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Improve Students’ Collaborative Skills with the TREO Model

Most students know how it feels to be on a terrible team. After this class, they will understand why—and what they can do about it.

Educator

Lauren D’Innocenzo, PhD

Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior, Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business

PhD in Management, MS in Sport Management, and BA in Psychology

In the chaotic world of food service, teamwork is a must, and when it breaks down, tempers can flare like a grease fire—all of which makes great fodder for the television show Hell’s Kitchen. Recently, in her Team Development and Leadership class, Lauren D’Innocenzo, PhD, had a student who could relate all too well to this show.

“She waited tables, and she was really frustrated with the waitstaff she had to work with,” says D’Innocenzo. “There was a lot of infighting. They would challenge each other but not be willing to adopt new ways of doing things. There were some pretty toxic combinations.”

Luckily, D’Innocenzo’s course is designed to teach students how to flourish in teams. It’s a skill set that many business professors dismiss as “soft science,” D’Innocenzo allows: “They often throw up the ‘air quotes’ when they say that.” However, the proof is in the pudding—or, in this case, the person serving the pudding.

In fact, D’Innocenzo’s active and interactive learning methodology can be as intensely revealing and impactful as an episode of Hell’s Kitchen—without the tears and tough love.

Sorry, Gordon Ramsay: This kitchen is already under control.

Challenge: A business-industry disinterest in soft skills

Many times in the work world—corporate, culinary, or otherwise—teams are formed with only one thing in mind: each individual’s expertise in a particular area. “I might be great at IT. You might be great at communications,” says D’Innocenzo. “What typically are not considered are the so-called soft skills—the characteristics we need to work effectively with other people.”

Projects often flounder, adds D’Innocenzo, when the team members are unable to fulfill key roles involving leadership, productivity, innovation, outreach, morale building, and timely progress toward the team goals.

D’Innocenzo knew she wanted to show students the impact of clashing and complementary personality types on the effectiveness of teams—and why some teams gel better than others. “I saw that as a gap in organizational behavior teaching,” she notes.

Innovation: Looking inward, backward, and forward

The Six Roles in Strong Teams

In 2015, John Mathieu and his collaborators, applied organizational behavior researchers from the University of Connecticut Management PhD program (otherwise known as the UConn Husky Pack), identified six vital team roles and their definitions within their Team Role Experience and Orientation (TREO) model. These roles are referred to by Mathieu et al as “dimensions.”

  1. Organizer, who structures the team and monitors progress
  2. Doer, who takes on and completes tasks
  3. Challenger, who questions assumptions and debates alternative solutions
  4. Innovator, who is a source of original, creative ideas
  5. Team Builder, who strengthens relationships within the team, provides support, and builds morale
  6. Connector, who forms relationships with others outside the team

 

This framework gives students a way to understand the composition of teams, which many managers fail to consider when putting teams together.

When a project falters, stalls, or fails, it often is because the team responsible for it lacks an effective Organizer, Team Builder, or Challenger—or they have too many Doers and not enough Innovators (or vice versa). Not every team needs to have all six roles represented, D’Innocenzo notes, but it is important to know the predispositions of each member of a team.

As she reflected on her own studies, D’Innocenzo realized that she had been introduced to a helpful theoretical framework while working on her PhD at the University of Connecticut. At the time, her advisor, Dr. John Mathieu, was working with some colleagues on identifying and defining Team Role Experience and Orientation (TREO) dimensions. Simply put, TREO is a way to inventory the skills and predispositions of individuals to help reveal their likelihood of effectively fulfilling specific roles within a team.

The six roles defined under TREO—Organizer, Doer, Challenger, Innovator, Team Builder, and Connector—reflect the diverse strengths that an effective team needs interspersed among its members, separate from and in addition to any areas of technical expertise.

While introducing students to TREO was a good start, D’Innocenzo has strong Innovator tendencies, so she got to work implementing a tool that would allow students to apply TREO to people with whom they are intimately familiar: themselves.

To that end, D’Innocenzo created an online survey based on Mathieu’s research. “This survey allows [students] to see where they fall on the six dimensions of team roles,” says D’Innocenzo.

