Employee communications

What does your team-role color reveal?


Do you know what’s the natural team role of your closest colleagues? Your boss? Your own? And yet you know that at meetings, one never speaks up, another never shuts up, and a third never shows up, or arrives late and casually asks ‘Did I miss anything?’ Your colleagues’ behavior reveals clues to their secret motivations and worries, and provides tools to share tasks for better results.

Theories of team roles often express styles in colors, and knowing your own ‘true color’ is the key to getting results with others. Regardless of education and experience, some tasks will always fall in your talent area while others don’t. Familiarity with team-work styles helps you set realistic expectations and tells you which colleague has the talent set that you desperately need.

You know the story: your HR manager speaks first and longest. Your quality manager seldom speaks. The GM (formerly sales) keeps stressing targets while your finance emphasizes details. You may shuffle the titles, but every team includes such fundamental types. You often wish you could work with like-minded people, but you’d be wrong to do so: studies prove that teams thrive on diversity, and can only succeed if they include a few basic natural team-role types.

Leaders use various systems of collaborative roles that fit people with different characters. My favorite is by brain scientist and entrepreneur Helen Fisher, because it relies on empirical research and her four types are simpler than tools such as the 8-type Belbin system. An excellent recent HBR article  by Suzanne M. Johnson Vickberg and Kim Christfort (both are Deloitte team work specialists) explains in great detail the working of Fisher’s model. A brief activity to identify a management team’s Pioneers (focusing on opportunities), Drivers (challenge), Integrators (relationships) and Guardians (structure) will usually triggers ‘aha’ moments that lead to lasting improvement in cooperation.

The four types of Helen Fisher are simpler than Belbin and based on empirical research. Click To Tweet

Awareness: What’s your color?

People are bored to tears by mantras like ‘great teamwork comes from diversity’, yet they are upset when a colleague’s approach is radically different from their own. It’s easy to see others as unprofessional (‘Why can’t he be flexible?’) lazy or stupid (‘Why can’t he follow the rules?’). And yet, such conflict enables people to show their true colors, and realize that each so-called weakness such as ‘rigid’, ‘unpredictable’, ‘hesitant’ or ‘pushy’ is in fact the flip-side of a key talent that boosts results.

For instance, which team hasn’t experienced the choice between internal competition (‘Let the best idea win’) and inclusion (‘Every idea is valuable’)? In Fisher’s team-role system, the ‘red’ of competitive Drivers and ‘green’ of inclusive Integrators are equally essential. Without the complementing roles (notice how the two colors correspond!) mood could improve but results would suffer, as I witnessed with many ‘boys-club’ or ‘safe-space’ type teams over the years.

Skills: From compliance to collaboration

Most people face the challenges of forming and leading teams after some experience in specialist or manager positions, where compliance and conformity enhance performance. The mindset-shift to observing each team member’s individual style often feels radical. But people’s reactions and decisions vary even if they receive identical tasks, information and resources, which is something that both team-workers and team-leaders need to know and harness.

Even the meaning of ‘teamwork’ is different for people with different ‘colors’. Passionate Pioneers and supportive Integrators often resent that Drivers and Guardians prefer to do much of the work alone. Understanding team roles helps accept that ‘red’ Drivers are motivated by standing out and winning where others fail, and ‘blue’ Guardians need mental space to do undisturbed abstract thinking. Yes, some of the most valuable teamwork is done alone.

Habits: Don’t let the colors fade

The double villains in any story of positive change are time and pressure. Millions of participants at CEO keynote speeches, strategy sessions and corporate workshops have epiphanies, make notes, verbalize their commitment, then go back to work and reach for the habitual tools they have always used. Knowing your ‘true color’ at teamwork allows you to anticipate that, and decide specific action tailored to your personal style.

A brilliant method for that is setting “cues” described by behavioral scientist Charles Duhigg. A cue is an event that normally triggers the response you want to change. Noticing the cue, you can activate the new habit. In teams, a typical cue is when several smart people come to opposite conclusions based on the same data — time to reach for your team-color analysis and act accordingly. Another is when your team suddenly enters productive flow — which means that the colors in the room have combined into the right picture!

The cues of Charles Duhigg are a brilliant way to activate new habits. Click To Tweet
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