Two of my daughters play volleyball. It’s a significantly more complicated version of the game I remember playing in gym class. It still involves six players on each side, but once the ball is served, the players move around the court in choreographed sprints that look fairly chaotic to the untrained eye. I seem to remember standing in my designated spot until it was time for our team to serve the ball and then somebody would shout, “Rotate!” The shouter was often the same helpful person who would push you into the next position when you couldn’t remember whether to move left, right, up or back.
Individuals on work teams also need to rotate. Over time, teams can fall into patterns of behavior that create barriers to productive collaboration. David Kantor, a family systems psychologist and consultant, uses the phrase “structural dynamics” to describe the unseen patterns of interaction that characterize the way teams exchange and process ideas and opinions. Kantor’s original research focused on the structural dynamics at play in family systems. Kantor and his colleague William Lehr detailed their analysis of the structural dynamics underlying interactions among family members in their 1975 book, Inside the Family.
Kantor and Lehr introduced four stances, or parts, to be played by members of a social system that describe categories of action and reaction. The model, which became known as the “Four Player Model,” continues to gain popularity among organizational development consultants who use the tool to describe and analyze patterns of interaction on work teams. The model is especially helpful for understanding patterns of interaction among members of teams that stay together over time, like "top teams," where the team becomes a sort of second-family system complete with all the corresponding benefits and challenges.
Kantor and Lehr identified four basic behavior patterns which teams need in equal measure in order to get the best from an exchange of ideas and opinions. Each of the four action stances can be characterized by the behaviors typically demonstrated:
- A "move" resembles taking charge, offering ideas and leading the discussion;
- A "follow" resembles agreement and going along with what’s being proposed;
- An "oppose" resembles disagreement and challenging what’s being proposed; and
- A "bystand" resembles paying attention to what’s being discussed and making connections.
From the point-of-view of productive teamwork, each of the four stances is simultaneously useful and problematic. For example, when the team can’t seem to get going or loses focus, it’s critical that someone makes a move or takes charge. On the other hand, when the team is engaged in a productive dialogue on a difficult topic or when the team is brainstorming, team members will resent someone intervening to take charge in order to move things along. Kantor points out that each behavior provides a specific benefit to the team. Moving provides direction, following provides completion, opposing provides correction, and bystanding provides perspective.
Teams achieve productive balance in their interactions when individual team members rotate among the stances rather than getting stuck demonstrating the same behavior repeatedly. Over time, a team that lacks one of the behaviors will miss out on the attendant benefit. They might describe their team as “lacking direction” (the insufficient supply of moving) or “settling for half-baked solutions” (a deficiency of opposing). The behaviors can also feel out of balance when individuals get stuck taking the same one or two of the four stances.
While each behavior provides a specific benefit, repeated demonstration of the behavior by the same individual creates dysfunction. There is a significant risk that other team members will make less than flattering judgments about individuals who only bring one type of behavior to the team. Team members will use words, like “bossy” or “dictatorial,” to describe individuals who only ever move. The individual who always follows and goes along looks “wishy-washy” to the rest of the team. Someone who only ever opposes will quickly develop a reputation as “negative” or “critical.” The team member who bystands without ever sharing their perspective with the team will be viewed as “disengaged” or “aloof.”
David Kantor has a new book out this year called, Reading the Room. The book focuses on structural dynamics in organizational settings and the leadership imperative of developing an awareness of the unseen structural dynamics at play when team members interact. One way to begin noticing the structural dynamics at play during team interactions is to reflect on your own tendencies as a team member. You can also download an app from iTunes that will take you through a simple assessment of your preferred stance among in the four-player model.
When your team becomes sophisticated enough to move in and out of the stances the way my daughters’ volleyball teams covers the court, you’ll be sure to get the best each team member has to offer. Until then, you might want to designate someone to shout “rotate!” every now and again.