On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

Who is in control? Tips for team effectiveness

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

Aren't you responsible for it? Who gets to make that decision? Why can't someone fix this? Don't I own that? Why are we talking about this if we can't do anything about it? Questions such as these are about control.

Control of team

And there is little doubt that control "issues" can create problems.

In 1981, after an attempt on President Reagan's life, Secretary of State Alexander Haig stated, "I am in control here in the White House." That statement stirred up a maelstrom of controversy. Was he really in charge? What did he mean by "in charge"? Haig was viewed by many as overreaching, which dogged him through the rest of his career.

How can you constructively manage control issues? Let's see what the research can tell us...

What Does the Research Tell Us?

Having a sense of control is linked to positive outcomes. In an extensive meta-analysis, Paul Spector showed that perceived control is positively related to employee satisfaction, commitment, involvement, motivation, and performance. Perceived lack of control is related to feelings of distress, physical symptoms, and turnover. In other words, people generally like and benefit from having a sense of control. Of course, we all know someone who really, really likes to be in control (and some scientists have even claimed that the need for control is a biological imperative). But there are many aspects of our lives, both inside and outside of work that we truly cannot control.

The inability to let go of things outside our control is unhealthy (literally). While a sense of control is helpful, a false sense of control is problematic. In a program of research conducted across multiple samples, from adolescents to adults and even the elderly, Gregory Miller, Carsten Wrosch and their colleagues consistently found that holding on to unattainable goals is linked to a variety of physiological and psychological symptoms. Among those symptoms is excessive inflammation, which is a key source of many adverse medical outcomes. Their research highlights the imporance of learning to let go of some things that we can't do anything about. 

Uncertainty about who is in control can create problems. Role ambiguity can be detrimental. Travis Tubre and Judith Collins conducted a meta-analysis that showed that on average, role ambiguity adversely affects job performance. Another meta-analysis, by Erin Eatough and her colleagues, revealed that when role ambiguity is high, employees are also less likely to contribute in ways that are outside their normal job requirements (what psychologists like to call "organizational citizenship behaviors"). Lack of role clarity won't always lead to a tangible teamwork problem, and it is not always feasible to specify every role contingency, but failing to clarify who "owns" major tasks and decisions creates a clear risk to team effectiveness.

Implications for Team Effectiveness
So based on the research, what can you do to sustain and increase team effectiveness?

1. Clarify roles periodically.

Don't assume that all team members know who owns various tasks and decisions. And even if they do know currently, stuff happens. New people join the team, and responsibilities may shift or need to change. So explicitly clarify team member responsibilities periodically to reduce role ambiguity.

Several years ago Becky Beard, Ed Salas, and I conducted a review of prior team building studies. We found that role clarification exercises are one of the most effective team building interventions. This was echoed in a subsequent meta-analysis that showed similar results.

There are a few common role clarification techniques (e.g., RACI charting) that share a similar approach:

a) identify key tasks and decisions, and for each one...

b) establish who is responsible for it (owns it), who performs it, who should be consulted (before action), and who should be informed (after it is done).

Recently, we have started conducting "proactive" role clarity exercises with teams. We ask the team to anticipate role requirements if a particular situation were to emerge or if a forthcoming change were implemented. You can think of it as an inoculation against future role ambiguity. So, Mr Haig, if President Reagan were to be incapacitated while the Veep is travelling, who would be in charge?

2. Clarify what is within and outside of the team's control – and agree to let go of some stuff.

What happens when, meeting after meeting, a member of your team repeatedly brings up a problem that everyone on the team knows can't be addressed? Revisiting issues that the team can neither control nor influence drains a team's energy and distracts the team from the issues they can address. Therefore, it is helpful to consciously clarify what is within the team's control. It can be helpful to think about three "zones of influence":


Degree of Control

The Team Should

Act Zone

Within the team’s control

Decide – do it or not

Affect Zone

Can’t control but may be able to influence

Attempt to seek approval

Accept Zone

Can neither control nor influence

Let it go (LIG)

© 2007 - 2014 The Group for Organizational Effectiveness, Inc.

Anecdotally, we've found that teams that discuss what they can and can't control and that agree to minimize the time they spend dwelling on things in their accept zone are more productive and spend less time "churning." For team leaders, it is important to recognize that you may be able to control or influence some items that your team cannot. Use your larger sphere of influence to help the team, but be very careful not to convey that you will "take care" of something that is only in your affect zone. If you don't control it, you should only commit to researching it and reporting back.

3. Let people know when they are "in control."

Remember, people appreciate having some sense of control in their lives. And while no one is in control all the time, (even the CEO faces the Board or goes home to his or her spouse!), it sure helps to know that we are in control of something!

Team Leaders. Do your team members feel like they control anything? The greater your personal need for control (I plead guilty your honor), the less likely you are to consciously cede control to others. Try to give your team members some tasks and decisions that are truly within their control, and when you do so, make sure they know what they control. For example, you could tell a team member, "You decide who to put on the project team and you own the overall project plan. But you'll need my approval for any budget increases and I'd like to know if there are any problems or delays."

Working with a Business Leader. What about working with a business leader who has the ultimate control? Research has shown that it can be beneficial to remind people that they are in control. A recent meta-analysis revealed that adding the phrase "but you are free to decide" when making a request actually increases the likelihood that people will do what you request! So when you are trying to influence a business leader, it can help to say, "The decision is yours, but I'd encourage you to change the timeline for the following reasons." And of course, you haven't given away anything since the leader already owned the decision – you just made it clear that both of you know it.

If we are honest with ourselves, we'd acknowledge that at times we all deal with control issues in our personal and professional lives. So consider, when are control issues most likely to emerge for you and how do you work through them constructively?