The survey scores students individually on each of the six dimensions, generating data that D’Innocenzo distributes to each person in the form of a report. A student’s TREO score may reflect both their past experiences (what the student has already done) and their natural inclinations (what the student might prefer to do). “Students can also apply this thinking to other members of their teams to understand how the composition of the team [impacts] the way the team functions,” she notes.

The intent, she stipulates, is not to assign people roles, but rather to help students understand what it takes for a group to get the job done—efficiently, effectively, and positively—despite any plot twists they may encounter.

Context

“My hope [for this class] is that students will understand themselves a bit more—how they tend to interact with others. I hope they can improve their interpersonal skills but also understand some of the enabling forces and constraints on team functioning, things like leadership and organizational structure, which might either help teams flourish or inhibit them.”

— Lauren D’Innocenzo, PhD

Course: ORGB 400 Team Development and Leadership
Frequency: Two 110-minute class meetings per week for 10 weeks
Class size: 20
Course description: This course examines how team structures, member characteristics, and interpersonal processes influence the effectiveness of work teams, and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships within and across team boundaries. This course also examines forms and functions of team leadership to provide students with a set of general principles to help them lead teams in a range of situations. This course uses an experiential learning format; students will engage in a series of team activities, each of which will be followed by a debriefing.

ORGB 400 Team Development and Leadership

See materials

Lesson: The TREO survey and application

D’Innocenzo created the first Team Development and Leadership class for the winter term of 2015. In teaching this course, she starts talking about the composition of teams in the second week of class, and that is when she introduces TREO and the revelatory survey.

For other educators seeking to engage students with material in a more personal way, she says that creating such a survey—grounded in research-based theory—can be both effective and illuminating. Here are some strategies she suggests employing when utilizing such a survey in a classroom setting.

Honor privacy and choose words carefully

Never share an individual’s assessment scores with anyone else or call a student out for a “high” or a “low” score, advises D’Innocenzo. She also is careful with the language she uses to describe the tested tendencies. “I stay away from the word weakness,” she explains.

D’Innocenzo adds that students are well aware that this is a survey, not a quiz, but she still makes sure to clarify that their TREO scores will have no grade implications.

Frame the results as an opportunity

D’Innocenzo finds that most students feel their TREO scores are fairly accurate reflections of the way they see themselves. However, she reinforces that a “low” score on a particular dimension does not mean that the individual cannot assume that role. It may simply reflect a lack of experience in that area. Given that, the student may feel incentivized to seek opportunities to take on that role as a developmental opportunity.

“We don’t always get to choose who we work with, in organizations or on teams,” she explains. “But if I’m on a team and I recognize that no one is effectively ‘challenging,’ even if that’s not my inclination, I might choose to step up and take on that role for the good of the project.”

Explain the team applications of TREO

TREO scoring can be used two ways. First, it can be applied retrospectively to evaluate an existing team. “For example, a creative team that is having trouble coming up with ideas may look at the predispositions of its members and find out the team has no one who scores high in Innovation,” D’Innocenzo suggests.

Second, the survey results can be used prospectively when assembling a new team to help ensure that such gaps will not exist. This can also help instill confidence within the team members and project sponsor. For example, if success will require someone to question long-held assumptions, the members will know that the people with Challenger inclinations will be ready to step up.

Provide practical examples

On the midterm examination, D’Innocenzo provides students with reality-based consulting scenarios highlighting a variety of teamwork issues. “I have students diagnose a situation and give recommendations to make it better,” she explains. “They have to propose how they would reorganize a team to solve specific problems, based on their TREO assessments.”

To prepare for this test, she doles out similar case studies in the weeks leading up to the exam. “They get the material in class, early on and at intervals over the semester, and they have to apply it on the midterm,” says D’Innocenzo.

D’Innocenzo notes that it is her preference to provide students with an opportunity to apply concepts on their own, as soon as possible, rather than spoon-feeding them scenarios and solutions throughout the semester. Her class has responded positively to this approach.

Says one student, “I liked how the class was laid out—activity first, lesson second. We attempted to complete the tasks based on our own knowledge, understandings of the reading material, and heavily relied-on instincts. After that, we debriefed [to discuss] how successful we were or we weren’t. It was extremely interesting to learn about team culture in real-life companies.”

