How to handle the paradox between team roles and creativity

I am a bit of a rebel. Put me on a team and I am the one who pushes the boundaries of confined roles. I thrive in remixing ideas, challenging what’s possible, and nudging the boundaries of what’s permitted. Put me in a role and soon you’ll find that I’m asking questions that are officially outside the confines of my role.  My mind simply cannot stay cramped to a narrow box of thinking. You could call someone like me a Creative Rebel.

Of course, I consider this creative rebellion one of my best qualities. Others may disagree, however, especially those who prefer structure, predictability, and control. This person feels most comfortable when they know what to expect. They tend to map out a clear plan and avoid anything that causes detours or distractions. Let’s call this person a Rolekeeper.

In the workplace, the Creative Rebel’s effort to push boundaries can add unintended stress for the Rolekeeper. Those who like structure and predictability perceive the behavior of Creative Rebels as disruptive and distracting. Many Rolekeepers feel threatened by it. They expect everyone to stay in their place and limit their questions and discussions to the scope of their role. When the Creative Rebel attempts to stretch beyond established role boundaries, Rolekeepers feel it as an attempt to usurp their position or undermine their expertise. Oftentimes, the fight-or-flight stress response kicks in and the negativity impacts the team.

This situation represents a common paradox that can derail a team’s effectiveness and add unnecessary stress to relationships. The Rolekeeper is right – clearly defined roles and responsibilities provide structure for team members and ensure that the necessary work is distributed to the right people. However, the Creative Rebel is right, too. When attachment to a “role” becomes more important than coming up with innovative ways to work together and solve problems, the overall purpose of the team is compromised.

What can a leader do?
The first step for team leaders is to understand that these personal dynamics are a natural part of group dynamics. It is useless to resist human nature, so develop the skills to leverage it.

Solution: Create the space and guide the conversation.
By recognizing the intentions of each type of participant, the team leader plays a key role in helping team members attribute the correct meaning to behaviors. For example, when the team faces a problem, it is the nature of a Creative Rebel to start reaching for new ideas. This effort often blurs the established team roles and a Rolekeeper will respond negatively and try to shut down the process. This leaves the Creative Rebel feeling devalued and isolated, while the Rolekeeper feels frustrated and defensive. The rest of the team feels the tension and overall effectiveness is diminished.

In times like this, the team leader plays a key role. Reframe the role-blurring behavior as a positive attempt to innovate a new solution. Open a space to temporarily suspend role restrictions. Invite team members to explore new ideas, question current strategies, and play with what-ifs. The insights and perspectives that emerge from these creative brainstorms can add new energy to a stale issue. Following the brainstorm, help the team identify action items relevant to their roles.  This channels the natural stress that come with uncertainty into positive growth for team members and the team as a whole. Assigning action steps restores the structure of team roles in a win/win/win scenario – the Creative Rebel feels enlivened and valued,  the Rolekeeper feels eased as proper structure is respected and enforced, and the whole team feels relieved that good leadership navigated the situation successfully.

A final word of caution…
People are never the labels we give them. Different situations bring out different qualities in people. Consequently, someone who is a Creative Rebel in one circumstance could very well be a Rolekeeper in another and vice versa. Remember to stay flexible and respond in the moment rather than classifying team members with a broad labeling brush.

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