I have been working with a client who has recently merged four distinct teams into a single unit. This new unit is under new leadership, and as is often the case with change, there has been resistance to both the new structure and leadership. From my initial assessments with the team members, there are several recurring complaints – the new leader is not the right person for the job, the leader is not managing the group in the best way possible, the original teams should have never been merged because there is no synergy, and the new team lacks a cohesive structure. However, the number one complaint I am hearing from the group is that no one is sure of their role on the new team. From what I have observed, this issue is the one unforgivable sin. The lack of certainty concerning members’ roles is a source of deep anxiety which leads to unease concerning the members’ status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness (see the post Using the SCARF Model to Navigate Psychological Landmines of Negotiation for a more detailed treatment). My sense with this group is that when the team’s role concerns are addresses, they will have a solid foundation to build upon.
Right now almost all of the group’s members have expressed confusion and concern regarding the following questions:
Team Role: At the highest level members are interested in understanding the role of the team within its broader context. Common questions at this level are – What are we as a team supposed to be doing? What is the role of our team within our department and within the broader organization? What are the short-term and long-term goals of the team?
Group Role: Members and managers for the four pre-existing teams are asking – What is my group supposed to be doing? What is the role of our group within our team, department, and within the broader organization? What should my group try to accomplish this year? What should we accomplish in the next three years?
Individual Role: The questions concerning individuals’ roles are the greatest source of anxiety. Common questions at this level are – What am I supposed to be doing? How is my role going to change? What additional responsibilities will I have in the new team? How do I demonstrate value to the group/team/organization? What are my individual goals for this year?
The stress that is caused by not knowing the answers to these questions appears to intensify the longer they remain unanswered.
In Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, authors Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro note that the roles we play within differing contexts represent a core emotional concern that is driven by our sense of meaning and purpose in the role we assume. Shapiro summarizes this concern through the question, “Are the many roles we play meaningless, or are they personally fulfilling?”  The authors note that fulfilling roles have three attributes: 1) They have a clear purpose, 2) They have a personal meaning, and 3) They are not based on a pretense. 
So what does this mean for my client? First and foremost, it indicates that the lingering questions causing so much doubt must be addressed in a manner that to the extent possible meets the three criteria stated above. But that is easier said than done. How should we work through the process of having those questions answered? An outline of the approach I have designed for the group is below.
Addressing the Core Concern of Role
(1) Acknowledge the Situation: The first step is acknowledging reality as it exists. Openly recognizing that allowing the team’s concerns to linger has had a negative impact on the team and committing to actively working towards clarity will help assuage some of the anxiety that has grown within the team. An essential part of the expression of commitment to resolving the issue is to share a plan for accomplishing this goal. This action will give added weight to the commitment.
(2) Seek the Input of the Team’s Sponsor: The second step is to seek guidance from the team’s sponsor (the individual(s) that decided on the consolidation) as to the new team’s initial and ongoing for mandate. What does the sponsor see as the team’s goals, their organic limitation of scope, and what opportunities could the new team capitalize on?
(3) Seek Input from Team Members: The third step is asking team members about how they believe they best fit into the new team based on the sponsor’s input. What was the previous set of responsibilities? How do they think that will change within the new team? What would like to contribute? What do they want to avoid? What are their strengths? The key in this step is to understand each team member’s interests as related to their role.
(4) Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS): A work breakdown structure (WBS) is a tool used by project managers to document a project’s tasks and their relationship to one another. The process for creating a WBS involves identifying major project tasks, the subtasks of the major tasks, and subtasks of the subtasks. So what does this have to do with our dilemma of role definition? Just as this tool can be used for determining the tasks needed to complete a project, it can also be used to identify the tasks involved in a team’s regular operations. Facilitating the team through identifying the breakdown of their operational tasks consists of the following:
- Identify the high level tasks the group needs to accomplish. For example, recruiting, marketing, program management, budgeting, etc. would be high level tasks.
- Identify the subtasks (level 1) of the high level tasks and the subtasks of subtasks (level 2). This should have the work to be accomplished broken down to a level that cannot be further subdivided.
- Identify the recurrence of the task. How often will it need to be completed?
- Identify the group and individual task ownership for second level subtasks. Some tasks may not have an owner and that is okay. Filling in ownership gaps will be negotiated later.
Once this has been accomplished, the team will have a good idea of the sponsor’s vision for the team, each team member’s perspective of how they fit or would like to fit in the team, and work that needs to be completed. These three sets of information lead to the next step in the process.
(5) Negotiate the Roles: The fifth step in the process is to negotiate the scope of each team member’s role based on the sponsor’s input, the team’s input, and the WBS data. How to go about this process of negotiation depends to a large extent on how much each member’s role is changing. If most of the roles will be fundamentally different than before the consolidation, then this will be a more intensive process that may be assisted through the use of a facilitator. If the roles are not fundamentally changing, but are being modified, then negotiating up through the team’s hierarchy may be best. Here, each team member would negotiate their role with the supervisor who would submit the final role descriptions for approval. Another issue to consider at this stage is how changes to negotiated roles will be handled in the future when team members leave or the team acquires new responsibilities.
(6) Canonize the Goals, Roles, and Agreements: The final step in the process is to document the goals, roles, and agreements that were reached throughout the process. Make sure that the documented information is accessible to team members so they can clarify the group’s goals, the groups task, or their own or others roles in the future.
The importance of clear roles for healthy team functioning cannot be overstated. Role definition creates a clear structure for the team, its groups, and its members that sets a foundation for clear expectations and conflict mitigation. The previously outlined process is one way for teams to more clearly define themselves.
- Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro. Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate. New York: Penguin, 2005.
- Daniel L. Shapiro. “Teaching Students How to Use Emotions as They Negotiate.” Negotiation Journal. January 2006.
- “Summary of Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate.” Transformation Management LLC. Last Accessed June 18, 2013. http://goo.gl/OUoFgl