UW scholars propose new model for building culture of community for research teams

UW–Madison’s Brian Burt is the lead author of a new paper that explains how a research team was able to use a series of six, interconnected cultural practices to develop a positive community that bolstered both cohesion and productivity among the scholars.

The paper, “Team Culture of Community: Cultural Practices for Scientific Team Cohesion and Productivity,” was published June 8, 2022 in the journal Small Group Research.

Brian Burt

“A culture of community is necessary for sustaining team cohesion and productivity,” says Burt, an associate professor with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA) and a research scientist with Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB). “While a culture of community facilitates sharing values and goals to guide how individuals engage and work together, it also helps create and maintain an environment in which individuals feel valued and want to engage in the team’s work.”

The paper explains that the six interconnected cultural practices — implemented and supported by the team’s research supervisor and student members — were found to be essential in developing and sustaining a team’s culture of community. Those practices ask that a research team: intentionally includes diverse identities and perspectives; creates space for members to learn from and educate each other; normalizes the act of challenging ideas and not people; encourages generativity through member-to-member mentorship; builds members’ connectivity and trust through engagement; and establishes buy-in toward a common purpose and shared values.

“Establishing a scientific team that fosters a culture of community is not easy nor automatic,” says Burt.

Blayne Stone

In addition to Burt, UW–Madison’s Blayne Stone, a doctoral student with ELPA and a research associate with the Wei LAB, is the second author on this paper. The remaining co-authors are: Taylor Perkins, an academic advisor with Northwestern University Athletics; Alexandra Polk, a community director at the University of San Diego; Carolina Ramirez, a college access educator in Dallas; and Joey Rosado, a student support counselor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Chicago.

This study included 12 focus group interviews with 23 members of an education research team at a major research institution. Drawing on the focus group interviews conducted over four years, the team used an autoethnographic approach to study how a research team developed a positive culture of community that influences its cohesion and productivity.

This work led to the proposal of six interconnected cultural practices that can foster a culture of community called the Team Culture of Community Model (TCCM).

“Positive cultures of community can become contagious if teams and organizations are ready to put in the effort and invest in their personnel and themselves in order to build and maintain community,” says Stone.

The paper highlights how research teams with individuals with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge are essential for facilitating innovation and tackling any range of complex issues. And while a growing body of work offers recommendations for the design and leadership of teams with the aim of creating communities of practice (CoPs), more work needs to be done to figure out how best to bring individuals together and build a community that can be cohesive and productive. In addition, the authors explain, finding ways to share values and guide how individuals work together will help create and maintain an environment in which individuals feel valued and want to engage in the team’s work.

In their conclusion, the authors write: “Creating a culture of community in scientific teams, where individuals learn and feel that they belong, does not occur through happenstance. A team that prioritizes community may make the research experience more enjoyable and productive. If a team is enjoyable but not productive, maximum impact may not be reached. Alternatively, if a team is productive but does not include practices that bring cohesion and joy, members may become resentful, and consider leaving the team, graduate school, and/or the field of study altogether. Incorporating team cultural practices that make members feel valued and that foster learning opportunities can help develop and sustain both team cohesion and productivity.”

Burt notes that exactly how a culture of community influences a team’s cohesion and productivity remains understudied and the aim of this work.

“To further these efforts, we are hopeful that future research on building and maintaining cultures of community can be conducted and expanded,” says Burt.

To learn much more about this important, nuanced topic, check out the full paper on this Small Group Research web page.