I was onboarding a new staff member who asked me what I had in mind for team building. Little did I know that my answer to this question would come back to haunt me not long afterwards.
As the manager of a small team that had been formed to support an international network of organizations in the midst of rapid growth, team building was the last thing on my mind. From my perspective, taking time out of our busy schedules for a separate team-building session wasn’t necessary when we were working well together. I explained to the new team member that we had been doing team building all along. Key elements of team building – such as having a common goal, open communication, trust, and collaborative work processes – had been put in place as we worked together.
Not long after this conversation, it was apparent something important had been overlooked.
Looking back now, I see that this stumbling block originated from my perception of the team as comprising the people I worked most closely with. In doing so, I ended up having a conflict with another member of my organization who viewed the composition of this team differently and was angry and upset at having been left out.
I was getting ready for a meeting with my colleagues, including the person I was having a conflict with, when it occurred to me that a cause of this conflict was a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities. Then I remembered a team-building process that seemed like a good fit for this situation. When we met, I proposed doing a role clarification exercise. I briefly explained what it is, how it works, and why I thought it would be helpful; fortunately, there was unanimous agreement to try it out.
In Team Building: Proven Strategies for Improving Team Performance, the authors describe a Role Clarification Exercise for addressing conflict or confusion within teams. This process enables team members to come away with more clarity about their own and each other’s jobs as well as better understand what is expected from each person in their working relationships.
Generally, the Role Clarification Exercise consists of these five steps:
- Each team member takes a turn. The person whose turn it is (focal person) describes their role as they see it.
- Everyone else states their understanding of the focal person’s role and can ask clarification questions.
- As a group, address differences in expectations and reach an agreement about the nature of the focal person’s role.
- The focal person identifies what they need from the other team members to accomplish their role.
- Other team members say what they need in return or additional help they may need from the focal person.
When the colleague I had a conflict with became the focal person, it was then that I heard this person’s side of the situation. Having a clearly defined process to follow as well as a mutual agreement early on to communicate openly and honestly made it easier for me to really listen to a message that I may not have been ready to hear before.
Building upon a shared understanding of our roles and our expectations, we made agreements, with the participation of everyone in the room, about how we would work together from then on. For example, for senior staff who were frequently in meetings, we agreed to give as much notice as possible of an upcoming deadline. We also agreed to copy their assistants so that they could schedule time in senior staff members’ calendars to review and provide feedback in a timely manner. Another helpful agreement was checking in with the person who hadn’t previously been treated as a member of the team at the beginning, middle, and end of the planning process for network events and projects to loop this person in on our plans and receive feedback in a timely manner.
Some unexpected benefits of this exercise were that it challenged assumptions we had about each other, everyone’s participation led to creative ideas for how we could work better together, and it helped address other problems that were beginning to emerge, like having to chase senior staff members for feedback on time sensitive matters.
Key lessons learned in using the Role Clarification Exercise include:
- For virtual meetings, post a description of the process and the steps in the chat that participants can refer to throughout the session.
- Start with agreements (or ground rules) about participation in this exercise, such as focus on one issue at a time, communicate openly and honestly in the spirit of improving the team, and provide the space for everyone to weigh in on topics discussed.
- Strong facilitation is important to keep the overall process on track. Closely related to this is being clear about where the team is (i.e., which step we’re on) in the process.
- Check for explicit approval from everyone involved in a decision as part of making agreements for working together.
- Document agreements that are made and share this information, along with the notes from the session, with participants to refer to afterwards.
My biggest takeaway from this experience is a reminder that team building is not only beneficial for addressing problems when they arise, but also for pro-actively resolving issues that have the potential to derail teamwork.
Kimberley Jutze is a social activist and founder of Shifting Patterns Consulting, a Certified B Corporation that builds strong collaborative teams and networks. She partners with changemakers to solve complex problems involving social justice and climate change by helping them to develop the relationships, strategies, and organizational structures and processes that are essential for working better together. You can follow her on Twitter at @ShiftPatConsult and LinkedIn.