviors of mutual learning is to use specific examples and agree on what important words mean. The scientific method requires that we test our assumptions, rather than simply declare them valid. Similarly, another mutual learning behavior is to test assumptions and inferences. Most university research is conducted in teams, in which people have different ideas about how to conduct the research, and what they ultimately need to agree on.

Another key mutual learning behavior is jointly designing next steps, which provides a way to reach these agreements.

In short, much of mutual learning is derived from the scientific method. Unfortunately, researchers often leave their rigorous and curious thinking behind when they are working in their research teams with people who see things differently, so they lose the benefits of mutual learning.

eAIR: What are some strategies or techniques that IR professionals can use to help facilitate decision making on campus?

The behaviors I mentioned above are important: agreeing on what important words mean, testing assumptions and inferences, and jointly designing next steps.

Another technique or behavior is to combine stating your views and asking genuine questions. Many research—and other—meetings look like either a set of monologues or a debate. People either make statements that seem unrelated to the previous statements, ask rhetorical questions to score a point, or argue back and forth about the best solution.

If, however, when people spoke, they shared their view on the topic, including their reasoning that led them to their view, and then genuinely asked others what they thought about this view, it would improve meeting results.

This combination of transparency and curiosity helps the meeting stay focused, quickly identifies where and why people have different ideas on the topic, and enables the team to craft solutions that address all the relevant criteria.

eAIR: Can you provide one example of team leadership work you have done on a college campus?

My colleagues and I worked with a university-based, large clinical research organization, helping them deal with challenges among project managers, statisticians, and physicians who had obtained the grants and contracts, as well as other project staff.

When team members started using a mutual learning mindset and skill set, they began to address issues they had not been able to raise before and were able to solve problems that had previously remained unsolved.

The challenge in this organization, like many, is to maintain and sustain mutual learning. Without adequate support, teams can slip back into ways of thinking and acting that make it difficult to get the results they need.