Small Team Dynamics: Communication is Like Oxygen


At our core, humans are primal creatures who cannot effectively operate in tribes of more than 150 people, a concept known as Dunbar’s number. This necessitates the birth of business units, functional groups, and project-based teams.

Small teams are prone to more informal management styles and often, implicit power structures evolve if a formal hierarchy is not established. It also means the role of each individual is exaggerated. Their personality and default behaviours are not so easily diluted by the mass of the organisation, requiring a higher level of accountability and self-awareness to curb negative behaviours we are each inherently at risk of.

The Belbin Team Inventory is a management tool to build more effective teams. As opposed to psychometric tests that measure personality (who we are), Belbin measures behaviour (what we do). It outlines nine specific roles that people adopt in a team environment, and the risks associated with each role. For example, ‘completer-finishers’ are masters of providing accurate results but also prone to perfectionism and a fear of delegation.

Communication is as critical as oxygen when managing these implicit hierarchies and understanding individual team roles. The task wrangler – or co-ordinator according to Belbin - is a useful role for establishing clear shared priorities, and regular communication to keep prioritised work on track.

The role of the task wrangler

The task-wrangler is then, not so much a stagnant management tool, but rather a communicator, planner, and confidante. They support the team to work towards:

  • Clarifying goals and responsibilities - every person has a set of goals and responsibilities. A significant contributing factor to falling engagement is the confusion over what one’s role actually is. The task wrangler not only drives the team to prioritise, but also to be clear about their individual role.
  • Integrity and transparency – transparency goes a ways toward lending credibility to the prioritisation process and building commitment to shared goals, but it isn’t the silver bullet.
  • Having courageous conversations – task wranglers must have the courage to be candid and encourage candour. Candour means people are more likely to speak up early, identify problems, and suggest solutions.
  • Maintaining a strong sense of team unity – praising successes, appreciating one another and celebrating diversity is so important to nurture the ‘stick-ability’ required to see through long-term goals. It also nurtures a safe environment to acknowledge our own flaws and be willing to step up and own blame.
  • Developing a growth mindset – not cold, hard, cash money growth, but rather an innate desire to step out of our comfort zones and ask for help to grow personally and professionally. This means initiating and soliciting feedback regularly, like now. And now. And now. In essence, kissing goodbye to annual performance reviews because every day is a day for reflection.

Managing day-to-day tasks remotely or in small team can be aided by clear processes and roles. However, it can be destructive if the focus is solely only outputs, performance metrics, and process. End-of-project success or failure is only one view. Teams also need to know — if it failed — why did it fail? We need to be able to talk openly and say, what should we try differently next time?

Some useful tools we’ve trialed at iwantmyname

As a team at iwantmyname, we know that happy people build cool shit and keep customers happy too. So when our remote team all got together this July, we used some tools to encourage candour, understand ourselves and create a safe environment for challenging and thought-provoking conversations:

  1. Social contract. Penning the iwantmyname social contract resulted in a resounding thumbs up from the whole team. It provides a benchmark to define desired behaviours and enables teammates to keep each other on course when negative behaviours inevitably crop up. You can easily co-write a social contract with your team that provides universal value – check out Automattic’s company creed.
  2. Team roles. Praising diversity and reflecting on team dynamics is an exercise that makes us appreciate each other. There are plenty of resources to explore the individual team roles we gravitate towards – check out Belbin’s Team Inventory, Business Chemistry, or the Margerison–McCann Team Management System. This provides a common language to navigate conflict.
  3. Evaluation. At iwantmyname we don’t run the gauntlet of annual performance reviews. Instead, we seek opportunities for self-reflection and compare this with external feedback. Try the ”Wheel of Life” as a tool to plot areas of personal value, rate yourself, and ask your peers for their feedback. Or, try Haack’s approach to self-evaluations.