Rotating Roles Will Make Your Teams Smarter and More Effective

Article main image
Jan 22, 2019

“Fixation is the way to death. Fluidity is the way to life.”  — Miyamoto Musashi


Successful teams require more than great players — they need people to play complementary roles that reinforce each other. Roles define expected behaviors — they drive clarity for both the individuals playing them and the team.

However, unlike titles, roles must be fluid. Just as we can get stuck playing a particular role in our families, our business roles can also grow stagnant.

A role is not a title. It’s the part played by a team member in a particular situation or project. A role can be played by more than one person. One person can play various parts. A role represents a fraction of work. Unlike a position or title, it’s not a full-time job — roles don’t equal souls.

Avoiding team stagnation

“Fluidity and discontinuity are central to the reality in which we live.”  — Mary Catherine Bateson


According to social psychologist Enrique Pichón Riviere, a role in an organized behavioral model establishes a dual relationship based on mutual expectations — doctors need patients and vice versa.

Traditionally, power and knowledge were restricted to one role: the formal leader. However, a fast-paced and uncertain world requires everyone to help drive change. Leadership cannot be restricted to one person as I wrote here.

Fixed roles create stereotypes — they make things too predictable. When people are supposed to play only one role they are forced to play to their strengths ;  we limit their potential to learn new things.

When roles don’t rotate, teams begin to play within the comfort zone. Boredom and repetition quickly become stagnation. Roles should rotate to bring out the best of the team, not to ask them to play their usual part. That one person is very creative doesn’t mean it’s the only part she or he should play. Tthat same individual might be a great motivator or organizer too.

Also, as Pichón Riviere explained, a team is like a Persian market where every individual negotiates between two sides: What you expect and need, and what others do.

To assign and hold roles is a dynamic and complex collective mechanism. For someone to play a role, someone else must assign it. When you delegate “the expertise” to someone else, you are assigning a role to that person and acknowledging you don’t possess that skill.

However, not rotating roles creates a dependency towards so-called experts that can drive group-thinking. Team members must challenge the experts — growth and innovation happen in the Learning Zone.

Roles rotation promotes a more flexible approach to approaching and tackling challenges — it encourages the team to become more adaptive to the reality of each project.

The benefits of rotating roles

1. Helps develop new skills — One of the most effective ways to learn new skills is by doing. Rotating roles allows team members to experiment with new things and pick up new skills on the go. Facilitating a meeting, leading a project, or creative problem solving are helpful for everyone regardless of their core function within a team.

2. Creates engagement — Rotating roles increases ownership of the project’s success. It helps to remove the divide between those who tend to be more vocal and those who are quieter. The same happens when you let people play a role that is the opposite to what it’s usually expected from them;  it opens the door to challenging the status-quo and sparks curiosity.

3. Makes leadership more fluid — Research shows that, “Adopting a role is found to enable the rotation of leadership within a group, which in turn facilitates development of the group.” Birds have a structured and well-designed airborne hierarchy — the one flying at the front commands the rest. However, the leadership role changes several times throughout one flight. Rotating roles gives people the opportunity to step up.

4. Amplifies team perspectives — Group thinking usually occurs when roles are rigid — people override realistic appraisals of alternatives. Groupthink causes people to follow the leader or experts unquestioningly, sometimes without realizing it. Diversity in thinking is critical for a team to become more innovative. Invite everyone to bring their entire self to work, not just the aspects needed for one role. Sports, hobbies, travel, etc. — everything that people experience outside of the office is an untapped source of inspiration.

5. Develops collective empathy — Walking in someone else’s shoes is the best way to feel their pain and challenges. Role-playing builds empathy — you understand and appreciate what other people face every day. For example, letting an introvert facilitate a meeting is an excellent way for everyone to listen to the voice of quiet people. See what happens when they manage a meeting in a not-so-loud style.

How to get started

To rotate roles, you must organize your team’s work by roles first. The best way to do this is to actively engage the team in the process. Managers can introduce the notion of role rotation and set clear rules of engagement. However, let the team design and craft their roles.

The first step is to the codify the work that is already in place. Let everyone capture the roles they play. Have the team share collectively, avoid overlaps, see what’s missing — all the work should be captured by a role.

Some teams practice self-selection. Team members are free to choose not just which roles they want to play, but to select the projects and people they want to work with.

Facilitation is critical to building the right conditions. Also, don’t expect people to embrace this practice overnight.

Here are different approaches to roles that will help you get started.

Operational roles

These are roles that manage administrative or clerical aspects to help the work done. The secretary role takes notes during a meeting. The facilitator role manages and keeps a meeting on track. The logistics role gets the resources that the team needs to operate.

Operational roles must have an expiration date — every 30 days, for example — so everyone gets a chance to play.

Team dynamics roles

Pichón Riviere identified several roles that every group must have to operate and function well:

  • The Facilitator enables the group dynamics during a meeting.  he or she helps the team address the emotional and functional obstacles that hinder collaboration and communication.
  • The Observer is similar to a secretary, but additionally captures team dynamics, not just what is being discussed. It observes “issues” so they can be resolved later.
  • The Leader role defines the situation and organizes action. It can be either driven by formal or informal authority. A leader can be one who was assigned to manage a team or who has the influence and respect to be listened to. Most teams need both a formal leader and what I call the sidekick  to balance out the leader’s personality and bridge the gap between the leader and the team. A formal leader is assigned from the top; the informal leader emerges from the bottom.
  • The Saboteur is more than just an obstacle; she or he represents the group’s resistance. In any group activity, there’s no progress without resistance. This role, rather than to be silent can illuminate blind spots from both leaders and team members alike. Rotation helps depersonalize this role — it avoids turning one person into the culprit.
  • The Scapegoat is a role where people deposit the negative aspects of the team. Blaming is not effective, yet a very common team behavior — what people can’t tolerate about themselves, they throw it into the Scapegoat. This role uncovers the lack of individual accountability.
  • The Spokesperson is the collective voice — it says what the group is thinking, especially when no one speaks up. It could be the positive or negative emotions the group is experiencing at a particular time. Usually, these people are good at reading the minds of their co-workers. Listening to this voice is key to understand the team’s mood.

Both the Scapegoat and Spokesperson roles complement each other but are different. One thing is to express what’s going on (Spokesperson) and another to become the depository of all the negative aspects (Scapegoat).

Thinking style roles

To expand diversity in thinking, teams must include different perspectives and ways of thinking.

In the The Whole Brain Business, Ed Herrmann outlines four basic thinking styles — administrator, talker, problem-solver, dreamer — which he referred to as the four quadrants of the brain. Most people’s thinking is dominated by only one. Some of us are inclined to focus on the big picture. Others are detail-oriented or tend to follow their gut. Using a whole brain approach will help leverage all your team’s thinking styles, not just the one they default to.

Similarly, Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats” method helps challenge how our brain thinks to create more effective solutions. By consciously training your brain, you can play with different types of perspectives (e.g., gut instinct, pessimistic judgment, neutral facts).

Expertise roles

Depending on the nature of a project, a team needs to bring in experts that can add specific knowledge to the table. This is a difficult role to rotate — not everyone can be an expert on bid data or artificial intelligence, to name a few. However, expertise roles are in and out — they don’t need to be part of the regular team dynamics.