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Flexible Roles in Meetings

Remember when you finished a meeting and were energized not only by the decisions made but by the meeting itself?  Do you wonder why such meetings felt different from those that felt unproductive, frustrating, or destructive?  You can increase the odds that your next meeting will be great by teaching your compatriots about roles in groups.

All of us move between different roles in our life each day.  At various times, we function as a parent or child, teacher or student, supervisor, employee, friend, or partner.  We step into different roles at different times in different settings.

This is the case in meetings, too.  Whether in a meeting with 500 people or five, whether you are chairing the meeting or seated at the side of the table, the following roles make a difference.

Roles in groups fall into three categories: task roles, maintenance roles, and blocking roles.

Task Roles:  These behaviors help a group accomplish its goals.

1. Information Seeker. Asks for facts/opinions/suggestions on the topic under discussion:

“What date shall we hold the event?”

“When might we schedule a full discussion of our budget?”

“What needs to be on the agenda at our next meeting?  

2. Information Giver. Offers facts/opinions/suggestions on the topic under discussion:

“There is $300 left in the budget.”

“April second and ninth are already booked.  However, the next two Mondays, April 16 and 23, are open.”

3. Clarifier. Clears up confusing statements, asks questions, checks to see that questions are answered, and keeps the discussion focused on one point at a time.

“Let’s discuss dates first.  Does anyone have a suggestion?”

“I wonder if everyone is clear on the results of our last discussion. Should we summarize them?”

4. Summarizer. Pulls together related ideas, calls for discussion of ideas, and may write down and organize ideas.

“It seems we’re leaning towards Friday afternoon. Will that work?”

“Is there anyone who can’t make it?”

Maintenance Roles:  These behaviors help people in the group get along with each other, and therefore help the group work better.

    1. Gatekeeper. Keeps communications open, encourages others to speak, gives verbal and non-verbal support to others, and suggests ways to share ideas.

“John, you haven’t spoken yet.  Do you think the 22nd would work?”

“I’m wondering if we should hear one more time from each person. Maybe some new thoughts have been generated.”

2. Harmonizer. Attempts to clear up disagreements, settles conflicts among member and reduces tensions in the group.

“I sense some hesitation. What are the pros and cons?  Let’s look at the calendar again.”

“I’m wondering if we are at an impasse. Would it be helpful for us to air the key items of disagreement, record them on a flip chart, and then brainstorm options for resolving them?

3. Encourager. Shows genuine friendliness to group members by using their names, expressing agreement, giving verbal and non-verbal support, and listening carefully.

“Susan, I think you’re right.  We need more planning time.”

“José, I think we need to hear from your experience. I’d like to hear your perspective.”

4. Evaluator. Checks to see that group members are satisfied with group progress and suggests ways to keep the group moving toward its goals.

“Is everyone OK with April 23rdd?  If so, let’s discuss what we want to do and how to keep it within budget.”

“I sense agreement. I think we’ve made great progress. Are we close to voting?”

The most effective groups are those in which all members use both task and maintenance roles as needed.  Effective facilitators move easily between task and maintenance roles during meetings.  They step into those roles not being filled by group members.

Blocking Roles:  The third type of roles distracts the group from accomplishing its goals. They include dominating the group, attacking individual or group ideas, being unreasonably negative, not paying attention, and undercutting others by verbal comments or non-verbal actions.  People in blocking roles are often unaware of their unhelpful behaviors and appreciate someone who graciously establishes boundaries.

The most effective way to deal with someone who is taking a blocking role is for another person to assume a task or maintenance role.

“George, I know we need to come back to that topic tonight, but I’d like us to go back to the original question of whether to paint the warehouse doors red.”

“Imelda, I know it’s important to review all the details of the proposal, but I sense that we’re ready to vote. Could we test the group to see whether they are ready to move on and vote?”

More Tips for Facilitators

  • If you know a person often functions in blocking roles, have that person sit beside you during the meeting.
  • Use your body posture and a task or maintenance role to regain control of the meeting.
  • Addressing people by name, summarizing what has been said, clearing up any confusion, and encouraging others is nearly always appreciated.
  • Be aware of your personality strengths and weaknesses and rely on group members to fill the gaps. One of my friends who is notoriously unaware of time asks someone in the group to be his timekeeper.  Another friend who is scattered and non-linear in her thinking asks the group to get her back on track if she begins to wander.  I’m sometimes so task-oriented that I can seem uncaring.  I often ask committees to slow me down so that everyone has time to make decisions at his or her speed.
  • When orienting new members of a group or helping an on-going group develop healthy interactions, give each member a card with one role (task or maintenance) listed and described. Ask people to assume the role on their card during that meeting.  Although this may feel stilted, it provides practice in a safe environment and pays long-term dividends.
  • Even the most well-intentioned people slip into blocking roles on occasion. We help our groups by knowing effective, gracious ways to move them back into helpful, respectful, and productive dialogue.

For more ideas on how to make your meetings thrive, check out my website: www.civicreinventions.com or send me an email mark.smutny@civicreinventions.com.

Copyright © 2019 Mark Smutny and Civic Reinventions, Inc. All rights reserved.