Perhaps one of the most frustrating experiences in anyone’s career is working in a group. Differing personalities can give rise to interpersonal conflict. Differing work styles creates arguments about process. Differing values highlights disagreement about what is truly important and what the groups is working to achieve. Nearly everyone works in a group. Rarely does someone work alone, creating a product or service from beginning to end. Yet few of us have a good handle on effective group work.
Over the last several years, I have studied various approaches to effective work in groups and teams. My favorite of these is an approach from Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith. They have published a handful of journal articles and a book, The Wisdom of Teams.1 I encourage you to look into this approach. It is worthy of a mention here, but it is not the focus of this article.
Recently, I discovered an approach that provides a refreshing and insightful look at working in groups. John Burtis and Paul Turman, in their book Leadership Communication as Citizenship,2 explore the communication skills that members of a group must employ for the group to be successful in its task. Most of the approaches I have studied do not emphasize the role of communication; they tend to focus on the beliefs and attitudes of the individuals and organizing strategies for the group. Burtis and Turman’s focus on communication, though, is not the “pocketable takeaway” I want to share with you.
The takeaway that you can grasp and put to use immediately is how Burtis and Turman break down the various roles within a group. When we think about groups, most of us immediately consider two roles: leaders and followers. Every group does need leaders and followers; a group cannot be all leaders or all followers. However, are leaders and followers all there is to a group? Are there other roles in an effective group? Yes, there are other very important roles.
Burtis and Turman describe five roles. The first two are the familiar leader and follower:
- Leader – offers a vision that addresses a crisis of some form
- Follower – provides support (or withholds support) for the group processes and ideas
This is where most discussions of group roles end. It is not enough though, and much of the conflict we see in groups is because we do not have a proper understanding of the other roles and we do not consciously think about how to integrate them into the work of the group. The other three roles are:
- Doer – takes initiative to act according to the groups needs or wishes
- Guide – focuses the group’s attention on something that needs to be seen, heard, questioned, or tried
- Manager – uses positional authority to marshals resources (finances, physical assets, personnel, etc.)
Now, envision some group you work in. Think about the actual work of the group according to the leader and follower roles. Consider the challenges and difficulties you have faced as a group, both internally and externally. Chances are, as you consider what the group does and how it has addressed various challenges, these two roles do not effectively capture the entire responsibility and action of the group. In your mental analysis, add in the doer, guide, and manager roles. The picture is more complete now. Right? Trying to fulfill the work of five roles from the perspective of two roles isn’t very effective. Perhaps the group is still struggling to get over some hurdle. Might it be because one ore more of the other three roles is not being effectively filled?
All of the responsibility and work of the group is summarized in those five roles. The next challenge is figuring out how to put this to use. I don’t have enough space here to cover that in its entirety. (That’s why you need to get a copy of Burtis and Turman’s book!) However, I will share a couple pointers that will help you put this concept to use in your group right away.
- People within the group will move in and out of various roles. Rarely does an individual fill only a single role.
- Individuals may fill multiple roles at the same time. An example is leader and guide. Depending on the type of communication being delivered, a leader very often acts as a guide at the same time.
- In any given group, all the roles are needed. Analyze your group. Are all the roles being covered in an intentional way? Probably not.
- Finally and perhaps most importantly, the most effective group members know what roles they are best at, sense what the group currently needs, and are aware what roles others in the group are best at. Effective use of this knowledge has the potential to make the group excel at its task and achieve great things in the organization.
Share this article and the list of roles with one of your work groups and engage in a discussion about how the group is or is not intentionally addressing all of the roles. Is the group being fluid and flexible with how the roles are being filled? Does everyone in the group know their best role fit and the best fit of others?
1: Katzenbach, Jon R. and Douglas K. Smith. The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2003.
2: Burtis, John O. and Paul D. Turman. Leadership Communication as Citizenship. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010.