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The 4-Player Model: A Framework for Healthy Teams

Teams are increasingly important to the success of organizations; they're charged with everything from creating innovative new products to starting new global businesses. Nevertheless, current research on teams tends to focus on dysfunction. Deborah Ancona, the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at MIT's Sloan School of Management and faculty director of the MIT Leadership Center, and William Isaacs, President of Dialogos and senior lecturer at MIT Sloan, propose a more positive, systems approach to team theory based on the work of David Kantor and William Lehr, 1975. While Kantor and Lehr designed this model in the context of family systems, Ancona and Isaacs transfer these ideas to the realm of teams in organizations.

The problem with the organizational literature, they submit in “Structural Balance of Teams [4 Player Model]” in Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation (Dutton and Ragins, eds., 2006), is its mechanistic view of teams. In this view, the key to success involves putting just the right people on the team, or creating the right incentive scheme or decision-making process. Essentially, the way to improve a team is to optimize each part. But this thinking reduces teams to pure input-process-output machines. There's no room for rising above the sum of the parts.

Ancona and Isaacs propose that researchers begin instead to think of teams as living systems capable of extraordinary results. A team of people can be expected not merely to fulfill its tasks, but to be creative, generating ideas for new products and services and new ways of moving the organization forward.

Kantor’s Four-player model

Ancona and Isaacs’ approach is adapted from the Kantor Model to serve as a framework for structural balance in teams.

The model asserts that four core acts are the essential building blocks of both dysfunctional and healthy team behavior. They are:

Move — This act establishes a direction and sets the team in motion.
Example: “Let's build Product X. Product X is the best idea out there.”
Follow — The follow act provides support for the move and serves the function of completion.
Example: “I agree with the arguments you've made. Product X is the way to go.”
Oppose — The oppose act questions the move that has been initiated.
Example: “The data don't support your claims. We'll be in real trouble if we go with Product X.”
Bystand — Bystanding provides perspective and invites the team to be more reflective. A bystander might bring in data from another team, an historic perspective, or some insight about the operations of the team itself.
Example: “We tried some of these same ideas two years ago and they didn't work. What do we think has changed?”

These four acts provide “direction and energy; momentum and connection; correction and elaboration; and perspective taking, reflection, and openness to the workings of teams.” In the appropriate sequences, these acts enable team members to consider a wide range of alternatives, examine each alternative in some depth, refine and elaborate the alternatives with ideas from inside and outside the team, choose an alternative, and act.

Balancing acts

What determines the health of the team, one that is effective and “successful,” is whether or not these core acts are performed appropriately and in the proper sequence. Any of the acts can at one point dominate, creating imbalance and damaging team health. Any of the four can also be so weakly displayed, or actively suppressed, as to create a void.

For example, a team with a weak or disabled mover cannot find direction or take a step. A team with a weak follower is stymied because the move cannot be completed. An opposer should raise legitimate concerns, but an ineffective or stuck opposer simply challenges everything, creating strife. And while the bystander's role is to bring the team information and observations, an unbalanced bystand act can flood the system with data, sowing confusion.

It's also critical for a team to be able to distinguish between the intentions of the actor and the impact actors have on the situation. An opposer is often viewed as attacking even when the intent is to protect the team from error. A bystander who seeks to offer perspective may be viewed as judgmental or disengaged. A healthy team system needs to match intention and impact, or notice and correct mismatches that occur.

Fundamentally, the four-player model is structural, not personal. All four acts could be played out by two people or even, conceivably, within the mind of one. Team members must be free to carry out the acts that seem appropriate to them at the moment.

It is the sequence and dynamics across acts that determine whether a team is effective or not. When the sequences are ritualized and limited (ie. move, oppose, move, oppose), the intelligence of the group is also limited. Thus, while each individual act can cause balance or imbalance, balance is also exhibited at the team level.

Healthy teams

Ancona and Isaacs suggest that applying the four-player model to the field of positive relationships in organizations provides a way to produce healthier teams. First, all acts must be enabled and balanced. Second, the bystand and oppose acts must be supported and reinforced, because the absence or imbalance of these acts are major contributors to dysfunction. And third, flexibility must be maintained across acts and sequences of acts.

The benefits of a balanced team include:

  • Inclusiveness — no single point of view is allowed to dominate
  • Repair — the team can recover from imbalances introduced by, for example, a recalcitrant opposer
  • Adaptation — team members can respond to change without becoming rigid or defensive
  • Differentiation — each individual has the opportunity to make his or her unique contribution

Defining the structure that produces health and “generativity”—the ability to enlarge vision and the capacity to act—is just a beginning. Suggested directions for further research include: How does this new structural approach inform the existing literature on team behavior? How do organizational teams differ from the family systems that inspired the model? And, under what conditions do positive structural patterns emerge?

Shifting the focus of analysis to the structural level gets to the heart of team function — and dysfunction — providing a route for effecting positive change. The four-player model ultimately gives researchers a framework for learning how to build healthy teams.