Published IN the National Forensic Journal

Spring 2005, Volume 23, Issue 1, Pages 95-100.

  

  

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Building Team Cohesion: Becoming "We" Instead of "Me"

Sheryl A. Friedley and Bruce B. Manchester, George Mason University

Abstract

Forensics fosters an appreciation for diversity; it embraces the unique qualities,
characteristics, and talents that individual participants bring to the activity. Yet
rarely does a forensics competitor attend a tournament as a single entry; instead,
most students compete as a member of a larger group - a team. Because the
activity recognizes success in individual as well as team effort, forensics educa-
tors realize that one of the most valuable skill sets students who participate in this
activity can acquire is the ability to work as part of a team. Grounded in commu-
nication theory, this article discusses some of the unique opportunities the foren-
sics activity offers to develop teamwork. Specifically, the authors focus on the
source, channel, and content of messages that can be used to build a cohesive
forensics team.

The very nature of intercollegiate forensics fosters an appreciation for
diversity; it embraces the unique qualities, characteristics, and talents that indi-
vidual participants bring to the activity. Whether students develop a persuasive
argument, analyze a communication event, interpret literature, or critically assess
a political situation, intercollegiate forensics encourages students to find their
unique "voice" in this communication-based activity. Yet rarely does a forensics
competitor attend a tournament as a single entry; instead, most students compete
as a member of a larger group - a team. Because the activity recognizes success
in individual as well as team effort, forensics educators realize that one of the
most valuable skill sets students who participate in this activity can acquire is the
ability to work as part of a team.

In 1979, Francis and Young defined a team as "an energetic group of peo-
ple who are committed to achieving common objectives, who work well together
and enjoy doing so, and who produce high quality results" (as cited in DeWine,
2001, p. 273). Though the concept of "team" has long been a model for athletic
competition, the concept of "team" has also emerged over the past two decades
as the prevalent model in business. In a study that asked corporate executives to
identify qualities they most often seek in recent graduates, 71.4% of those corpo-
rate executives identified the ability to work in teams as a critical skill set (Tubbs
& Moss, 1994). According to Chaney and Lyden (2000), "between 70 - 82 % of
companies in the United States use the team concept, making teamwork skills one
of the most necessary skill sets in the work environment; teamwork tends to pro-
mote creativity and problem-solving, high-quality decision-making, and
improved communication" (p. 6). Furthermore, McManus (2000) distinguishes a
"group" from a "team" in the workplace by noting that members of a team
demonstrate a strong commitment to each other as well as the common end goal;
"in a team, there is a higher degree of cohesiveness and accomplishment than in
a group" (p. 21).

 
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Since cohesion is believed to be one of the distinguishing characteristics of
a high-performance team, what is this powerful team quality and how is it cre-
ated? According to Bollen and Hoyle (1979), cohesion is the degree of attraction
members feel toward one another and the team; "it is a feeling of deep loyalty, of
esprit de corps, the degree to which each individual has made the team's goal his
or her own, a sense of belonging, and a feeling of morale" (as cited in Beebe &
Masterson, 2000, p. 122). Though cohesion is rooted in the feelings team mem-
bers have for one another as well as a common goal, creating, shaping, and
strengthening those feelings relies on the use of effective communication.
Communication scholars have long agreed that group or team cohesion is as
much about the relationships created as the task at hand, and success in both fos-
ters the development of team cohesion (Bormann, 1990).

Since building team cohesion is grounded in effective, constructive commu-
nication about relationships as well as the task at hand, intercollegiate forensics
seems an appropriate educational context in which to explore building team cohe-
sion. Specifically, to discuss how best to develop forensics team cohesion, let's
briefly consider three basic aspects of cohesion messages used in building foren-
sics teams: 1) the source of cohesion messages, 2) the channel of cohesion mes-
sages, and 3) the content of cohesion messages. In examining these three aspects
of cohesion messages, we hope to reinforce some of the unique opportunities
intercollegiate forensics provides to build team cohesion and strengthen team-
work skill sets.

Source of Cohesion Messages

As with most team-building experiences, powerful messages about the
nature of relationships among team members and the task at hand begin with
those who hold strong leadership positions. Within forensics programs, directors,
assistant directors, coaching staff, and team leaders are primary sources of com-
munication for the team. Clear and consistent messages about the value of this
team experience and what it means to be a member of this team are critical from
the outset of team formation. Clear and consistent messages about how members
of this team behave, in their relationships with coaching staff and other team
members as well as their preparation for intercollegiate forensics competition (the
task at hand), are critical throughout team development. This vision and identity
can be reinforced by having former team members serve as members of the
coaching staff. Such messages must be sent clearly and reinforced consistently
beginning with top-down leaders of the team. These messages lay the foundation
for a team vision as well as a team identity, and team cohesion is created when
members have a clear understanding of that vision and identity. Another success-
ful strategy is to have key administrators (department chair, college dean, vice-
president, etc.) link the team's vision into that of the institution as a whole.

While it seems as though each academic year spawns the creation of a new
team that becomes a "work in progress," continuity in leadership facilitates team
cohesion. Allowing the current team members to select from their ranks the cap-

 
 

 

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tain or officers for the next year's team can serve to ensure the desired continu-
ity. Additionally, veteran team members can be paired up with rookie members
thus creating a "big brother/big sister" mentoring support system. With retention
of team directors, assistant directors, coaches, and members, consistent messages
about team vision and identity are easier to sustain and perpetuate. For this rea-
son, as well as many others, forensics educators must be given the necessary sup-
port to build a program over time; key leadership changes every year or two make
it difficult to build team cohesion. College and university administrators should
consider this aspect of team-building as they strive to support forensics educators
in ongoing program development.

