The team that completes a project will be different from the one that began the project. Each person on the team will have a range of individual experiences, and presumably, they will learn from these experiences. A mismatch of learning styles can result in communication problems. Communication problems act as a filter for what each individual learns by blocking or altering what the learner perceives.
Learning styles reflect an individual’s preference for how they learn. In many cases individuals mirror their own learning style when they share with others. Most, if not all, teams I have been associated with over my career have been comprised of individuals with different learning styles. This means that to effectively communicate and transmit knowledge, each team member must understand the learning styles of their team members (this is another reason why stable teams generally have higher levels of performance).
An example of the impact when team members do not understand each other’s learning style can be seen in a team I recently observed. The team is a relatively new team and is distributed, with most interactions occurring via teleconference. Most team members have not had time to adjust to each other’s learning style; therefore members use their own learning patterns as a default when interacting. For example, one team member follows the logical/Lawyer learning style. When presenting information they build a case – fact by fact – in great detail. No one else on the team leverages this as their primary learning style. The great level of detail and the slow (but relentless) build to the conclusion leads to frustration and disengagement. On the same team, another member is verbal learner/Talker. This person needs learns by hearing, and in many cases, by vocalizing each point. This person presents information in the same manner as they learn, talking it through (with lots of Keynote slides … with no pictures). In both cases because the members are not aware of the learning styles of other team members communication is inefficient (and my observation is that it can be ineffective).
Teams that are centrally located generally recognize learning style mismatches based on visual and empathetic feedback and can self-correct (assuming that team members actually pay attention when they get together). Distributed teams generally need to take a more active approach to learning each other’s preferences. I recommend the following approach which can be used as a team-building exercise or as a retrospective exercise:
- Before the exercise, create a couple of canned scenarios. For example:
- Scenario One: Pass status information about a trouble task, including a plea for help.
- Scenario Two: Build consensus for a design decision.
- Have each team member identify their primary and secondary learning style.
- Share these styles with the team.
- Once all team members have shared their style, have each team member select a method that is not their primary or secondary style and have them convey the information needed in complete each scenario. (Allow 5 minutes for preparation).
The goal of exposing the team to other types of learning styles is to push each person outside their comfort zone. This serves multiple purposes. First, the process helps to build empathy. The process also reinforces the awareness that, on a diverse team, all messages need to be shared in a variety of ways so that multiple learning styles can easily absorb the information. Finally, by learning and becoming sensitive to other learning styles, individual team members will expand their ability to recognize nuances in communications that lay outside their normal learning style. This will ultimately increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the team.