In this blog, Karen discussed one of the key dimensions of the Women in Tech Framework that defines the critical aspects of daily life necessary to help women thrive and succeed in the high technology industry.


The Most Important Dimension

The first and the most important dimension of daily life that keeps women coming to work is being part of a dynamic, valuing team that is creating something that matters. Feeling connected, valued, and essential to the workings of the team hook women. On these teams, women:

  • Experience themselves as able to lead, follow, and participate;
  • Are asked questions and can ask questions;
  • Know that trying and failing is ok;
  • Have amazing conversations exploring new ideas;
  • Can talk about life in and out of work.

In other words, they are an integral part of a well working, no-nonsense, straight-talking, productive team where they are known and where they matter. And who wouldn’t want that!

The natural opposite of this is where women feel:

  • Existentially isolated;
  • Alone in a room of others (often men);
  • Walking on egg shells, with fear of doing the wrong thing, being judged;
  • And they just don’t have a valued place on the team.

The feeling of disconnection — of not belonging — is a tremendous burden to carry day after day, month after month, year after year. Not knowing exactly what to do to change it, never feeling quite up to snuff, or just getting sick of battling these feelings, wears people down. Who can blame them for wanting to leave a team, company, industry where that is the daily experience.

Everyone’s team falls somewhere in-between in real life — neither so perfect nor so awful. But the need to be valued and connected is critical for all people, not just women. Men go work for other guys they know from the last job. Startups are teams of folks who know and like each other. People hire their known colleagues every time they change jobs. It’s not just the work — it’s never just the work. It’s also the psychological sense of team — of being up to something with others. People are social — even geeks.

I’m not going to claim to be an expert on teams. But after nearly 30 years of experience working with technology teams, helping them to use contextual techniques for the purpose of design and watching them interact face to face on real projects, I’ve see what works and doesn’t work on teams. And these observations were reinforced when we started looking at the team experience of tech women at work.

Stages of Team Performance

As you know, I value getting into the field to understand what is going on with people as the greatest source of insight. However much of the social science research on teams has been done in a lab, bringing strangers together to do an assigned task. That is why I was interested in what Google’s researchers were doing with teams as reported in the New York Times. Many of their findings resonate with previous and current lab research, also reported in that article, and all of it is good fodder for understanding what is happening in our teams.

Back in 1965, Tuckerman put forward the now well-accepted stages of team performance:

  1. Forming: Team members meet, learn the challenge, agree on high-level goals and tasks but are uninformed. They are motivated but behave independently not part of a group, and are on their best behavior while they try to figure out appropriate behavior.
  2. Storming: Team members form opinions about the character of others, call members on dominating the group and shirking responsibility, or may question actions of the leader. Tension, struggle and arguments are normal and can be destructive and upsetting.
  3. Norming: The team resolves disagreement and personality clashes, and enters a period of cooperation and focus on the shared goal. They tolerate and accept each other and establish group norms and roles.
  4. Performing: With norms and roles established the group can focus on getting the work done. They are able to work autonomously, make decisions, and resolve simple daily conflict. They can be high performing.

When the teams are done with this process they have implicitly created a set of team roles separate from their job titles, team values, and norms of interpersonal behavior. This is what is needed before any team can attack a task. In other words, the team first creates a team culture that guides their interactions — then they can get down to working. But teams may get stuck at any stage and changes in people, assignments, or goals can send them back to storming.

When Google first looked at their data they couldn’t see a pattern of success across their teams until they stopped looking at the specific behavior and realized that each had formed a set of roles, values, and norms of behavior. The insight is that when working teams know what to expect — rules of engagement, success criteria and team goals are clear — then any team can work together well. The exact roles, values, and behaviors and team structure didn’t matter — having what is essentially a clear team culture did. More importantly, Google said “the group’s norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team”. In other words, the diversity of the team did not matter, the team culture did. 

Consciously Creating a Healthy Team Culture

So what would it mean to create a team culture on purpose? This has always been an underlying goal of Contextual Design processes. We lay out the process and goals, the rules of interacting in any meeting, and the core values expected of the team. When training a team in Contextual Design (CD) no one in the room — no matter the job type — knows how to do it when they walk in the door. And people are challenged because most haven’t had to work day after day, nose to nose to get the work done. So a CD project is a little microcosm for managing team behavior. Whether or not your team chooses to use CD I think we can learn from our experience.

When we started working with teams — primarily developers — to introduce the CD process we knew we needed to manage the team dynamics. The work was new and especially new to developers; everyone was way out of their comfort zone. So at the onset of the project and each type of design meeting, we deliberately established the core values, the expected team culture, behavioral expectations and roles along with the actual techniques. As a result we have never had a real “diversity” problem in any country, even with teams of developers, UX, design, marketing, writers and other roles working together. And on any team we might have women and men from the US, Europe, Asia, India, and more. But because everyone knew what was expected, they could act successfully right away. When there were interpersonal problems (interrupting, not speaking, different cognitive styles) we invented interventions to help the individuals participate better. We knew that if you don’t manage the teamness of the team you won’t have a functioning team — so we did it on purpose.

I’ve always wondered if in CD we skip forming, storming, norming and get right to performing because we have a defined work culture that is clear and articulated. So can we as an industry learn from that? What if companies and teams actually defined their work culture? What if every person on the team knew their role, both formal and interpersonal? What if the values were explicit up front? What if they were clear on what success looked like? What if the work techniques used were clear? What if the norms for interpersonal behavior were discussed? What if every team articulated their culture consciously and on purpose — and then communicated it to any new team member? What if companies did this all on purpose?

I’m not talking about the big giant values of the company; those trickle down to the team for sure. But the day-to-day interactions of team work culture are more nuanced. It flexes to the skills and personalities of the members. That is why every team culture is a little different. Teams still form — even in CD — but they form within a structure that all agree with and buy into. That is why Google found that some of the successful teams were more leader dominated and some were more collaborative. In the end the exact roles and responsibilities don’t matter. What matters is that there is a clear articulated culture.

When team culture works, members feel like they know how to be successful, are accepted and so they can participate. And so research shows that successful teams produce psychological safety, and this is what women are looking for:

  • ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well. But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’
  • On successful teams, members seemed to sense or know when someone felt upset or left out; they monitored non-verbals well.

In other words, a healthy team culture in the words of the women we studied is one in which “everyone can lead, follow, participate, ask, answer and risk a suggestion; a team where people can participate because failure, being wrong, and interpersonal mis-steps were forgiven.”

It is possible to create team culture consciously — we just have to decide to do it.

-Karen