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Teamwork: How to Be an Activator, Not a Blocker

Teamwork: How to Be an Activator, Not a Blocker

Do Your Part to Advance Teamwork

Every team member has an official role tied to task and expertise. It’s why you’re on the team. But you also play informal roles that either block or propel the team.

Whether you’re a team leader or a contributor, it’s important to understand how your behavior can help or hurt team effectiveness.

Are You a Teamwork Blocker?

A “blocker” team member tends to have a negative impact on the entire team, weighing everybody down and standing in the way of productivity. Use the checklist below to help you think through the negative roles a teamwork blocker might be playing on your team:

  • The “aggressor” takes issue with people and perspectives, bulldozes, and can be overly critical.
  • The “recognition seeker” uses the group to boost their ego.
  • The “self-confessor” unloads personal woes and uses the group for sympathy.
  • The “fun seeker” is uninvolved in the task and creates tempting distractions.
  • The “manipulator” uses relationships to guide the group in a direction.
  • The “disengager” tends to check out of meetings, especially during conflict.
  • The “bouncer” moves the group in alternative directions by continually raising issues.
  • The “interrupter” disrupts others when they are making a point.
  • The “filibuster-er” stops others from participating by taking up the conversational space.
  • The “pack mule” shoulders their work and everyone else’s.
  • The “agree-er” goes along with the team to avoid conflict or tension.

If you’ve checked several blocker boxes, or have one of these blockers on your team, don’t panic. Being a teamwork blocker isn’t a permanent situation.

Perhaps the blocker is halting progress on one team, but playing a number of positive roles on other teams. If so, take a closer look at what is going on. Is it the assignment? A specific person? Prior history? What’s going on and what could you change?

Maybe you realize that you routinely play a blocker role. Chances are, it’s a role that worked for you in some way before, but is causing problems now. Think about how being the “fun seeker” or the “pack mule,” for example, might be limiting you and limiting your team.

Or maybe you are a teamwork blocker because of circumstances. Maybe another project is demanding too much of your time and attention. If you are otherwise overloaded, you may be slowing down team progress by disengaging or agreeing with everything just to make life easy in the short term. Take a step back and see if you can try another approach.

If you’re leading a team with a teamwork blocker, have a conversation with that person. Use the Situation – Behavior – Impact (SBI)™ model to share some feedback with the team member, a proven way to reduce the anxiety of delivering feedback and also reduce the defensiveness of the recipient. The SBI feedback model is simple and direct: You capture and clarify the Situation, describe the specific Behaviors observed, and explain the Impact that the person’s behavior had on you.

For example, “Erika, during your presentation this morning, you spoke clearly and shared important information. I felt informed, and the team was able to develop a plan based on the information.”

SBI is a way to give positive and negative feedback, both of which are needed for teams to function well. Learn more about using the SBI model to inquire about intent.

Or Are You a Teamwork Activator?

An “activator” team member moves the team in a positive direction. You activate, steer, energize, and keep team processes on track. What positive activator roles do you play on your team? Who else is a teamwork activator?

  • The “observer” keeps an eye on the group dynamics and reports to the group at the end.
  • The “cheerleader” leads the team with support and appreciation discussions.
  • The “strategist” helps to create a road map for the team to achieve its goals.
  • The “brainstormer” facilitates the generation of ideas.
  • The “taskmaster” makes sure the deliverables are achieved.
  • The “timekeeper” watches the clock.
  • The “facilitator” leads the group through discussions.
  • The “conflict resolver” facilitates disagreements and ensures all are heard.
  • The “devil’s advocate” pushes the group to consider alternative approaches.
  • The “truth-teller” speaks their mind even when unpopular.
  • The “dreamer” pulls members back to the dream in times of uncertainty or crisis.

Choose the Role You Want to Play on Your Team

Being aware of your habitual behaviors allows you to choose the way you interact with your team. Pull back on your teamwork blocker roles and take on more positive ones.

While understanding your own patterns and behaviors is a starting point, team effectiveness hinges on everyone developing activator skills and limiting blocker behavior.

Participants in our team development programs are encouraged to bring up the blocker/activator discussion with their teams. We suggest handing the list out to each member in a team meeting and inviting everyone to identify the activator and blocker roles they typically play.

This process usually leads to a rich discussion about team members’ strengths and challenges. It may be an intense conversation, or it could take a more lighthearted tone. Regardless, identifying these roles will open the door for team members to gently confront one another when their blocker roles emerge.

And if you’re looking for ways to improve team communication and stop blocks to teamwork, we have some suggestions in addition to using the SBI feedback model.

Communications Tools to Stop Teamwork Blockers

If everyone is clear on the team norms and you’ve already created a team charter, then you may just need some new communications tools in your teamwork toolkit. Here are 2 of our favorite tools to help stop teamwork blockers and move things forward.

Try “Fist to 5” for Group Decision-Making

Fist to 5 is a quick and very effective way to check in for understanding, evaluate effectiveness, and gauge the climate. It’s a voting tool, a visual check-in, often used for decision-making. It allows everybody to weigh in, voice smaller objections, and reach consensus. It’s helpful anytime you need to get quick feedback or to help your team keep moving.

Diagram of a hand signaling 0 to 5 fingers, exemplifying the "Fist to 5" method for group decision-making

Here’s how it works for decision-making:

The person with a proposal clarifies the decision the group needs to make and asks everyone to show their level of support. For example: Do we agree on the idea of hiring a consultant to help us with this problem?

Give everyone a half-minute to reflect; then ask them to vote using their fingers on a scale of 0–5, on a count of 3. A no vote — a fist — is a way to signal 0 and block consensus, while a full, open hand with 5 fingers suggests total support:

  • Fist: I need to talk more on the proposal and require changes for it to pass.
  • 1 Finger: I still need to discuss certain issues and suggest changes that should be made.
  • 2 Fingers: I am more comfortable with the proposal but would like to discuss some minor issues.
  • 3 Fingers: I’m not in total agreement but feel comfortable to let this decision or proposal pass without further discussion.
  • 4 Fingers: I think it’s a good idea/decision and will work for it.
  • 5 Fingers: It’s a great idea, and I will be one of the leaders in implementing it.

Everyone can take a turn to express their thinking. If anyone holds up fewer than 3 fingers, they’re asked to state their objections or misgivings, and the team should address their concerns.

Teams continue the Fist to 5 process until they achieve consensus (a minimum of 3 fingers or higher) or determine they will come back to the issue.

For Better Team Conversations, “Zoom Out”

When your team is stuck in an unproductive conversation, facilitate a perspective shift.

Team members should stop the conversation and move away from the immediate topic. “Zoom out” to a broader context and individually reflect on the following questions:

  • How am I feeling right now? What’s the mood of the group?
  • What’s going right, right now?
  • What’s the elephant in the room that is not being acknowledged?
  • What needs to happen differently to move forward?

After a bit of time, invite team members to talk about their reflections. The discussion will bring out new ways to move ahead constructively.

This reflection process is a simple, practical, and useful way to help solve the problem of the dreaded team meeting that goes nowhere, and it helps people become activators, rather than teamwork blockers.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

We can help team leaders, intact teams, and senior leadership teams maximize performance, manage teamwork blockers, and achieve results with our team development offerings. We can partner with you to create custom team development solutions.

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November 24, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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