Draw on real-life experience

A term project for this class is a paper in which each student writes about their past experience on a team that had memorable issues. “About 75% of my students use the TREO concept to interpret their experience, even though I don’t require them to,” D’Innocenzo says.

The student who was working in a “toxic” kitchen, for example, chose to write her paper using TREO, but she was able to apply the concepts to an ongoing and very recent situation.

Some students will take what they learned and apply it immediately in group projects they are doing in other classes, D’Innocenzo says. “Students have said they are involved in teams in connection with their co-op programs and have been able to use what they learned in class,” she adds. “Some former students have emailed to say they are using these techniques in the workplace as well. So students get an immediate impact, but I am seeing them take it into their professional lives as well.”

Outcomes

Throughout the course of the semester, as D’Innocenzo’s class explored team roles in corporate scenarios, her student with the dysfunctional team of restaurant coworkers applied the principles to her real life.

“She emailed me at the end of the class and told me she’d been able to understand individuals’ behavior using the terminology we discussed,” says the professor. “And she was able to figure out what she could do to make the situation better. That was a fairly original application of the material.”

Though D’Innocenzo would be too modest to say so, this student’s success was only possible because of her professor’s original “original application” of the material, which went far beyond teaching terminology.

Defense

Critics of TREO have raised the possibility that assigning people roles in organizations based on their profiles could lead to stereotyping that might hold individuals back in their career development. The jury is still out on this possibility, D’Innocenzo allows. For this reason, she does not recommend using TREO scoring to slot people into specific organizational roles but rather to gauge their strengths, predilections, and inclinations.

Student feedback

Reviews of D’Innocenzo and her methods have been overwhelmingly positive. Some sample comments from course evaluations:

“Great professor. Loved the team activities and how they tied into the lectures. We were able to apply our skills first, then debrief to understand why we made the choices we made and what are some common tendencies. This style of teaching was very effective.”

“This course was super relevant and informative. The mixture of lectures and in-class team activities allowed students to learn theoretical concepts, and then actually experience their application firsthand. I would definitely recommend the class, and Professor D’Innocenzo, to my peers!”

“The class was crucial for [seniors] graduating who are leaving and going into professional life. The class was a real deal to stay … competitive in the very competitive jobs market.”

“Dr. D’Innocenzo is one of the most fair instructors I have EVER had. This speaks highly of her dedication to education. I really appreciated the personal evaluation she sent out after our midterm. She was genuinely concerned to know what we thought of the midterm. She truly wanted to know if she was properly disseminating the information we needed for optimum success. I especially like how Dr. D’Innocenzo personally tailors examples for students. When I posed a question to Dr. D’Innocenzo, she made sure to relate it back to my field of interest (food and beverage) so as to get me to fully understand the material. I enjoyed Dr. D’Innocenzo’s class so much that I ended up taking Organizational Management as a minor—this speaks to how impactful of a teacher she really is.”

“I learned more than I expected to in this class. The debriefing session after each team activity was really helpful in evaluating my performance during the activity. Using the knowledge I learned in class regarding team success and performance, I feel that I can work more effectively in a team setting. Thank you for coming up with this course.”

“LOVED THIS CLASS! Dr. D. was encouraging and engaging. She was very supportive of people’s opinions and was ready to tie in personal experiences relevantly and effectively to the course lessons. Dr. D. is an EXPERT on this subject and you could really tell that she cared. She was thorough and insightful.… THIS COURSE SHOULD BE REQUIRED!!”

“I strongly feel as if this course should be turned into a mandatory requirement for all freshmen students … because of the lessons that I am taking away from this course and how important they are and will be to me for the rest of my life. Whether just in relation to my interaction with other individuals or with relation to my future professional career, the concepts learned during the Teams class will serve a universal purpose for me and will translate to be a stepping stone on any path that I follow. My only regret is not taking this course much earlier during my college career, as these lessons would have highly benefited me during my co-op experience. Even though I could not utilize this class to gain an advantage during my co-op, other students should not miss out on this opportunity.”

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