Medical Tuesday Blog
Psychology Professor, Susan Wheelan, 1947 to Oct. 26, 2019
Susan Wheelan devoted much of her career to studying groups of people thrown together to work as teams at businesses and other organizations.
A psychology professor at Temple University, she cataloged the many ways teams can grow dysfunctional. She also devised methods to deal with conflicts and make teams more productive.
Her 1999 book. “Creating Effective Teams,” features guidance for people stuck on teams beset by bickering, sulking and finger-pointing.
When groups first form, she wrote, interaction tends to be polite, and members defer to the leader. Then comes a second stage, in which members discover they aren’t on the same page and squabble about goals and procedures.
Dr. Wheelan saw this conflict as necessary to work through differences and establish a climate in which members feel free to express disagreements. Some teams get stuck in this stage, however, partly because members blame one another rather than searching for ways to accommodate differing views.
Patience is a must, she wrote. Typically, groups need at least six months to reach a stage at which they can be highly effective. . .
She was skeptical about such team-building exercises as rock climbing, playing basketball while riding donkeys or “anything that involves sharing feelings you don’t want to share.”
Dr. Wheelan founded a company, GDQ Associates Inc., providing consulting services. Two psychologists in Sweden, Maria Akerlund and Christian Jacobsson, now provide services based on her research through their company, GDQ Associates AB.
Susan Alberta Wheelan was born April 30, 1947, in Providence, R.I. Her mother was a social worker, and her father worked in a post office. As a young adult, she briefly considered becoming a Roman Catholic nun. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Stonehill College in 1969 and went on for a master’s degree at what is now Eastern Connecticut State University and a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin.
At Temple University, she became a full professor and won a Great Teacher Award in 1992.
When teams don’t work, she wrote, members often blame the leader or other members considered troublesome. Those blame games are so common that “it seems as if every group, on every continent, contains an incompetent, evil or mentally unbalanced member,” Dr. Wheelan wrote. “This is simply not the case.”
She added: “Most groups contain people who are trying to do a good job. They may not know how. They may not be socially skilled, but they are trying.” She advised team members to examine factors other than personalities that might be blocking progress.
For those whose views came under attack, she had this advice: Don’t take it personally. Nor should group members expect to reach perfect harmony. A group’s success, she wrote, didn’t depend on members liking one another.
She also favored allowing members of a group to revive discussion of issues that others thought were already resolved. That can help ensure all members understand and accept the same goals, she wrote.
In the mid-1970s, Dr. Wheelan moved into a row house in South Philadelphia. Next door was a 14-year-old girl, Renaya Furtick, whose mother had died and whose father was absent. Renaya was skipping school and experimenting with marijuana. Dr. Wheelan befriended her, persuaded her to resume her studies, and eventually became her mother through adoption. Renaya Furtick Wheelan earned a doctorate in psychological studies at Temple and now helps women in prison prepare for life on the outside.
“She kept telling me, ‘You are worthy and you can do this,’” Dr. Furtick Wheelan said.