Role lock

In the final of four articles on team coaching, Charlotte Sills explores what to do when the team gets stuck

This article is the fourth in a series about team coaching. It picks up the ideas presented in the three previous article by my Ashridge colleagues Andrew Day, Dorothee Stoffels and Erik de Haan and offers another way of thinking about how unconscious dynamics can create ‘stuckness’ in groups and teams. Of course, we all act ‘unconsciously’ all the time – often very successfully. In this article, I am referring to the way that ‘members of a group are unwittingly contributing to a dysfunctional situation without fully understanding how and why.
One of the biggest challenges for the group coach concerns the dilemma of ‘what to do’ when one of the team members seems to be interfering with the task of the group (be that the project team, the department or the boardroom) by repeatedly raising the same issues or demonstrating the same behaviour. The group tries to manage the member – either by being quietly compliant or by trying to silence him or her – and the group becomes stagnant. This article addresses the age-old tension between the consideration of the individual and the consideration of the group as an entity in itself. Are the phenomena that occur in groups the result of individual tendencies or are they the manifestations of that mysterious ‘meta-entity’ – the group as a whole? The answer is, of course, they are both.
Roles in groups
There are certain group roles that need to be filled at different times, roles that are essential to the group’s healthy functioning. It is, of course, quite proper for each individual to keep to their defined organisational role – finance director, HR director, department manager, and so on. Here we are concerned with a different sort of role – one that has a psychological function of assisting the team in (or preventing it from) achieving its task.
Observing the activities of a committee or board it is possible to recognise how certain functional roles emerge, such as time keeper, challenger, supporter, information-giver, clarifier, speaker, listener. These are all needed at different times and as long as the roles are fluid – in other words when the roles get shared between all the members – all is well. Problems arise when people fall into the same roles over time. Predictability and role rigidity lead to stagnation, as indicated by such signs as a sense of boredom, lack of creative ideas, labelling and stereotyping of people and relationships or ‘a blame culture where individuals or pairs might be singled out as the problem.
The individual’s contribution
Let us first look at the phenomenon from the point of view of an individual. We all recognise those times when we seem to get stuck in an unhelpful pattern of relating to our colleagues, clients or family. They are familiar-feeling interactions that leave us saying to ourselves ‘How did I get here again?’ or ‘How come people always treat me like that?’ Much has been written about such patterns (especially in the transactional analysis (TA) literature, where they are called ‘games’ 3,4,5,6  and how they can be unconscious repetitions of our past ways of being in the world – old habits of relating that lead us to reinforce our self-limiting view of ourselves, others and the world.
In TA, we talk about ‘confirming our scripts’, meaning our role in our assumptive world. And these relational patterns do in a sense serve a useful purpose: they help us manage and make sense of the world so that it becomes more predictable. They are a familiar way of keeping us in relationship and they are a way of addressing some of life’s often overwhelming issues. 
The group’s contribution
Now let us consider the situation when the whole group plays a game. The members and leader begin to notice the team becoming repetitive and boring; creativity gets lost and energy is flat. Everyone seems stuck in their familiar way of being. At this point, they consider bringing in a team coach.
Behind this stuck situation may be the phenomenon of ‘focal conflict’. This theory from Whitaker and Lieberman describes certain fundamental – or focal – issues that arise any time human beings get together7 (which of course is all the time!  Even if we are not in the same room, we are always ‘in-the-world-with-others’ as Heidegger put it). They are the issues that always need to be negotiated with others – often, indeed usually, unconsciously – before we can settle down and work productively – issues such as power, care, authority, fairness and so on. Therefore, during every team or board meeting, every gathering of those involved in a project, even getting together over coffee, these issues are lurking, often unconsciously, needing to be resolved or at least acknowledged. Whitaker and Lieberman suggest that the group cannot really work effectively while the issues are still unaddressed. 
Below is a list of issues that teams wrestle with; each one is potentially discomforting and anxiety-provoking. As Dick Cavett famously said: “It’s a rare person who wants to hear what he doesn’t want to hear.” The existential truth becomes a ‘disturbing issue’ as the group unconsciously addresses the question ‘How are we going to cope with competition around here?’, or ‘Can we disagree with each other and still stay connected?’ ‘Can I fit in here?’ and so on. The issue is not addressed clearly but leads to a sort of polarisation that contains the avoided issue. I include suggestions of what polarities may emerge but there may be 
many others.
The list is based on that of Whitaker 
and Lieberman.
  • Disclosure – revealing v. concealing
  • Expertise –  competence v. incompetence
  • Control –  domination v. submission
  • Authenticity –  sincerity v. deceptiveness
  • Caring –  help v. hurt
  • Violence –  war v. peace
  • Fate – good luck v. bad luck
  • Alienation/belonging – involvement v. separateness
  • Death/ending/change – possibility v. limits.