Channel of Cohesion Messages

With the advent of technology as a primary channel of communication in
the workplace, Hallowell (1999) urges us not to lose the "human moment" in our
communication - not to lose the powerful impact of face-to-face, immediate
interaction in real time and space. Though the forensics team experience has been
enhanced by the development of technology (internet searches for supporting
material and email conversations among participants within and between teams),
the forensics team experience itself continues to foster the "human moment" in
communication. Forensics teams practice, travel, and compete in real time and
space; they thrive in the powerful impact of face-to-face, immediate interaction
of students, coaches, and judges.

It is communication in the "human moment" that most powerfully creates
team synergy - the energy that truly makes "the whole greater than the sum of its
parts." It is communication in the "human moment" that also most powerfully
creates team cohesion - a strong sense of loyalty and commitment to the team
vision as one's own. Encouraging others to succeed, sharing the excitement of
others' successes, owning as well as taking pride in team success, and receiving
support from others to succeed creates a synergy that builds team cohesion.
Providing an environment where synergy is created through "human moment"
experiences such as these (both inside and outside the competitive arena) is not
only possible within intercollegiate forensics, but it is essential.

Providing communication opportunities in real time and space for forensics
team members is necessary to build team cohesion. Whether a room or lounge
where team members can congregate between classes and the end of the day,
practice space for formal and informal coaching sessions, travel time in cars and
vans, or social time to enjoy pizza and a movie, both quantity and quality of com-
munication are necessary to build a cohesive team climate of openness and trust.
By establishing periodic meeting times for coaches and/or team members to dis-
cuss openly issues related to the team, the director can facilitate the creation and
maintenance of this cohesive unit. According to Bormann (1990), highly cohesive
groups interact in an open climate where individuals are free to ask questions and
disagree with one another; even the ability to work through inevitable team con-
flict in such a constructive climate will only serve to strengthen team cohesion.

 
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Again, the "human moment" experiences preserved and perpetuated in intercol-
legiate forensics provide a powerful team experience that can only serve to
strengthen student transition to the workplace.

Content of Cohesion Messages

Through the development of symbolic convergence theory, communication
scholars have long recognized that groups and teams take on a life of their own;
over time they develop a collective consciousness with shared feelings, motives,
and meanings. Bormann (1990) explains that this "group consciousness" evolves
as group members share group fantasies or stories; these stories tend to develop
around central themes and, as such, begin to shape a "shared vision" for the group
or team. As with any stories and themes that emerge, they reflect as much about
what actually happened as they do about the interpretation of what actually hap-
pened. Recalling these stories and themes provide insight into the group's person-
ality, values, and identity.

For example, the story of the "rookie" who narrowly qualified to attend
nationals and then went on to become a national finalist offers hope for success
and team value to even the most novice of competitors. Or the story of the team
member whose luggage was lost on the flight to nationals and, having no clothes
to wear for competition, was loaned a shirt by one team member, a tie by a sec-
ond team member, a suit by a third team member, and shoes and socks by a fourth
team member; thanks to team support (family support) in a time of need, this
competitor became a true "fashion icon" during competition that day. Every team
has its stories, its songs, its rituals, its rites of passage, and its traditions; when
combined, these shared experiences create a strong sense of team identity and
team cohesion.

This "shared reality" also creates a sense of past, present, and future for the
team - a connection to those who have preceded them (alumni) and those who
will follow. Such "shared reality" place the "here and now" into a larger context
of program history - a legacy of what has come before and what will follow.
Whether seeking alumni support (coaching, judging, or financial) or explaining
to a current team member why a specific policy is necessary to ensure this pro-
gram's future, owning responsibility for a forensic program's past, present, and
future provides a strong context for building team cohesion. Creating opportuni-
ties for alumni to interact with current team members in a social setting can
facilitate this connection. Team alumni can be invited to campus to share their
experiences about the team with newly recruited members. Another strategy is
to solicit letters from alumni to be read to the current team as they prepare for
an upcoming national tournament. Such opportunities can create important con-
nections that link the team's present with its past as well as providing a vision of
its future.

In his recent article entitled, "What Makes Great Teachers Great?", Ken
Bain discusses several principles of good teaching; among them, he notes that
good teachers "create diverse learning experiences that help students learn out-

 
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side the traditional classroom" (Bain, 2004, p. 9B). Intercollegiate forensics
offers students just such an opportunity - the valuable opportunity to acquire the
skills necessary to work as part of a cohesive, high-performance team outside the
traditional classroom. To provide this opportunity for skill development under the
tutelage of communication educators who can model effective communication
skills and reinforce effective team-building behaviors will only serve to enhance
the student's educational experience. Furthermore, the ability to create, shape,
and sustain a cohesive team is perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences
enjoyed by forensics educators. To empower individual students to create a
shared vision, and rise to meet the goals and objectives of that shared vision, is
to prepare the engaged citizen of the 21st century.

 
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References

Bain, K. (2004, April 9). What makes great teachers great? Chronicle of
Higher Education, 7-9B.

Beebe, S. A., & Masterson, J. T. (2000). Communicating in small groups:
Principles and practices (6th ed.). New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Bormann, E. (1990). Small group communication: Theory and practice (3rd
ed.). New York: Harper Collins.

Chaney, L., & Lyden, J. (2000, January). Making U.S. teams work.
Supervision, 61, 6.

DeWine, S. (2001). The consultant's craft: Improving organizational com-
munication (2nd ed). Boston: Bedford / St. Martin's.

Hallowell, E. M. (1999, February). The human moment at work. Harvard
Business Review, 77, 58-66.

McManus, K. (2000, April). Do you have teams? HE Solutions, 32,21.

Tubbs, S., & Moss, S. (1994). Human communication (7th ed.) New York:
McGraw-Hill.

Accept No Substitutes