Every working group has its own identity, needs and fluid traits.
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In groups, as in organisations, the fit between the individual and the larger system is a central human resource concern. The structural frame emphasises the importance of formal roles, traditionally defined by a title (one’s position in the hierarchy) or a formal job description.
In groups and teams, individual roles are often much more informal and implicit on both task and personal dimensions. The right set of task roles helps get work done and makes optimal use of each member’s resources. But without a corresponding set of informal roles, individuals feel frustrated and dissatisfied, which may foster unproductive or disruptive behaviours.
Parker (2008)1 conceptualizes four different informal roles that group members can take in order to contribute to group success:
1. Contributors: task-oriented, structural-frame individuals who help a group develop plans and tactics for moving ahead on the task at hand.
2. Collaborators: big picture, more symbolic types who help a group clarify long-term directions.
3. Communicators: process-oriented, human resource–frame individuals who serve as facilitators and consensus builders.
4. Challengers: political-frame individuals who ask tough questions and push the group to take risks and achieve higher standards.
As Parker’s model suggests, every work group has a range of roles that need to be filled. The roles are often fluid, evolving over time as the group moves through phases of its work.
Groups do better when task roles align with characteristics of individuals, who bring different interests (some love research but hate writing), skills (some are better at writing, others are better presenters), and varying degrees of enthusiasm (some may be highly committed to the project, while others drag their feet). It is risky, for example, to assign the writing of a final report to a poor writer or to put the most nervous member on stage in front of a demanding audience.
Anyone who joins a group hopes to find a comfortable and satisfying personal role. Imagine a three-person task force. One member, Karen, is happiest when she feels influential and visible. Bob prefers to be quiet and inconspicuous. Teresa finds it hard to participate unless she feels liked and valued.
In the early going in any new group, members send implicit signals about roles they prefer, usually without realising they are doing it. In their first group meeting, Karen jumps in, takes the initiative, and pushes for her ideas. Teresa smiles, compliments other people, asks questions, and says she hopes everyone will get along. Bob mostly just watches.
If the three individuals’ preferred roles dovetail, things may go well. Karen is happy to have Bob as a listener, and Bob is pleased that Karen lets him be inconspicuous. Teresa is content if she feels that Karen and Bob like her. Now suppose that Tony, who likes to be in charge, joins the group. Karen and Tony may collide—two alphas who want the same role.
The prognosis looks bleaker. But suppose that another member, Susan, signs on. Susan’s mission in life is to help other people get along. If Susan can help Karen feel visible, Teresa feel loved, and Tony feel powerful while Bob is left alone, everyone will be happy—and the group should be productive.
Some groups are blessed with a rich set of resources and highly compatible individuals, but many are less fortunate. They have a limited supply of talent, skill, and motivation. They have areas of both compatibility and potential conflict.
The challenge is to capitalise on their assets while minimising liabilities. Unfortunately, many groups fail to identify or discuss the hurdles they face. Avoidance often backfires. Neglected challenges come back to haunt team performance, often at the worst possible moment, when a deadline looms and everyone feels the heat.
It usually works better to deal with issues early on. A major consulting firm produced a dramatic improvement in effectiveness and morale by conducting a team-building process when new “engagement teams” formed to work on client projects.
Members discussed the roles they preferred, the resources each individual brought and thoughts about how the group might operate. Initially, many skeptics viewed the team building as a waste of time with doubtful benefits. But the investment in group process at the front end more than paid for itself in effectiveness down the road.
1. Parker, G. 2008. Team Players and Teamwork: New Strategies for Developing Successful Collaboration. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass