“If I can suggest something…”
I was meeting with two students who were struggling to get their team working. The majority of their team members were failing to do their part—from non-contribution through non-participation all the way to complete absence. The two students I was meeting with were left having to handle the entire project.
Each semester, across multiple courses that I teach there is a semester-long team project. A typical class ends up having between 6-8 teams of 5-6 members each. Every so often one team or another ends up having a team member not prepared to carry their weight. This understandably leads to unhappiness certainly and occasionally conflict within the team.
At the beginning of each term I tell the students what’s expected of them, and why being a contributing member of a team is not only the right thing, but one that’ll help all of them learn and grow. I also tell them that resolving conflicts within the team is their responsibility, one they’ll face soon enough in the workplace. Whilst I’m available to both lending a sympathetic ear and if required coaching, I state that my expectations are that they’ll do the work to resolve matters effectively.
Whilst student age & stage (freshman vs senior), culture and occasionally gender all lead to issues of mismatched expectations and behavior, coaching around giving and receiving feedback, particularly the use of “I”messages, has typically been enough to resolve matters satisfactorily.
It was when I proposed a script that had worked in the past, one of the two students spoke up, “If I can suggest something…” When I acquiesced she outlined a set of steps and effectively coached me on what she felt might be a better way to handle the situation.
And indeed it was and we implemented it. I was blown away by the experience to recount what happened to my wife, daughter and colleagues at work. And I realized I might as well share this with the young woman as well. Which I did.
The three step process she followed were:
- Sought permission Started by saying “If I can suggest something…” non-threatening, seeking permission & buy in (she had no way to know how the “old” professor might be willing to take inputs
- Call to action/reason She suggested a direct call to action, with a darn good reason to explain it to the rest of the team without anyone losing face or getting their back up “you should call a meeting,” (CTA) under the guise of “discussing our upcoming pivot” (reason, not due to anyone complaining about team dysfunction)
- Anticipating potential objections She also made specific suggestions for discussion topics and even the beginnings of a script forthe proposed meeting. “I observed only a couple you presenting in class last week, and one of you was absent… etc.” These served to overcome any potential objections I might raise in not following my default methodology of expecting students to resolve things on their own.
In hindsight, unlike me she did not over sell it! As one of my customer’s coached me, she “stopped digging once she hit oil!”
I’m grateful that I get to work with such amazing young people. And also glad that I was receptive enough that day to recognize a good idea when presented and smart enough to listen!
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