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Relational Engagement in Project Teams

I participated in the ICOS dissertation poster session today, and while there had a number of helpful conversations about my dissertation. One of the preliminary findings I included on my poster discussed the perspective-taking and social language use I’ve noticed in interviews with members of the bridge project. Perspective-taking is a concept found in psychology literature, and it usually refers to our developed abilities to understand that other people have experiences different from our own. Some education researchers such as Hunter Gehlbach at Harvard use the idea of social perspective taking as a way to help students develop social skills. Linguists such as James Pennebaker at UT-Austin use the term social thinking to refer to language that indicates an awareness of other people.

In my data, members of the bridge building project indicate their perspective taking abilities and social thinking when they make comments such as

I would think that if you guys got involved with maybe [a community college], they have a concrete technology program up there. You could get a lot of free help with a lot of experiments up there, and they’re more than willing to work with concrete and do labs and anything you guys don’t like doing.

By saying, “I would think…,” the interviewee indicates awareness that someone else might think something else. The speaker implies that there is more than one idea about what the listener (“you guys”) might want to do. In other interviews, my participants express concern about the goals other members of the project have when they make statements such as, “Well, I know he’s more concerned about cost.” Here, the speaker explicitly tells us that he understand another person’s concerns and knows their relative importance.

Why does it matter that my participants demonstrate perspective taking and use social language? Project teams that include people who respect and understand perspectives that differ from their own are more successful. By “more successful” I mean those teams are more likely to accomplish their goals, have positive affect and impressions of their work, and maybe even to work together again. The social aspects of the relational engagement that perspective taking produces eases tension and builds commitment among project team members, making it easier for project teams to work together smoothly. It may be that positive relational engagement – interactions among team members characterized by perspective taking and social thinking – is more important than project structure or timing. When we talk about projects, especially engineering projects, we often focus on how they should be managed at the project level; when should what get done, who should do it, to whom should that guy report. It may make more sense for us to focus on managing interpersonal relationships on the project team, developing trust and concern for one another. The way we relate to our project teammates is likely to have a huge impact on our ability to work together successfully.

So, what do you think ?

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