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Do you have the courage to make a 'Team Role Sacrifice' at work?

Ego is a big X factor with teamwork. Being able to subjugate your ego long enough to make a ‘team role sacrifice’ when required can be a vital service to the team.

Across three decades of team and leadership development, I have observed that ego is one of the biggest contributing factors to both the success or failure of a team.

Whether or not team members can control their own ego and adapt their behaviour to balance with one another, is pivotal to team success or failure.

Being able to adapt our behaviours at work to leave enough space for others to contribute, even in a space that we may favour ourselves, or to step into a behavioural gap not being filled by others, is called a ‘Team Role Sacrifice’.

To adapt our behaviour to better balance with others in the team in a situation that may require it, is a genuine service to the team but not always easy to do in the heat of the moment.

Humans are emotional creatures, and real work pressure can trigger the brain’s limbic system, the ‘flight – fight – freeze’ reactions.

So even if we intellectually know the preferred behavioural reactions in a heated meeting, the primitive part of the brain can override the rational and react emotionally to damage performance, and working relationships.

Discipline and self-awareness are key to help adapt behaviour under pressure.

The term ‘Team Role Sacrifice’ was coined by the renowned scholar and expert in human workplace behaviour, Dr Meredith Belbin.

It’s not about being someone we are not, just adapting our natural behaviours to better suit the needs of the team and situation. Pull back when we see something is not needed, step up when there’s a gap we can fill. Draw from other natural behaviours in our own repertoire to suit the needs of the team or the task.

As Charles Darwin said (or some attribute this in part also to Professor Leon Megginson) “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

As part of his original research in the 1970s, Meredith Belbin discovered the so-called ‘Apollo syndrome’ – that teams made up of high-intellect individuals finished last, not first. Why? Because they esteemed intelligence above all else, which made them prone to disagreement, destructive debates, point-scoring and failure.

Emotional intelligence helps answer the question of why IQ alone doesn't guarantee success. The awareness and courage to make a Team Role Sacrifice is anchored in greater awareness of our own behaviours, and those of others.

I love this quote from Winston Churchill - “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

It takes genuine character, courage and sacrifice to control the ego under real world pressure, to let others have their say, or to simply see them make unopposed contributions that you may normally identify strongly with making yourself.

Self-awareness, and development of character are an asset to team members and leaders alike. General ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf said - “Ninety – nine percent of leadership failures are failures of character.”

When controlling the ego is mastered in the team setting, and letting others have their say occurs naturally, it helps to create what has become somewhat of a recent buzzword - “psychological safety.” Psychological safety is a culture where people feel free to contribute and be themselves, without fear of ridicule or repercussion.

This doesn’t mean that authority should be removed, or healthy conflict artificially avoided, just that we are more mature and aware about how we manage authority and conflict. Healthy teams can still have defined leadership roles, and room to fight.

Good teams argue, but as long as theyargue the right way, and about the right things, balance and relationships can still remain in place.

Fortunately Belbin also took things further than just research, and spent decades refining his Belbin Team Role Model and the evidence-based profiling tool that measures and allows us to work with human behaviour within teams.

When we use Belbin’s profiles to measure individual behavioural strengths and weaknesses, a team report can then be used to accurately map any surpluses and deficits of behavioural clusters that are present within the team.

Where surpluses of the same behavioural clusters exist within a team, or simply an over-abundance of one or other of action, thinking or social styles, then available bandwidth can be cluttered with people fighting for the same airtime. Some contributions that are needed may also be missing.

The ‘Team Role Sacrifice’ is then anchored in knowing what behaviours are present, and which you and others in the team actually prefer. When surpluses of similar behaviours can impact team and business performance, the ability to sacrifice your preferred styles for others in your repertoire to help team process, can require some discipline, but can pay off.

An example is when leadership teams may feature an abundance of Belbin’s Team Role behaviours of ‘Shaper’ and ‘Coordinator’. A lot of behavioural bandwidth can be consumed with politics, power plays or fruitless debate, if team role sacrifices are not made.

Making a ‘Team Role Sacrifice’ is consciously recognising the impact that our own behaviour, and that of others, has on team performance, and then adapting our natural behaviours to suit what’s actually needed by the team.

Reigning in what already may be in surplus, or stepping into obvious gaps can help others to make their best contributions, and time them well also.

It takes courage to deploy candour in workplace conversations, without allowing rank, title and status to come into play.

Humility and a desire to serve others and the team can be a powerful ingredient in effective teamwork. Especially when demonstrated by leaders within the team.

A team role sacrifice from a leader can send a positive signal to the team that ‘serving the team’ is where you are coming from.

Some of my earliest experiences as a leader in an environment where there were clear consequences from getting it wrong, was in the military.

A key term often referred to, and that was expected to be brought to life was “Serve to Lead”.

A desire to serve is a great motivator not only for self, but also for others, as they can trust that motives underpinning your contributions include their well-being.

Putting service to others, and the team, above self can be the catalyst for reminding us to put the ego in its place long enough to make a team role sacrifice when needed, and letting others have their say, or simply play their own roles.

Now this requires some confidence and courage on the part of a leader, as it will allow the leadership role to in effect rotate within the team situationally at times.

To do this without it threatening or undermining your appointed status requires trust, good working relationships and deep understanding of the behaviours at play within a team.

It’s not about changing who you are, or pretending to be someone else, simply being aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and adapting behaviour to have the best impact.

The evidence-based data from Belbin profiles and reports, when personalised in the context of the team and what it does, can underpin the knowledge and courage needed to make team role sacrifice.

Thus we better serve our team and those in it to achieve better results day to day.

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