What is 3-dimensional team leadership?

By Bradley L. Kirkman

Bradley L. Kirkman (biography)

It is useful to think about teams as having three dimensions:

  1. the team as a whole
  2. the individuals in the team
  3. the subteams within the overall team, or the smaller subsets of team members who cluster together to work on specific tasks. With teams taking on more and more complex tasks, it is not uncommon for members with similar skills to tackle various assignments over a period of time and then integrate their outputs into the larger, overall team.

How does a leader know when to focus on which dimension?

The secret lies in knowing how a particular team best carries out its tasks, specifically a concept known as interdependence. Team interdependence refers to the extent to which a team requires members to communicate, collaborate, integrate, and coordinate their efforts to get their jobs done.

Team interdependences lies on a continuum from low to high:

  • pooled interdependence is the lowest level. Team members do not actually work closely together to get their jobs done. In fact, this is not a real team, but rather would be more appropriately referred to as a “group.” In this case leaders would focus most of their attention on leading the “I’s” in the team. Performance management would emphasize individual performance, not team performance.
  • reciprocal interdependence is where you actually start to have a real team. That is, team members have to constantly exchange the “stuff” they need to work with to get their jobs done. In this case leaders would focus primarily on the team as whole. Performance management would emphasize team performance more than individual performance.
  • multilayered interdependence occurs when an overall team is actually composed of a set of subteams. Even though these subteams can operate rather independently from one another (at least for a while), they still have to integrate what they are doing from time to time so that the whole team can succeed. This type of team represents a real challenge for leaders because they have to focus on three different types of interdependence, including:
    • the interdependence between members of each of the subteams (ie., within-subteam interdependence);
    • the interdependence that exists between each of the subteams (ie., between-subteam interdependence); and
    • the interdependence that exists between the whole team and its external environment (ie., across-subteam interdependence).

    In our experience, leaders struggle the most with between-team interdependence because subteams often fail to integrate their efforts, hurting overall team performance. Performance management would emphasize individual, sub-team and whole team performance.

What does it take to be a successful 3-dimensional (3D) team leader?

Leaders need to be able to “shift” their focus across all three dimensions equally well when the situation calls for it. In our work with many leaders, we have found that most of them are good at managing one, maybe two, but rarely all three dimensions equally effectively.

In our extensive consulting and research, we found the following five leader attributes to be critical for becoming a successful 3D team leader:

  1. Leader flexibility/adaptability – because 3D team leadership requires that leaders shift their focus under changing circumstances, they have to have the ability to change, adapt, and offer different approaches when the situation calls for it.
  2. Leader switching behavior – this refers to a leader’s specific ability to switch his/her focus from individuals to teams to subteams (in any order) when the situation changes, which is obviously tied to the core principles of our 3D approach.
  3. Leader ambidexterity – because changing focus on three different entities requires the ability to manage competing priorities and dimensions, leaders need the ability to reconcile competing goals between dimensions and make trade-offs.
  4. Leader emotional intelligence – this refers to a leader’s ability to recognize his/her own and others’ emotions and use this information to support thought and action, which is important given that leaders will need to remain calm when dealing with tensions among the dimensions and unanticipated team member reactions.
  5. Leader authenticity – even though our 3D model encourages leaders to shift their focus across the various dimensions, this does not imply that leaders should be inconsistent in their works or actions; they need to adhere to a set of basic principles even as roles or situations change and remain comfortable with their true selves.

Concluding questions

How does this fit with your experience of leading research teams? Do you find that you struggle with managing one (or more) of the three dimensions? Do you have successes and lessons learnt to share about leading the three dimensions?

To find out more:
Kirkman, B. L. and Harris, T. B. (2017). 3D Team Leadership: A New Approach for Complex Teams. Stanford University Press: Stanford, California, United States of America. (Online) (Overview): http://3dteamleadership.com

See also a more extensive exposition of these ideas in the Intereach webinar series: “Understanding how to use three-dimensional (3D) team leadership”, by Bradley L. Kirkman, October 13, 2020. (Online) (YouTube video – 58 min): https://youtu.be/4-jMJThUmh0

Biography: Bradley L. Kirkman PhD is the General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership in the Management, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship Department in the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, USA. His research focuses on leadership, international management, virtual teams, and work team leadership and empowerment.

12 thoughts on “What is 3-dimensional team leadership?”

