By Bradley L. Kirkman
It is useful to think about teams as having three dimensions:
- the team as a whole
- the individuals in the team
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.