Rebecca Bromels's third post reflects on the importance of understanding individual behaviors in team dynamics.
For our third New Pathways for the Arts workshop in Cincinnati, we explored what and who makes a good innovation team. Coming from a collaborative background in theater, I’ve had my share of great – and not-so-great – team experiences. I was curious to see what insights on team behavior the New Pathways workshop might provide.
Identifying the good and bad of collective team behaviors
We started the workshop by generating a list of behaviors we considered bad or good for teams. Some of the bad behaviors that I think are prevalent in the arts include negativity, territorial defensiveness, emotional blindness, stalling, and acceptance of awful status quo.
I saw a lot of heads nodding on the last one. Often, in an arts organization’s early days, the passion for the work overrides any “minor” inconveniences like cramped quarters, ancient computers, miniscule budgets, toxic mold, or murderous work schedules. Yet, as the organization grows and new recruits begin to question the status quo, the old guard often responds poorly, saying, “It’s always been this way. I’ve suffered in this situation for the art and if you care enough about the art, you will too.” Sadly, I’ve been on both sides of that conversation, and I believe that this type of martyrdom is a major barrier to innovation in the arts.
I believe that arts organizations also naturally create some behaviors and attitudes that make for great teams: respect for diverse viewpoints, open-mindedness, recognition of individual gifts, and shared passion and purpose. I find shared passion to be a critical motivator. For a few years at my old theater company, the technical staff referred to itself as a pirate crew. To me, their pirate status said, “We love the life we’ve chosen for ourselves, unconventional though it may be. And everyone does their job or this ship sinks.”
However easy it may be to identify great or terrible collective team behaviors, it is still important to consider the working styles of individual team members, which play a significant role in adopting effective and supportive team habits.
Defining specific team roles
EmcArts invited me to take a quick test a few weeks before the workshop that helps individuals discover the roles that they are naturally inclined to play when working as part of a team. A tool developed by Meredith Belbin, the test distinguishes team roles by nine different types of behaviors, not personalities. My results of the test felt very intuitive and confirmed things I knew to be true about myself. I like generating ideas, identifying resources, and structuring plans. I hate painstaking detail work and place enormous value on the patient souls who can do it with enthusiasm. This placed me in the roles of Resource Investigator, Plant, Shaper, and Specialist.
I entered the third workshop armed with self-awareness about my preferred team role behaviors, which allowed me to consider the big picture of complementary or clashing work styles once we set out to accomplish tasks as a group.
Exercising team role dynamics
During the workshop, we observed Belbin’s behaviors in action during a task where we divided up into random groups and were instructed to build a tower out of poster board, straws, and other materials. The winning tower would be selected based on two criteria: height and beauty.
As we got started, I decided to hang back and see if I could determine what my teammates’ natural roles were before deciding how I would contribute. Right away, I saw that one member of our group was a visual artist who had a strong idea for the artistic aspect of the tower. “Aha!” I thought, “A Specialist/Plant!” My other two teammates engaged the engineering problem head-on, acting as Plant (idea generator), Shaper (provocateur), and Monitor (discerning judge) as they discussed how to use the materials to create something stable, if not particularly tall.
Seeing that we weren’t lacking for ideas, I decided to play coordinator and team worker (roles for which I had a middling score on the Belbin test), cheerfully participating in the construction process as led by another teammate. At the end, it struck me that this was definitely not my normal approach to working with others, but that I had fun. Our tower wasn’t the tallest, but was deemed the winner for our combination of height, stability, and whimsical design.
Having been acquainted with the Belbin tool, its value for organizations is obvious to me: understanding what roles different team members prefer to play can inform how to build successful and balanced teams. By being self-aware of preferred behaviors and mindful of others’ work styles, team members can be effective and supportive contributors.
Practicing advocacy and inquiry
In another exercise where we talked about two different methods of engagement with others – advocacy and inquiry – I again reconsidered my own behavioral tendencies as a team player.
Advocacy requires staunch support of your own position, while inquiry involves asking questions to determine another’s position. To practice these methods, two people in each organizational team were asked to defend opposite positions on a topic and work to persuade the third member of the group to their point of view.
First, we would use advocacy exclusively to make our point.
I spent my entire high school career on the speech and debate team. It was my sport. Accordingly, I loved that this exercise asked us to speak extemporaneously in defense of a position. All my debate training was brought out as I launched a full-scale attack on our topic and used all the best tactics for scoring easy debate points – rapid-fire delivery, inflammatory language, raising the stakes, framing the issue. The competitor in me had a great time. But I quickly saw how this approach brought out the worst in me and failed to convince my target audience.
For the second round, we continued to defend our points of view, but used inquiry as our tactic. Right off the bat, I felt my blood pressure go down and I found I was paying closer attention to my colleagues’ words and body language. We had a thoughtful and interesting conversation, instead of a battle. Even then, I felt my debate instincts emerging and I was tempted to entrap my opponent. I resolved to monitor myself for the next few weeks to see if I could strike a better balance between these two tactics when I found myself in conflicts.
A newfound awareness allows for my own team role adaptability
This team roles workshop heightened my awareness of what roles I am playing in my organization and in the larger arts community. Many arts administrators enter the field first as artists. As a result, our organizations can be overrun with people who prefer to play the role of “Plant” in Belbin’s model, who feel most comfortable with generating creative ideas and relying on others to help execute them. Certainly, I enjoy operating in this role – it was my second highest score on the test. But a team full of Plants isn’t going to get much done. Understanding what other roles I tend to gravitate towards and recognizing which of these may be lacking on a team, I can make the choice to play another part for the good of the team.
I also made note of Richard Evans’s idea that the best team workers have “strong views, [but they are] lightly held.” It reminded me of when I worked in a theater, and saw the success (from a Director’s point of view) of great actors who arrived at every rehearsal with strong choices for their characters, but were open to direction and change for the good of the whole play. Now that I am more often in the actor’s position – not the team leader, yet still responsible to a shared purpose – I find myself asking, “Am I holding my views lightly? Am I open to direction?”
Being a member of a team can be a great joy – especially when your shared passion and purpose is making art for your community. In the new year, I resolve to enjoy being a team player and work to be a better one.