  1. A provocative and thought piece… but I wish it were so simple ; ) To add to Bradley’s point, in my experience:

    All three dimensions occur simultaneously: Individual team members contribute on all three dimensions: at IDRC (International Development Research Centre) program officers are largely independent in monitoring funding research, work with a few colleagues on knowledge translation or program learning, and with the whole team on budgeting and funding decisions. Any given week can well combine individual tasks, those shared with subteams, and those times when you need to engage more widely. Part of the cognitive load of working in interdisciplinary teams is deciding which tasks fits where, scheduling time for each, and managing the inherent competing priorities among them.

    Each dimensions needs its own meetings: Typical management literature speaks to the value of holding one-on-one meetings individual team members, to cultivate the interpersonal relationship, agree on priority tasks, and have time for exploring longer-term professional development as well as simply checking in where people are at emotionally. The missing dimension is the subteam, bring together the set of interdependent colleagues at critical moments to move things forward. Often our research program subteams also need to draw in functional colleagues beyond our team, such as evaluation, partnership, policy, communication or grant administrators.

    Need to look beyond: There are times when our ‘team’ is itself a subteam of a larger entity. The 3 dimensions from my perspective can miss where we fit into the broader nested structures. For example, my team is just one of many across IDRC and we all contribute to a range of tasks from annual workplan/budgeting to contributing to collective exercises. Another example was the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia, which was convened four research consortia and had collaboration at the activity- consortium- and programme-level. Again team members juggled contributing at the different level (and in Bradley’s dimensions). As leaders, we need to be attentive to and respond when our otherwise intra-dependent set of team members are called upon to be inter-dependent beyond our corporate and organizational firewalls.

    • These are fantastic thoughts, Bruce, thanks for sharing them. And your feedback is well-taken. In fact, when I teach 3D team leadership to executives, many of them will point out that their particular situation is more complicated than the various team configuration figures I show in my presentation. For example, they might say that certain individuals are on more than one subteam at a time, so that is more complicated. And, others might say that they have their external customers on various subteams, meaning the subteam spans across organizational boundaries. So, like any good organizational model, 3D team leadership will have to be expanded and adapted for different situations, tasks, industries, and companies. In that way, my co-author and I made the model flexible enough so that leaders can take the basic framework and apply it to their unique (and more complex) team settings. Thanks again for pushing the boundaries here and correctly concluding that this is just the starting point!

  2. Thanks Bradley, this is an interesting way to think about teams. I agree that “between-team interdependence” can be very challenging for leaders. This is a significant issue in large research projects where a frequent weakness is the integration of multiple work packages, and get synergies between the different academic teams within the project.

    • Great insights, Paul, we often refer to that between-team interdependence as falling victim to faultlines (like cracks in the Earth’s crust where earthquakes tend to happen). People are quite comfortable hanging out in their own teams or subteams, and they can become resistant to integrating their efforts across these teams/subteams. That results in the type of “fracturing” that you are describing. For science teams, this can become particularly problematic as once funding is obtained, people often “retreat” into their own teams, and you are correct in suggesting that synergy suffers (which is the whole point of having a team in the first place!). We describe several strategies on how to avoid these faultlines in the 3D Team Leadership book.

  3. Thank you for your blog post, Bradley. You point out that 3D leadership, interdisciplinarity, and interdependence are closely related. Your post is thoughtful and promotes leadership authenticity. Important leadership traits model vulnerability, being real, and being open to and willing to support exploring novel ideas. Modeling these traits promotes individual and team interdependence to enhance collaborative efforts. Thank you for sharing these insights to leadership for innovation.

    • I also note from my recent work that teaching, learning, and practicing these skills of collaboration and teamwork need to be emphasized in preparatory programs as they are not naturally acquired. You mention flexibility, adaptability, and emotional intelligence – all actors in the collaborative process for both team leaders as well as team members. Great insights. Thank you.

      • Thank you, Colleen, I really appreciate that feedback. You are absolutely correct that our approach taps into leader authenticity, which is why we highlight it as one of the five key characteristics of effective 3D team leaders (along with flexibility/adaptability, emotional intelligence, leader switching behavior, and leader ambidexterity). And, I also agree with you that these skills need to be learned and practiced, as they are not natural for many people. I am really happy you appreciated these insights!

  4. Great summary – I appreciate the 3 dimensions and find them a good way to think about the spectrum of team-ness. I really enjoyed this entry and will take these ideas with me into my own work with teams. Thanks!


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