Summary:

Allowing team members to define their own roles sounds like a sensible way to empower employees and engage them with their work, but in a counter-intuitive post HBR pundit Tammy Erickson cites research showing well defined responsibilities are key to great collaboration.

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Poets sometimes claim that writing within strict formal structures spurs creativity, and parents are told that firm boundaries actually help kids flourish. Freedom may be awesome, but in some areas there clearly is such a thing as too much of it. Now author and HBR Blog Network pundit Tammy Erickson is adding another domain to the list of areas where less freedom and more structure is actually a good thing – collaboration.

Bosses, she writes, often make the sensible sounding decision to focus on clarifying their team’s goals and approach to reaching them then leave the task of defining exactly who does what to make progress toward that goal for the team to work out themselves. This sounds empowering, but according to Erickson, it’s actually energy sapping:

Our research has shown that… collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood — in fact, when individuals feel their role is bounded in ways that allow them to do a significant portion of their work independently. Without such clarity, team members are likely to waste energy negotiating roles or protecting turf, rather than focusing on the task.

We’ve also found that team members are more likely to want to collaborate if the path to achieving the team’s goal is left somewhat ambiguous. If a team perceives the task as one that requires creativity, where the approach is not yet well known or predefined, its members are more likely to invest more time and energy in collaboration.

Citing well functioning teams at emergency rooms, the BBC and Reuters, Erickson goes on to explain that when expert collaborators are very clear on their area of responsibility and feel empowered to work in their own way within it, teams work together smoothly and individuals within them channel their energy towards productive work rather than politics, turf wars or coordination.

Is your team being hamstrung by ambiguous roles?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Dru Bloomfield – At Home in Scottsdale.

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