I often do a simple but powerful exercise in teambuilding sessions that is designed to bring out teammates’ blind spots about their informal roles on the team, as well as help them align on the topic and leverage their role complementarity.  I give them each a worksheet that asks questions such as:

  • How do you see your role on the team? 
  • How does your role contribute to the mission and vision of the team?
  • How do you think your teammates see your role?

I emphasize that we want to talk primarily about informal, non-functional roles such as “team cheerleader” and “the person who drives projects to completion” and “a challenger”.  After some time to make notes on the worksheets, we do a round robin in which each person reviews his/her worksheet and gets feedback from each teammate.  What comes out is usually no less than amazing to many of the participants.  Blind spots are revealed and misunderstandings exposed.  Very often one’s own perception of his/her role differs from teammate’s perceptions.

Like many exercises worth doing, it’s a high risk, high reward activity, and it takes some skill-building beforehand.  First you have to spend time talking about how important it is to say what you really think, rather than conforming to misleading notions of what is “polite”.  Then you have to spend time developing techniques for saying what you really think and giving feedback in a respectful, non-offensive manner.  It also  helps to do some active listening practice.  Typically, it’s the end of the day before I will use the team roles exercise.

Recently I had a session in which the leader of a team discovered that her team wanted her to play a much different role than she had been playing; in turn, her team learned that she wanted something different from them too.  They needed more direction from her on what final products should look like, and she needed more initiative from them to move forward with things in her absence.  It was a point that wasn’t coming out in their various discussions about projects, processes and tasks; they couldn’t actually see it until they stepped back and had a big picture discussion about roles.  Once we had that discussion, then they were able to go back to some of their disagreements and misunderstandings about processes and tasks in the recent past and see them in a different light.  By the end of the session, the leader looked as though she’d been knocked over by a bowling ball.  She was a little discomfited, yes; but she was also enlightened.

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