I’ve always studied teams. The youngest of three boys, as a kid I was mostly a bystander to my family’s tumultuous interactions. While my teenaged brothers and parents sparred in cycles of argument, cooling off and reconciliation, I stayed under the radar, vigilant to any verbal shrapnel that might fly my way.
My friends’ families were even more interesting to observe. Some were yellers; some were quiet and civil, yet each seemed more exotic than my own, “normal” family. How, I wondered, could these families be so bizarre and still stay together?

More formal education enriched my study of teams, and I’ve worked over the past twenty-five years supporting teams to get better results. But my curiosity has never diminished. Why do some teams flourish while others struggle? A few years ago I came across a body of work that greatly influenced my practice. I recently adapted this system for a senior executive team that was rife with conflict, which led to breakthrough results in their performance. And it was fun…

David Kantor developed the “Four Player Model” years ago during his study of family dynamics. He discovered that at any given time there are four, and only four, roles being played during any group’s interaction. Healthy functioning requires each role to be played, and players need to play more than just one role:

  • Mover – Initiates a course of action (i.e., I think we should watch Game of Thrones)
  • Challenger – Stops or corrects a course of action (i.e., I’d rather we don’t watch that show, it’s too violent)
  • Supporter – Agrees with a course of action (i.e., I like the idea, let’s all watch Game of Thrones)
  • Reflector – Names how the conversation is going or how people are getting along (i.e., We’ve been discussing Game of Thrones for 15 minutes and I’m bored)

Most people are unaware of the roles they play, and tend to overdo one role. If you are too frequently a challenger, people will consider you a pain in the neck. And if you take a supporter role over and over again people will think you are a ‘yes-man.’ I’ve observed teams overplay the mover role so much that it’s like watching a verbal popcorn machine – move, move, move, MOVE!

The least represented, yet most essential role, is reflector. Saying something as simple as “we’re running out of time,” or something as interesting as “you two have been in a verbal ping-pong match for 20 minutes” are reflector comments. So is “we seemed to be reaching consensus here. Are we ready to implement?”
I was asked to observe the executive team and provide feedback about their interactions. But they did not know I was observing them through the lens of the Four Player model. I just sat there with a diagram and made notations by each person’s name whenever they spoke.

Teams can improve their self-awareness
After the meeting I briefly taught them the Four Player Model and shared the data I collected. The results were stunning, and pretty funny: William, for instance, challenged 16 times and never uttered a supporting comment. Tom was the major mover, with 20 total (he was good at changing the subject). Nancy appeared to be a supporter, but her supportive comments were moves in disguise. She’d say things like, “I agree with what you are saying, but don’t you think we should do this instead?” And the team leader, Lori, had 76 comments (balanced as moves, challenges and supports, but still…).

What I hardly observed were reflective comments. This team of seasoned executives had simply not learned to manage its conversations – no wonder they left meetings dissatisfied and suspicious. Once they recovered from the shock of being recognized, each discussed how they could contribute to healthy team functioning. William promised to be more supportive, and Nancy committed to being less disingenuous with her moves. They also discussed ways to reinforce and validate the reflector role. When Lori pledged to speak less, everyone rolled their eyes and laughed.

The session broke the ice for the team to be more open, and to even tease each other good-naturedly. They now use the Four Player model as a tool to maintain healthy functioning. In my last visit, they reported a lot of progress, and seemed to enjoy each other, though Lori still needed some help.

I wonder what would have happened if I knew about the Four Player model when I was a kid. I surely would have been a keener observer of my family and my friends. But they probably would have thrown me out of the house.

© Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008