Aker saga highlights the challenges of the ‘Specialist’ team role

The sacking this week of professional footballer, Brownlow medalist and three time premiership player Jason Akermanis by the Western Bulldogs (Australian Football League) highlights the challenges of being a ‘specialist’.

Meredith R Belbin (www.belbin.com) has conducted a vast amount of research and written many books on the subject of creating effective teams. Belbin’s nine team-roles include a role known as the ‘Specialist’. A Specialist is a person who has exceptional and rare technical skills that the rest of the team do not possess. However, a specialist has a very narrow focus and tends not to be interested in the many facets of being in a team that are being their role as a specialist. Teams are able to tolerate specialists because of their technical brilliance, but that tolerance can come at a cost when the team members are not aware of their various personal team role preferences.

This is one of the reasons why we advocate that teams should be aware of the various preferences of the individual members who participate in the team. Belbin’s research shows that teams can be successful when a specialist is in the team. However, the specialist MUST be a true specialist (that is, they must possess a current skill or technical ability that is currently rare and outstanding) and the rest of the team MUST be able to accept that they will ‘play’ to different rules than the rest of the team.

Jason Akermanis (Aker) is an example of a ‘used to be specialist’. There is no doubt that for much of his career he displayed a rare and exceptional skill set. So much so that his individual approach was sustained by the teams with whom he played. However, as he aged and his career progressed, his specialist technical skills became less rare and his ageing body found it harder and harder to perform at such a high level of individual talent.

As this occurred the tolerance of the rest of the team to him ‘not playing by the rest of the team’s rules’ became less and less. Until, of course, the tolerance for his ‘specialist behaviours’ could no longer be outweighed by his lack of ‘specialist’ performance. In other words, the progress of the game and Aker’s age eventually caught up with him – he was no longer a true specialist, yet he continued to behave like one (which, of course is his preference so he was unlikely to change. In addition, he had in fact been justifiably rewarded for such behaviour for 325 games, reducing further the probability that he would change his behaviour.)

If you watched the ‘Footy Show‘ on Thursday night many of Aker’s comments were consistent with those of the ‘specialist’ team role. He mentioned that he wasn’t very interested in the feedback process meetings and that he still considered that all that mattered was how he performed on the training track and in games. This is exactly how a specialist views the world and there is nothing wrong with that. Except, of course, when the ‘specialist’ no longer performs to the exceptional standards of a current day ‘specialist’.

Belbin’s research highlights that a person can have a preference for a role and no longer ‘perform’ according to the expectations of that team role preference. Belbin goes on to say that the most damaging condition that reduces a team’s performance is when a team member has what is known as an ‘incoherent team role preference’. This means that the person’s team role preference is NOT how they behave. This underpins the great challenge of being a specialist. The minute you know longer display rare and exceptional technical ability, no longer are you a true specialist. The very nature of specialists is that they are unlikely to see this change themselves. They will still see themselves as a specialist and will therefore display the characteristics of an ‘incoherent team-role preference.’

Another challenge of the specialist team role is that Belbin recommends team sizes of no more than ten members. AFL squads include 40 team members when ‘rookies’ are included. Such a large team size increases the challenges of working with specialists because the increase in numbers also increases the chances that a number of tthe team members will not like having to tolerate the ‘individual first’ approach of the specialist. In other words, specialists must have other team role preferences that they can also behave in alignment with, so that they aren’t ‘just a specialist’ if they are to survive as team numbers grow.

The challenge of course for elite sport is that specialists have, over time, contributed to team success. I do wonder if the evolution of the AFL is such that the specialist team role preference (if that is the only functional preference of the team member) is unlikely to be sustainable for long periods as the challenges of working with a specialist increase the complexity of team cohesiveness.

That said, Belbin’s research highlights that teams can tolerate and take advantage of ‘specialists’. In order to do so teams need a high level of both individual and ‘team’ awareness.

I appreciate that the concept of team-role preferences is foreign for a lot of people, and that some people see this type of concept as ‘fluff’. However, in my 15 years of Personal & Professional Development experience I have seen time again the lack of awareness of these issues cause teams to perform well below their capacity.

How aware of team role preferences are you regarding the members of your teams? Do you talk about these preferences and how they manifest themselves in how team members behave? If you do have a specialist in your team, how are you managing the complexities that arise from such a preference?

Please feel free to share your experiences of working with specialists and/or how you use team role awareness to enhance the performance of your team.

Gary Ryan has worked for several years in elite sport and currently sits on an Advisory Board for the AFL Coaches Association.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
Visit Gary at http://garyryans.com