The Hidden Power Of Our Social Worlds

In July 2014 the Albert Shanker Institute began a blog series on the “social side” of education reform. The collection, which includes contributions from established and emerging scholars, attempts to shine a light on new research arguing for the centrality of the social dimension in educational improvement. This blog post serves as the preface of a new ASI publication featuring six of the most important blog posts from this series. The publication is now available for download here. ASI is holding a research and policy conference on this theme Friday April 8th.

Whatever level of teacher human capital schools acquire through hiring can subsequently be developed through formal and informal professional interactions. As teachers join together to solve problems and learn from one another, the school’s instructional capacity becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

This quote from Harvard professor Susan Moore Johnson (p. 20 of this volume) may make perfect sense to you. Our systems and organizations, however, are largely structured around individualistic values. As such, a primary goal is to optimize and reward performance at the individual level. So, while some of us (perhaps many of us) might agree that a team’s capacity can exceed the sum of individual members’ capacity, we generally have a difficult time translating that knowledge into action – e.g., rewarding individual behaviors that enhance team dynamics. Part of the problem is that there’s still a lot to learn about how teamwork and collaboration are properly measured.

No matter how challenging, understanding the social dynamics that underpin our work organizations seems particularly timely given the interdependent nature of the modern workplace. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, “time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more” over the past two decades. At many companies, the article notes, “more than three quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.”

In sum, the increasing disconnect between what organizations need/do (i.e., collaboration and teamwork) and what they support and reward (i.e., individual performance) underscores the need to develop a better understanding of the social-relational dimension of work. What makes some groups work better than others? How does one build an effective team? Are the best teams made up by combining the “best” individuals? These questions are as important for schools and education practitioners as they are for other work organizations and professionals in other fields.

study by Roderick I. Swaab and colleagues (2014) sheds light on some of these questions. The researchers examined data from various types of sports and demonstrated that, when a sport requires coordination among team members, having too many superstars on the field can actually hurt overall team performance. If, as indicated earlier, much of today’s work is precisely about coordination and working with others effectively, this focus on top talent may do a disservice to the overall organization and its performance.

Over a decade ago, Charles A. O’Reilly and Jeffrey Pfeffer cautioned about the pitfalls of seeking to employ only extraordinary employees, but for different reasons. If every business were to follow this strategy, the scholars argued, we would all be headed to an escalating “war for talent.” Furthermore, there’s hidden value in ordinary people; in the right environment, most people can thrive and contribute significantly to their organization’s performance and growth. A smarter strategy, argued O’Reilly and Pfeffer, would be to focus on improving work organizations so that regular people, people like you or me, can perform at a high level. This research, summarized in their book Hidden Value, offers examples of organizations that have achieved extraordinary levels of success “with people who really aren’t that much different or smarter than those working in the competition.”

While research has strengthened our knowledge of how organizational performance increases and as firms increasingly seek out employees who work effectively with peers, collaborative behaviors aren’t necessarily measured or monitored, least of all rewarded, in the modern workplace. In fact, a recent study by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant suggests that, while collaborators are in high demand, they feel overwhelmed and overloaded and their good deeds often go unnoticed.

Cross, Rebele and Grant conducted research across more than 300 organizations and found that those “seen as the best sources of information and in highest demand as collaborators in their companies—have the lowest engagement and career satisfaction scores.” In addition, the distribution of collaborative behavior can be extremely unbalanced: “In most cases, 20 percent to 35 percent of value-added collaborations come from only 3 percent to 5 percent of employees.” Also, “roughly 20 percent of organizational ‘stars’ don’t help; they hit their numbers (and earn kudos for it) but they don’t amplify the successes of their colleagues.”

Paradoxically, as skilled collaborators are drawn into more and more projects and the volume and diversity of work they do with others increases, their contributions become less and less noticed. “When we use network analysis to identify the strongest collaborators in organizations,” the researchers explain, “leaders are typically surprised by at least half the names on the list.”

The solution? We must learn to identify and reward employees who both perform well individually and also contribute to the success of their peers. As Cross, Rebele and Grant put it: “effective sharing of informational, social, and personal resources should also be a prerequisite for positive reviews, promotions and pay raises.” The researchers think that, just as we have human resources officers, in the future we will have “collaboration officers,” which would signal the importance of thoughtfully managing teamwork. But we are not there yet. 


What’s now happening in schools and with education practitioners is not very far distant from the picture described above. For the past two decades, teachers and their individual effectiveness have been the primary focus of education reform in the United States. Most measures of teacher effectiveness, however, ignore the social and organizational factors that are foundational to teaching quality. There is solid evidence that strong professional environments (e.g., collaborative colleagues, a culture of trust) increase teacher effectiveness (Kraft and Papay, essay 1 in this volume), and that teachers’ professional interactions with colleagues (Leana and Pil, essay 2 in this volume) as well as teacher collaboration (Ronfeldt, essay 3 in this volume) produce student test-score gains. While these social aspects of teaching are starting to receive some attention as a vehicle for teacher and student growth, there is still much to learn about how to understand, incentivize, support, and reward the cooperative practices and norms that would sustain reforms based on these tenets.

Outside the United States, in high performing systems, such as British Columbia, Shanghai and Singapore, the focus is on creating structures and processes that help teachers (collaboratively and continuously) learn about how students learn. We don’t have to copy these models exactly, but it would make sense to look closely at these systems which already identify and reward practitioners and leaders who (as described above) perform well individually but also contribute to the success of their peers – thus, to the improvement of the entire system.

A mentor teacher in Shanghai, for instance, is held accountable for how well he or she mentors new teachers, the teaching practices of the new teacher and the performance of the new teachers’ students. If these indicators do not improve, the mentor will miss out on promotion. (Beyond PD, p. 17)

Context, relationships, and collaboration aren’t magic but, as the research by the scholars in this volume shows, these factors are at least as important as individual (e.g., teacher quality) and technical (e.g., standards) aspects of education reform. It is for this reason that we need to lift our gaze above a model focused on the qualities of individuals, and embrace one that focuses on the value that can be created among them – at the school and the system levels.