Figuring Out Positive Team Dynamics

Have you ever been a part of a conversation with a student that went something like this?

Student: I’m having a lot of trouble completing this team project.

Professor*: How can I help? Is the material too difficult? Is there something about the project you don’t understand?

Student: Oh, no, I understand the project and what we are supposed to do. It’s our team. One of our team members just isn’t showing up; they haven’t handed in any of the work so far and aren’t responding to emails. Another is such a perfectionist that their feedback is super harsh and really discourages the rest of us. I really like this class and want to do well, but I just don’t know what to do.

Professor: I’m very sorry to hear that, but you all are going to have to figure out how to make this work. You are going to have to work in teams for the rest of your career, so this is an important experience to help you learn how to handle these situations.

*You could easily substitute “PI” or “Manager” here.

The frustration on both sides of this conversation is clear. The student needs help; they are expressing a clear desire to learn more about how to manage the complex social interactions of working in a team. Meanwhile, the professor has worked carefully to design a course aimed at helping students achieve mastery in content in a specific area of their expertise and wants to ensure that content is the focus of their instruction. However, just as an architecture professor would never say “You’ve walked in a building, so figure out how to build one,” or a business professor would never say “you’ve shopped in a store so figure out how to run one,” the idea that a professor would limit instruction in a subject as complex and difficult as managing team dynamics to “figure it out” limits both the student and the faculty member. Faced with this language, students often feel the faculty member is dismissing their concerns and does not care.

Dr.Mary Lynn Realff noted that this frustration on both sides was where her inspiration for this initiative came from.

"[Difficult team experiences were] keeping students from learning. That was really the thing. They wanted to be in senior design. They wanted to do a good design project and this was keeping them from actually completing their project at a level where they could be proud of it. Instead, they were mired in all this negative team dynamics stuff where they didn’t know how to handle it and their professors couldn’t help them handle it.”

The Effective Team Dynamics initiative was born out of conversations like this one, with the intention of reshaping the team dynamics learning experience in a positive and intentional way.

As teachers, we want our students to succeed; we care about them and want them to thrive. We strive to design courses, present material, create assignments, and build activities so that students can learn the necessary skills and information necessary for them to succeed in the workplace and change the world for the better. For many of us, this includes designing projects modeled on “real world” experience, where students work in teams to solve problems, conduct experiments, or create products for a client beyond what they could do on their own. However, while we regularly work to ensure that students are provided with the best possible resources for content instruction, often, teaching teamwork skills falls by the wayside. ETD is all about considering team work and team dynamics a similar area of instruction that can, and should, be taught. ETD believes that a conscious and reflective approach to learning what you bring to a team and how you work best in teams can improve team dynamics for students, faculty, and staff both in and out of the classroom.

Dr. Realff’s mission to improve her own teaching by learning how to help students negotiate the vital task of working with others, led to a broader goal: to develop a cohesive curriculum focused on developing team work skills that other faculty members at Georgia Tech could deploy in their own classrooms, labs, and mentoring relationships. Initially funded as part of Georgia Tech’s Strategic Plan Advisory Group 4 year grant for over $200,000, ETD has created a series of student-centered instructional modules, facilitated classroom sessions, and homework activities aimed at improving students’ overall teamwork experiences. ETD also identified and compiled useful activities into a Faculty Tool Kit, designed to help faculty members who regularly work with student teams to assess and address common concerns in teams. Now in its 4th year, ETD has involved 500 faculty and staff members throughout all six colleges of the Georgia Tech community, helped 5000 undergraduate and graduate students identify and leverage their CliftonStrengths in productive team conversations, and designed 3 facilitated sessions and 6 curriculum units to be deployed at strategic “Touchpoints” throughout a Georgia Tech student’s career at the Institute.

The Effective Team Dynamics Initiative is based on research-driven methods of improving team dynamics, focusing on reflective evaluation of a students’ own habits, skills, knowledge, and abilities as well as the requirements of specific assignments, and the unique dynamics present in each new team. Using the language of CliftonStrengths, ETD helps students identify their patterns of thought and behavior, name and build on their strengths, identify the diverse strengths of any team, and interpret behaviors of their team members in productive ways. By teaching both faculty and students how to approach defining expectations within a team, how to have “Crucial Conversations” when issues arise within a group, and how to give useful feedback on teamwork skills, ETD provides supportive structure and a set of tools that can help students “figure out” their individualized best approach to working in teams based on evidence and research-driven methods.

Want to partner with us? To request curricular materials on strengths and teamwork for your online course, email