Leadership Skills: Solving Problems Between Roles, Functions, and Organizations

The greatest problems people experience at work are not problems within their role, their department, their function, or their organization. It’s solving problems between their role and other team member’s roles, between departments, between functions, and between organizations.

I call these “Problems Between.” The biggest problems–and thus the greatest opportunities to add value–are not in your job role, your department, your function, or your organization. The opportunities are in the gaps between your role, function, or organization.

What that means is that the greatest opportunity to add value at work today isn’t assigned to anybody. No matter how much work we put into trying to define roles and structures, there still will be gaps.

And it turns out that the highest value of work is done in working out those gaps.

So it seems unfair if you’ve been promised a clear title and clear job description and a clear role. When you have a problem with another (indicated by the red X in the images below), then one of us has to be willing to look at the other and say, “Is this a problem for you the way it is for me?”

Problems Between Roles

Problems Between Functions

Because before one of us says that, it looks to me like you’re my problem and it looks to you like I’m your problem. And what we have to do is work together to make that problem, that red X, go away.

Seeking Higher Order Goals

Back in the 1950s, a group of researchers took over a summer camp for boys for the Robbers Cave Experiments. They ran all sorts of experiments where their own graduate students were the counselors.

First, they tried to see what they could do to get groups to cooperate. Then they tried to see what they could do to get them to compete.

And then they tried to see what they could do to turn competition back into cooperation.

They rigged a football game to be totally unfair and allowed one group to really overpower the other group. The boys that lost were so upset, and the other group was celebratory.

The aggression between the groups was very high, yet they all had to ride back on the same bus. The researchers conspired to have the bus get stuck in the mud on the way back. And the two groups had to work together cooperatively to push the bus and get it out of the mud so that they could get back to camp.

The notion of a super-ordinate goal came out of that research. What does ordinate mean? It means order. It means a higher order goal, a higher priority. First in order or first in priority.

Applying Higher Order Goals to Solve Problems Between and Drive Collaboration

You have to be willing to solve “problems between,” to fill in the gaps, to be collaborative, to look at values and principles that are greater than the individual job or role accountabilities.

At the beginning of working together we will be more effective if we think of a higher order goal to get us started. I ask, “What must we do together that is larger or bigger than any of us, requires all of us, and none of us can claim individual victory until it is met or until it is complete?”

Start a dialog and maintain that dialog until the members in the group reach some agreement that, if they are working together in that direction, they will be satisfying their individual goals too.

This is subtly different than making sure you write a good charter statement for your project — this is actually making sure you include your team members in a conversation and a dialog about it.

By the way, that’s the first of five conversations I talk about in my book, Teamwork Is an Individual Skill. Check it out if you want to learn about the other four.

Get Started With This 5-Minute Practice Tip

Think about which team or collaboration or partnership you are a part of that could benefit from asking the following question: “What is our task that’s bigger than you, bigger than me, requires both of us, yet neither of us can claim victory until we get that done?” Figure that out together and start working on that task, that gap.

Leaders and coaches: Get Christopher’s best team building and leadership strategies collected over two-plus decades of solving teamwork problems for smart people. Attend the acclaimed Creating Results-Based Teams workshop, or get this FREE Special Report while it lasts: The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.




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2 Responses to Leadership Skills: Solving Problems Between Roles, Functions, and Organizations

  1. Thanks for that amazing question, Christopher.

    • christopher says:

      You are welcome Ruth. Do you mean this one: “Is this a problem for you the way it is for me?”

      Or this one: “What must we do together that is larger or bigger than any of us, requires all of us, and none of us can claim individual victory until it is met or until it is complete?”

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