I read an interesting article recently by Gervase R. Bushe, called Managers Want Tribes Not Teams: an Invitation to Rethink Teambuilding.  Bushe says that people identify with groups that support the positive social value an individual wants to claim for him or herself, and that to a large extent, this depends on having role complementarity between individuals in the group.  If I see myself as being the source of creativity, there must be someone else in the group who is intrigued by me.  If you are the sensible one, I must be the one seeking sensible advice.  If I am the wise old “been there done that” person, you must be the “bowing to experience” person.  And so what often exists on teams described as having personality clashes is really a group of people who don’t like and don’t identify with the roles they have been forced into.  If you spend all your time time teaching them better communication and conflict resolution techniques, you’re missing the larger point.

This might be the best argument for the value of diversity I’ve ever heard.  We talk about how diversity can give a team a competitive edge, but this explains why a team might actually fail without it.  Put a group of like-minded people together, with everyone trying to play the same role, and you have a dysfunctional team on which no one is happy.

I often open a teambuilding session by asking the participants to think back to the best team they’ve ever been on, and then describe to each other what made it great.  So I tried this exercise myself, just to digest this idea of role complementarity a little further. 

Back in the earlier days of my career, I was part of a four-person team that oversaw HR support for a large hotel company.  I often think of it as the most rewarding team experience I’ve ever had.  There was a senior executive, Woody, and three directors each overseeing a different division of the hotel portfolio: myself, Bob and Jeff.  Our roles were truly interdependent, since we each had certain functional specialities that the other two would depend on, so I would say we met the true definition of a team.  And we often defined ourselves by our role complementaries.  Woody was the “been there done that” guy; he’d been in HR three times longer than the rest of us, and we always sought his experience.  Bob was known as the laid-back resort operations guy, and we would go to him when we wanted to know how a hotel general manager was going to react to a new program or policy.  Jeff was the creative guy, and we were in awe of his out-of-the-box ideas.  And I was the “fun in the workplace” person, always trying to come up with the latest and greatest training program to turn dull, routine jobs into something more engaging.

I don’t have to think very hard about whether these “complementary co-constructions of reality”, as  Bushe would call them, were real at the time or something I’ve re-ordered in my mind since.  On the wall of my office, I have a framed photo of the four of us.  Woody is dressed as a priest, looking heavenward, and the three of us are clustered at his feet; Bob in a hammock wearing a Hawaiian shirt and drinking a beer; Jeff dressed as a mad scientist and pointing a “UFO finder” at the sky; and me sitting in front of a toy box surrounded by toys.

It’s also interesting to think back on some of the teambuilding sessions I’ve done in which the problem was initially labeled as a personality conflict.  One in particular comes to mind–I held a series of sessions with a hotel staff on which the veteran chief engineer and the brand new front desk manager couldn’t get along.  We worked on their “crucial conversations” skills and saw some improvement.  But perhaps the root of the problem was that the chief engineer expected the front desk manager to seek his historical perspective, and the front desk manager expected the chief engineer to be open to his “new eyes” perspective, and neither felt good about the roles that were expected of them. 

The next time I hear the words “personality conflict,” I’ll start with some different questions.   How does each person see their role on the team?  And what do they need from a teammate to validate that role?

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