As the group puts its energy into avoidance, either its dynamics become stuck or stagnant – or else a sort of scapegoat emerges who is fated to keep bringing the issue into the room. The stuck dynamics become focused around one person, who becomes particularly strident in his role and increasingly frustrating to the rest of the group, they are ‘against’ him and he becomes polarised. The CEO, team leader or consultant cannot seem to shift things without the help of someone who is outside the system. He feels anxious, bored or angry. It is easy for him or her to join the team in trying to manage the ‘problem’ individual, ending up in a team ‘going nowhere’. Productive work flags. Bogdanoff and Elbaum refer to this phenomenon as ‘Role Lock’8. Examples of such locked roles are:
  • The person who smoothes over any disagreement, thus preventing the emergence of any productive difference 
  • The person who constantly claims that things aren’t safe, 
  • The been-there-done-that expert who knows the right answer to any problem
  • The person who doesn’t trust the management, and so on.  
Either the role locked voice reigns supreme and controls the group’s work or the group has to put all its energy into managing him nor her. We all have our examples – perhaps we ourselves have even experienced the discomfort of being the lone voice in a group that tries not to hear what we have to say. The dynamics get stuck and creativity is inhibited. There is a group game.
And this is where the team coach might be brought in. As she works with the group, the role lock might get worse and worse as the whole team, with genuine goodwill, tries to look at its dynamics, but with powerful unconscious anxiety continues to avoid the issue. Things get to such as pitch that the coach is likely to be tempted to join the group in finding the person who is ‘its pain in the neck!’ If she does, she joins the game. Her challenge is to hold the belief that anything and everything that is done in a group is not only the expression of the individual himself, but also represents the voice of the group, both as a view of whatever is under discussion and also as some part of that universal experience of facing the focal issues. 
This is where TA’s idea of ‘games’ can be really useful. Like Keyes, I see a game or set of games as the manifestation of “an inner flirtation with a core life question”, which the person (or group) attempts to answer9. Issues get raised by individuals in the form of one of their own game gestures. Thus a person’s game contains at its heart a life question that has not been addressed and recognised – usually by his own early family. He is doomed to repeat it in order to try and find an answer. In the group, if the fundamental questions are not taken up and owned by other members, they will return time and time again – usually raised by the same member whose personal script concerns the same focal issue. He becomes the victim of role lock in an unconscious attempt to integrate some element of experience. The group responds to or closes down on him in the same ways each time. Role lock therefore is a function both of the individual’s dynamics and also the group unconscious processes. 
The coach can often feel the pull to focus on the ‘difficult person’ but she is aware that this would likely lead to more of the same. Although raising awareness of personal patterns can be useful, sometimes the ‘stuckness’ in the group remains unchanged because the role and its enactment has not been considered from the group’s point of view. The coach, often with the support of the supervisory space, needs to reflect on what focal issue might be being avoided and find a way of offering it to the team to think about. She needs also to recognise the potential influence of herself as team coach as she will find it difficult to facilitate the addressing of disturbing issues that she herself has not ‘owned’. This, of course, is a powerful argument for requiring that coaches and consultants – indeed anyone who hopes to facilitate others’ development – undertake their own in-depth self-exploration. 
The resolution of this group impasse was brought about by the team leader owning her own issue and, with the coach’s help, the group coming to understand what it was that they were resisting and rejecting.  However, there is another layer to think about.
The organisation’s contribution
While the team coach works skilfully to balance the individual and group dynamics, she has another fundamental influence to be aware of. The role lock in a team can be the manifestation of wider organisational ‘focal conflicts’. Often the issue lies in the shadow side of the organisation’s espoused mission (see also de Haan 201510).  For example, in the boards of charities which devote themselves to the common good, it is not unusual for competitiveness and power to be a covert tension, leading to a domination versus submission struggle out of which emerges perhaps the role of the ‘controller’ or even the ‘bully’. The focal issue of expertise – who is most skilled or knowledgeable – is another issue which undermines team cohesion.
This is perhaps particularly visible in teams of scientists, technologists or other professionals. The unacknowledged tension is competence versus incompetence, from which emerges, for example, the ‘wise old man’ – that team member who seems to have no problems himself and kindly applies himself to helping the others – oblivious to the stultifying effect on their creativity. The coach who takes an interest in this sort of group phenomenon can begin to recognise familiar signs and patterns that might point to likely issues.
In order to unlock team ‘stuckness’, the members need to address both the individual and group aspects of the phenomenon. A disturbing issue arises in the team – simply as a result of people being together. It leads to an impasse and a game role emerges – in the above example, there were two: Rose’s determinedly conflict averse personality and David’s challenging one (needless to say, David’s script required him to attempt to question authority and be rejected). Part of the coach’s job may be to help the role-locked individuals to recognise how their stuck place is part of a familiar pattern by which they focus their world, reinforcing their limited or erroneous understandings and experiences of ‘being-in-the-world-with-others’. But in order to do that, she must help the group to recognise what focal issue is at the heart of the dilemma and own, for itself, its need to manage it. 


Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *