Think back to the last time you took part in a team-oriented task. Did the team members get along with each other? Did each member pull his or her weight? Was the task completed on time, and was it well done?
In the work world, teamwork is a given, and while it may not always go smoothly, employees know they need to negotiate team dynamics and logistics to get things done. How they learn to do that, though, is a bit of a mystery—one that Poppy L. McLeod, Communication, is currently investigating. Learning to carry out teamwork is crucial, she says, because employers put a premium on it, but college graduates in general appear to be lacking the proper skills to be successful in a team environment.
Do College Graduates Lack Teamwork Skills?
“In the late ’80s there was a scathing study, commissioned by the American Association of Colleges of Business, that found recent MBAs were unable to work together in teams, to think flexibly, or to collaborate,” says McLeod. “Essentially it said that schools were turning out graduates with strong analytical skills but poor interpersonal skills.”
That report was a wake-up call for higher education, McLeod says. “We realized we really needed to pay attention to these teamwork skills. So then you started to see team-based education initiatives that permeated throughout higher education.”
Fast forward almost 25 years to 2011: Even after all those years of emphasis on teamwork in the classroom, reports from employers still showed gaps between what employers needed in regards to teamwork skills and what they were getting with new graduates. “Why is that?” McLeod asks.
She is hoping to answer that question with a research project that looks at how students are exposed to teamwork across Cornell: how they work in groups, what kind of experiences they are having, and what they are learning. Last year, she collaborated with Alicia Orta-Ramirez, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Food Science, to study a broad range of aspects regarding teamwork in Orta-Ramirez’s introductory food science class, in which students compete in teams to develop new flavors of ice cream.
The data from that first wave of research have already pointed toward some interesting findings, McLeod says. For instance, it shows that students are most likely to believe in their team and its successfulness if they are extroverts, score high in agreeableness, and have high emotional stability. Those who are open to new experiences are also more likely to have positive attitudes about their team’s success.
The most interesting finding centered on the conscientious student, McLeod says. “In organizational group literature, there’s evidence that conscientiousness is really important for group workplace behavior and for teamwork. Conscientious workers are more dependable and organized. But we found that students who scored high in conscientiousness did not believe in their teams! That was a surprise.”
McLeod has a theory about why conscientious students might not feel as positive about teamwork. “They have strong achievement motivations. They want to get things done on time and done well. They may have a harder time giving over responsibility and putting their grade in someone else’s hands.”
There is more to learn from this study, McLeod says, and this year she has expanded it to include three different class projects in different departments: the food science ice cream flavor project, a biomedical engineering original research proposal project, and a fashion design project to develop a new collection. “In all these projects, the teams have to develop something new and creative,” she explains. “They are working on something that has no right or wrong answer, so they have to collaborate extensively. I’m really excited to see the data.”
In addition, McLeod and Orta-Ramirez have been awarded a grant from Cornell’s Institute for the Social Sciences to carry out a secondary project looking at the relationship between students’ on-campus teamwork experiences and their teamwork skills as assessed by their summer internship employers. “We hope to get some good data that will show whether or not college students’ class-based group projects and extracurricular team activities improve their ability to work in teams following graduation,” McLeod says. “Right now, there aren’t any data to answer that question directly even though group work is common all across college campuses.”
Group Identity, Individual Behavior, and Messaging
McLeod’s interest in group interactions and self-identification of group membership has sparked other collaborative research as well. Recently she joined with the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to investigate how message framing influences sustainable behavior, using Yard Map, the Lab of Ornithology’s online citizen science project.
“In all these projects, the teams have to develop something new and creative . . . something that has no right or wrong answer, so they have to collaborate extensively,” says McLeod.
Working with Jonathon Schuldt, Communication; Janis Dickinson, Natural Resources; and Yard Map Network Project Leader Rhiannon Crain, McLeod is designing the first experiment of the project, which will expose Yard Map participants to controlled variations of the same message. One version will be presented in the scientific, objective, and unemotional framework of citizen science, while another will be couched in the protective, nurturing, and pro-social language of environmental stewardship. “We want to see which appeal gets the greatest response,” McLeod says.
Going forward, McLeod and her co-investigators plan to eventually delve into her main area of interest: group identity and how that influences individual behavior. “We’ll look at a number of factors,” she says, “things like the geographic region where participants live, their gender, and their opinions on certain hot-button issues.”
Participants will be exposed to sustainability messages framed by a variety of factors, and their responsiveness to the messages will be measured. For instance, one hot-button issue in the world of birding is the impact of cat depredation on bird populations and whether cats should be kept indoors to protect the birds or be allowed outdoors to indulge in their birthright as hunters, says McLeod. “We want to know whether people's views on something like the cat controversy will affect their responses to different sustainability messages.”
Once they know how specific group identities influence individuals’ openness to messaging, communicators can tailor messages to fit particular groups much more accurately. “If you identify with a certain group, then a message framed in a way consistent with that group’s values may lead you to be more persuaded by the message,” McLeod explains.