Each of us has probably had a particularly tight-knit group of close friends, or been part of a well-functioning and cohesive team that just felt so very “right.” Maybe it was a platoon in the army, a fire crew, or just a group of old friends. The type of small group, squad, or team where each personality involved seemed destined to have been put there to create a whole better than the sum of its parts.
Social scientists have actually tried to break down and analyze these types of groupings, to figure out the ideal mix of personality types that form that perfect team. NASA also studies these group dynamics in relation to long-term missions in outer space.
My scientifically uninformed analysis, forged over 20 total years spent in the Navy SEALs, at the CIA, and in the fire service, has led me to conclude that those special groupings are usually made up of a collection of personalities that almost always include the following roles:
Ideally, the members of the perfect team should share a common sense of humor. It is as if humor is the oil lubricating the machine that is the team. Without it, things simply would not run as smoothly. It is how tensions are managed, how conflict is often avoided (and resolved), and how the team moves forward in almost all situations. There is usually one or two humorists who stand out above the others, and who really are the critical ingredient to the magic of the team dynamic.
One NASA study found that humor was a critical element in a small team confined to a small vessel traveling for long periods of time in space.
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Even with a shared sense of humor that eases tensions most of the time, tensions do sometimes arise and can prove destructive to the team. The diffuser has a keen sense of the emergence of tensions, usually before they ever become a problem, and then uses whatever means required to alleviate them. Whatever technique is employed, the diffuser usually succeeds in letting the air out of the stress balloon.
Sometimes tensions cannot be diffused with humor or in any other way until a conflict is actually resolved. Here steps in the referee. This is often an informal role but sometimes needs to be formal, in the form of an official team leader. In both cases, the referee steps in to be an unbiased arbitrator. The referee generally keeps minor conflicts from becoming major and prevents the group from self-destructing over unresolved problems.
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The outlet vessel
Similar to the person often referred to as a “whipping boy,” the outlet vessel is that member of the group who often finds themselves the target of the team’s jokes. Just when the group needs an outlet for its accumulated tension, the diffuser or the humorist might launch a good-natured attack on the outlet vessel as a way to ease tensions.
Critically, the outlet vessel himself must be both able and willing to accept those good-natured jibes. Also, the dynamic cannot work without this acceptance and the other members’ unspoken commitment to avoid abusing the outlet vessel. It is an important role and takes just the right personality to handle it well. They must have a playful sense of humor and see the jokes as signs of love and affection that they are. The outlet vessel is one of the most essential ingredients of the team’s unique cohesion.
The font of wisdom is often the group’s oldest member. They are the wisened and seasoned veteran who has seen and done it all. They are the ones usually sitting back and taking in all the team’s inside jokes, shaking their heads and only chiming in when they feel it necessary. Their singular role makes them stand almost apart from the group, but also a pillar of it. They are often also the team leader, the referee, and the diffuser, all in one, and know how special the team’s dynamic is.
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Another critical role within the group is the person who questions decisions, acts as the devil’s advocate, and generally refuses to unwaveringly accept every decision or action of the team. This person acts as the conscience of the group’s hive mind seeing the fault in certain decisions and does not hesitate to speak up and try to change the ship’s course. The truly successful challenger does not seek to disrupt the team and its efforts but rather sees themselves as a critical part of ensuring the direction is true and right.
Finally, every team or group has a leader. They can be a formal leader, like a captain or group leader, or they can be an informal leader whose role is never truly defined as such. In either case, the leader recognizes the importance of each of the above roles and ensures that they are all represented within the team. When one of them is lacking, the leader must fill in for that role, and preserve the team’s dynamic.
The leader knows how rare and fragile is a perfect team’s dynamic and protects it at all costs so that the team can reach its full potential. The leader knows that the team is greater than the sum of its parts, and is most effective when all its component parts feel valued and valuable.
Feature Image: Members of mayor cell stationed in Bemowo Piskie, Poland pose by the historic landmark on their base. BPTA is a NATO base located in the eastern part of Poland. (Photo by Maj. Olha Vandergriff/U.S. Army)
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include a new set of images.
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