C. Mae Waugh
Aspiring Leadership Academy
Framingham Public Schools
Surviving a Survival Situation
If my plane had crashed in the desert on a day that would reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit, even with the 15 salvageable items, I would not have survived alone. Before this simulation, I did not know the value of a raincoat in the desert, the multiple purposes of a compact mirror, and that the bottle of salt tablets was actually the red herring. On my own, I was 65 points off from the expert’s recommendations. Therefore, if I am ever on a plane that crashes, I would want Lori, Cynthia, Christine, Juliana, and Gabriella there with me! Then, they would be able to convince me to not walk in the desert through the night to the mining camp 65 miles away, and I could convince them that a parachute is actually very valuable once you are already on the ground. Our group was a model of synergistic problem-solving, proving that working together gave us a 14% better chance of surviving. Unfortunately, with a team score of a 56 variance, we would have all still perished, albeit together.
Besides learning that I need to carry my compact mirror with me everywhere, the simulation proved the proverb, “Two heads are better than one.” Even with no emergency survival experts in our group, the opportunity to discuss, debate and collaborate greatly increased our chance for survival in the simulation, and stands as a lesson for our survival as leaders. All of the six groups successfully achieved “synergy,” which occurs when the “interactive efforts of two or more people have a greater impact than the sum of their independent efforts.”
I had heard the term synergy before, but had never seen it modeled in such a poignant way. It is a process through which the dynamics that individuals bring to the group help build constructive consensus and is a model of collaboration. The back of the participant’s booklet provides a diagram of what constitutes effective solutions. In order for a group to have synergy, participants must demonstrate four items: 1. Humanistic-Encouraging, 2. Affiliative, 11. Achievement, and 12. Self-Actualizing. In our group, not one single leader arose, but instead we each gave the other members an opportunity to speak and defend their perspectives. The healthy back-and-forth allowed us to convince each other in a respectful way and revise our original responses. This met item #1, “Members are constructive, sensitive, and supportive of one another.” And despite that we were withering in the desert, we “remained friendly, cooperative and relaxed,” item #2.
The only problem is that no matter how successful a simulation is, it is still a simulation. And while we can mimic synergy in an afternoon reproduction of a plane crash, how do we transfer these skills into the school? One reason we were so open to collaboration in the desert, was that none of our group members knew anything about emergency survival. We had a few ideas, like the parachute could be used as a visual target and give us a shady respite from the sun, but overall we were stakeholders in survival in general, not married to the specific items on the list. However in staff meetings, each participant lobbies for their constituents--their students or staff, for whom they are very emotionally and professionally invested. Where everyone is an expert there is enthusiasm and concern, but it is more difficult to maintain the cooperative atmosphere. In our staff meetings and grade-level meetings a “norm” that is always included is “assume positive intent,” but often destructive styles of Competitive, Power and Oppositional arise. Therefore it is not surprising when the outcome is an ineffective situation.
The feat of a leader is to channel all of this energy into something productive. In order to create an effective solution, participants must produce a balance between quality and acceptance that incorporates rational skills and processes, task skills knowledge resources and interpersonal skills and processes. For synergy to occur, not only does each group member need proficiency in thinking through problems to solutions, he or she also needs to be able to do so while listening and supporting the perspectives of others to reach a consensus.
What I find missing in this Synergistic Problem-Solving Model and in many grade-level and staff meetings gone awry is trust. While perhaps implied in the model diagram, without a baseline of trust among a group, it is nearly impossible to achieve an effective solution. Professionals must trust that their counterparts are all striving for consensus and supportive. With trust, participants are willing to compromise and cooperate. As an aspiring leader, I hope to broaden my strategies for building and fostering trust among a staff, through experiences such as this simulation.