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Periodic Table of Leadership: "Suprafluid"

November 25, 2019

Social roles in a team as the 5th state of aggregate

To understand what effective leadership is really all about, it can help to take a look at the periodic table of leadership. Skills, methodological competences, and strengths can be assigned to four clearly defined categories modeled on the four states of aggregate: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. What is little known, however, is that, just like elements of the periodic table, leadership also comes in a fifth state of matter: “suprafluid” – a state referring to the social roles within a team. Suprafluidity is a particularly important state as it directly impacts all other aggregate states and determines whether individual (leadership) competencies can have an impact or not. Helga Pattart-Drexler, Head of Executive Education at the WU Executive Academy, talks about the quality of “superfluidity” in leadership and how social roles shape real-life management decisions.

Pic of the Periodic Table of Leadership
The Periodic Table of Leadership

Solid, liquid, gas, and plasma: we all know these states of aggregate. But have you heard about suprafluidity? In nature, suprafluidity only occurs in helium and lithium. In companies, alas, it is just as rare. Suprafluidity describes particles that are in a frictionless state: they are in a perfect equilibrium. In a team, such a suprafluid state has been achieved when it is well balanced and able to work in full flow without being hampered by conflicts or points of friction. To reach such a state, every team member has to fulfil the role that is most suitable to them and ideally complements the other team members’ roles. “In recruiting, we often talk about tasks, competences, and functions. Very few HR managers and recruiters fill team positions based on which social role is missing in a team,” Helga Pattart-Drexler, Head of Executive Education at the WU Executive Academy, explains. This is a mistake as social roles in a team are just as much a part of the “periodic table of leadership” developed by Helga Pattart-Drexler and her team as hard and soft skills, methodological competence, and the ability to lead. The fact that this periodic table is very successfully applied in tailor-made corporate executive and team trainings bears proof to the viability of the system.

The Role is Key

When projects fail, it is often not due to a lack of expert knowledge but poorly planned, ineffective workflows and implicit conflicts of interest within a team. Among the potential causes for failure, the social roles (often unconsciously) adopted by team members are frequently overlooked and rarely analyzed by executives. In the 1970s, the British researcher Raymond Meredith Belbin developed a method for leading teams, in the process of which he identified various roles within a team. In this model, it is crucial that roles are staffed by suitable people who, as a result, can optimally exercise their talents in the position. Each role has specific strengths and weaknesses. It is key that also managers identify their own role and optimally contribute to the team according to their strengths and create the space needed for all team members to live up to their potential.

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A pitfall managers should be careful to avoid is mixing up a person’s role with their personality. Roles are altered when the group makeup or conditions change as members unconsciously adopt new roles or adapt existing ones. The more consciously a team deals with its allocation of roles, the more effective it will be with regard to both roles and tasks distribution. If there are tensions and conflicts, they should be taken seriously as potential indications that there might be a serious problem with the group or its makeup. It is thus not advisable to blame individual team members as it is not unlikely that they are simply unable to use their talents in the role assigned to them.

    • The Organizer (Org)

      understands the big picture, adds a sense of direction in planning, is result-oriented and ambitious, makes sure tasks and plans are being realized.

      • Strengths: flexible and reliable, diligent team player, likes to organize things, gives things a structure
    • The Boss (Boss)

      spearheads and motivates the group, provides structure and orientation, works to create team cohesion, offers support whenever they can.

      • Strengths: proactive, willing to take risks, makes decisions, trusts team members’ strengths.
    • The Consultant (Cons)

      continuously analyzes framework conditions and gives recommendations accordingly, counsels team members.

      • Strengths: quick learner and apt at adjusting to new situations, empathetic and able to think on their feet.
    • The Enthusiast (Ent)

      creates a fun and relaxed atmosphere in the team, inspires and motivates others.

      • Strengths: a true team player, an optimist convinced of a positive outcome, can motivate others due to their strong communication skills.
    • The Artist (Art)

      asks unconventional questions, helps others gain new perspectives, acts impulsively.

      • Strengths: creative and highly communicative, open and not averse to risks, motivates others, likes to make decisions.
    • The Maker (Make)

      is always implementing steps, gets things done, not afraid of challenges, motivates others to perform at their best.

      • Strengths: resilient and disciplined, able to motivate themselves and others.
    • The Helper (Help)

      was born to help others, most comfortable acting as a caretaker, always there when help is needed.

      • Strengths: empathetic, does not shy away from difficult topics, proactively offers help, not above any task.

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