‘What’ are my team members? Getting engineers to see the ‘who’: Part Three

Patricia SheridanIn my last post, I talked about some team process development strategies for teams that are coming together to create effective ways of working together. The focus of these posts has been on getting to see ‘who’ your team members are, and learning to understand them (their interests, their objectives, and their behaviours) in a way that allows you to communicate more effectively with them.

But what can an individual engineer do to make group communication happen easily/better when they aren’t starting a new team? In this post, I will explore some strategies individuals can use to get to see more of ‘who’ their team members are and how to use this to improve group communication in their teamwork.

In my research on effective teamwork [1], I have observed several teams working through their design projects over a four month period, and determined which actions made these teams communicate effectively, or not. Bringing in a model of ‘togethering’ from Radford and Roth [2], I observed how the individual communication patterns of the students facilitated the teams toward a space of growth and learning, or a space of random ideas. This model has three components that build off each other: 1) engagement – a demonstrated action towards the project objectives, 2) response – coordinating an action to be in line with those of your team mates, and 3) attunement – a state of cohesion that emerges from team member’s responses continually building on each other to create shared understanding. Teams that made it to attunement typically understood the ‘who’ of their team mates very well, spent time face-to-face with each other to get to know how each other communicated, and had a strong commitment to the project. While each team reached attunement in a different highly personalised process, the way the individuals chose to communicate in these teams had some key themes. If you are looking to make communication in an existing team more effective, these are some strategies that the attuned teams used.

Acknowledge different approaches and perspectives

The students in these teams spent a lot of time exploring each other’s interpretations of the project and their objectives for the meetings. The teams took time to make sure every person shared their ideas, and made space for other team members to interrogate these ideas.  This meant that team meetings took a bit longer as every person would ask questions to solidify their understanding, but it meant that when the team split apart to work separately, they had a unified vision they were working towards.

How-to: Ask team members ‘how’ or ‘in what way’ they are interpreting the project or privileging its components. State that you are trying to develop understanding, and when you provide your perspective, invite your team members to ask questions to understand it better.

Disagree by using questions rather than statements

In this study, teams with team members who disagreed by using statements ended up either in a cacophony of ideas, or in a “my ideas is better than your idea, just because” discussion. However, in teams that disagreed by asking questions tended to find common ground much faster, and without substantial emotional impact on the team. Closed statements of disagreement (“I don’t like your idea”) result in a harder personal hit, and don’t invite the recipient into a discussion about the disagreement.

How-to: When you find you have a rather strong reaction to something a team member says, avoid making snarky or critical remarks under your breath or to the person next to you. Instead, ask the team member speaking about their idea. Provide your perspective to them, explaining how you got there from their discussion and that you are looking to understand their position better. Then ask a specific question about how their position or idea connects to the objectives of the discussion.

Use multiple modes of communication

Every team that made it to attunement in our study used multiple modes of communication (writing, sketching, hand gestures, speech) in their team meetings. This allowed the team to quickly identify areas of misunderstanding or disagreement, and to work out ideas. These teams in particular used large writing spaces as a record of their thinking during team meetings. This provided all team members with the opportunity to jump in on decisions being made because they could trace the rationale going in to them.

How-to: Always hold meetings in areas where there is a large scratchpad, whiteboard, or shared virtual drawing space. Even if you are initially the only one recording on it, sketch the ideas being discussed, draw out the processes, write down key words, etc. Make sure there enough writing implements that all other team members can jump in on the writing space without having to ask for a pen. As people discuss ideas use this space to represent them and ensure shared understanding and agreement.

Over the past three posts, I have shared some of my perspectives and experience on effective team communication from researching student design teams over the last 4 years. Taking the time to get to know ‘who’ your team members are has always been the primary predictor of team effectiveness. Over these posts, I have shared some team-level, and individual-level strategies for making team communication more effective, and to find ways to make the communication more specific to the individuals in the team. When the communication is specific to an individual, they feel more valued and are more likely to contribute. So, take the time to get to know ‘who’ is on your teams, whether it is a new or old team. Go for coffee, or for lunch, find out more about them than just their skillsets, and then work (using some of these strategies I’ve recommended) to create team discussions that are open to ideas that you might not be expecting, but just might be the best.

[1] P. Kinnear, P.K. Sheridan, G. Evans, D. Reeve, “The Role of Shared Physical Space in Affording the Creation of Shared Conceptual Spaces in Design Project Teams,” American Society of Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2016.

[2] L. Radford & W.M. Roth, “Intercorporeality and ethical commitment: An activity perspective on classroom interaction.” Educational Studies in Mathematics, 77, 227-245, 2011.


Patricia Kristine Sheridan is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering at the University of Toronto where she has been a team-effectiveness researcher and engineering design educator for 4 years. She has researched student behaviour in over 300 different teams, following some teams in depth for up to 4 months, and has designed an on-line system to facilitate the development of team-effectiveness behaviours in student teams. Her teaching and course development focus on creating interactive learning activities at the intersection of design, leadership, teamwork, and identity formation. She holds a BASc and MASc in Mechanical Engineering, and has previously worked on large plant design teams in industry, and on algorithms to develop co-operative multi-agent systems in robotics.