Dealing with team tension

Every quality school has this value in abundance—teamwork. You hear it in the war cries when the learners play netball or soccer against another school. You see it when the school produces a concert or play, the end result of the hard work of a team of learners, parents and teachers.
You read about it in the principal’s newsletters describing the school’s achievements.

Yet teamwork isn’t all “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” Tension occurs in every team. Even the best teams might have times of trauma: meltdowns happen between teachers and learners, as well as among the teachers themselves. An effective way to turn turmoil into teamwork is to use quality circles.

Schools across the world are increasingly using this strategy. Quality circles encourage excellent thinking. Members of the circle listen to one another, offering ideas for improvement and solutions. Quality circles often reduce the need to call in advisers or consultants on how to deal with issues in the school.
How does quality-circle time work? Everyone sits—if practicable—in a circle. In the spirit of the Knights of the Round Table, no one is in charge. In the classroom the teacher is the facilitator. The facilitator might like to sit on the carpet, the grass or floor to be on the same level as the participants. Nancy Kline of Time to Think, an international leadership development company, observes that, even in a hierarchy (such as a school), people can be equal as thinkers.

How does the facilitator manage a quality-circle session? The world-renowned authority on this technique, Jenny Mosley (, recommends that the facilitator:

  • Be calm before the start of circle time. Resolve to be as positive as possible. Start the meeting on a positive note. Emphasise the positive aspects of the members of the team. Remind everyone, for example, of the good things that have been achieved in the past.

  • Keep your voice down and speak more slowly to create a sense of calm.

  • Be a good listener.

  • Use good eye contact and show both emotional warmth and empathy. (Remember, though, that in certain African cultures it’s considered disrespectful to look a person directly in the eyes. Avert your eyes slightly and use your body language to show you’re paying attention.)

  • Accept any input, however “off-beat”, with great respect. Give thanks when possible.

  • At the start of the session, go sequentially round the circle. Encourage everyone to speak. A person who doesn’t want to speak simply says, “Pass”.

  • Value all opinions equally without displaying irritable body language.

  • Ensure that neither you nor anyone else interrupts the person who is speaking. As Kline observes:
    “Interrupting is touted as a strong, assertive, intelligent thing to do but, in fact, it is none of these. It is actually an assault on the thinking pro-cess and is selfish and costly. Ideas are crushed in the wake of interruption and policies are developed that are based on immature fragments of ideas.”

  • Guard against anyone using put-downs (examples: making cynical comments or sniggering at any time during circle time).

  • Make sure no one in the circle is named in a negative way. The person speaking should rather say: “There’s a group that gangs up on me” instead of mentioning actual names.

  • End on a positive note. Highlight what’s been achieved and what will be done to add further quality.

An article on quality circles by LK Jena had the subtitle, “A stitch in time”. That’s what quality circles can do for a team. If the team meets often or as soon as a challenge appears, matters are dealt with promptly. Deal with a small tear rather than a ripped-apart garment. Quality circles can result in huge reductions of both emotional trauma and financial expenditure.

Jena described four positive undercurrents of quality circles, namely:

    1. Change in attitude: when a person is asked for his or her opinion and suggestions, there’s a change in attitude. That person moves from, “I don’t care” to “I do care”.

    2. Self-development: the hidden potential in people is brought out. It might be that the very quiet one could be the deep thinker with insightful input. Members further develop skills such as concentration, listening and speaking.

    3. Development of team spirit: there’s a move away from “I” thinking to “We” thinking. The person realises that: “I could not do it but we did it.” Inter-departmental conflicts can be reduced or even eliminated.

    4. Improved organisational climate: a happier, more positive working environment is created. There’s involvement of people at all levels, as well as a higher level of motivation. People see that their contributions make positive differences.

Well-structured quality circles do much to improve situations. They also make for happier, more motivated team members. Add to the quality already found in your class, team or school. Use quality circles to make your leading and managing even better.

Richard Hayward is editor of Quality Education News issued by the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Free downloads of all issues are available. There are details of nationwide SAQI workshops given at schools, irrespective of their financial resources. Please visit either or

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