More from the ants: Understanding team roles

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We explored in our previous post about the leadership mentoring and communication process of ants. In this article, we will take another look at ants to see what we can learn from them about teamwork. As usual, let’s start with their story.

Ants live in colonies consisting of millions of individuals. They don’t have leaders. Although there is the queen ant, she doesn’t tell the other ants what to do. Every ant knows their own roles and carries out their tasks faithfully. They are able to work together effectively because they all have the same goal for the good and unity of the colony.

In an ant colony, different ants have different team roles. There are the worker ants, drones and queen ants. Amongst the worker ants, there are workers of different sizes. The larger ants have stronger mandibles which are more effective for fighting. These are also known as soldier ants, although most of the time they will do the work of a worker ant. Meanwhile, the smaller ants are in charge of taking care of the young.

What is interesting is that the role of an ant may change with age. A new worker ant spends the first few days of its adult life caring for the queen and young. As it grows, it may then move on to digging and other nest work, and later to defending the nest and foraging. The ants’ roles also change depending upon the needs of the colony. When under attack, more soldiers will be summoned to the defence, leaving their worker roles for the more urgent task. In another observation, a researcher removed the colony’s access to food. Instead of wasting time or being idle, the food-hunting ants quickly switched to another task – taking care of the little ones!

So what can we relate to with the ants about team roles?

Amongst the success solution frameworks used at MindLife Success is the Margerison & McCann Team Management System. In their research,  Margerison & McCann discovered that usually, people work better in areas that match their preferences. We all have different preferences for the way that we think, plan and communicate. We will tend to practice what we prefer, and therefore perform better in those areas. This will in turn give us pleasure from the work.

Our different work preferences ultimately settle us into different types of work. Like the ants, this is expressed in terms of different team roles. Understanding the types of work and role preferences is critical in developing individual, team, and organizational performance. The Margerison-McCann Team Management Wheel describes eight different role preferences when working in a team. These are illustrated in the wheel below.

These role preferences are related with the different types of work  described briefly below.

Advising Gathering and reporting information
Innovating Creating and experimenting with ideas
Promoting Exploring and presenting opportunities
Developing Assessing and testing the applicability of new approaches
Organising Establishing and implementing ways to make things work
Producing Concluding and delivering outputs
Inspecting Controlling and auditing the working of systems
Maintaining Upholding and safeguarding standards and processes

As the ants take on different roles while working towards their common goal, all work teams need to consider these eight key activities for high-performance. Moreover, at the center of the wheel lies the skills of Linking. Linking comprises people, task and leadership linking skills that all team members need to develop to coordinate and integrate their work towards achieving success.

Which areas of work preferences might you be good at?
Which areas of work preferences might you need to improve in?

What of the ants changing roles then? In their research and team management systems model, Margerison & McCann also describe that while people’s work preferences remain relatively stable over short periods, movement in work preferences can occur as a gradual change over longer time.

Line managers may, for example, develop from their initial role of Concluder-Producer to Thruster-Organiser, and then to Assessor-Developer, as they are required to be more outgoing and creative in their tasks. This change has been termed as a ‘career journey’, and is often noticed in people who have made a conscious effort to develop themselves, usually in response to the requirements of their work.

Like the ants, people too need to respond to the needs of the team and organisation, sometimes taking on a ‘role sacrifice’ of working in a less preferred role when necessary. And as they practice what they do, they will perform better in that less preferred role and therefore find more pleasure in the work. Your secondary preference might become a primary preference, if you are willing to develop into that role. Understanding your creative motivational environment through our VIPS Following Leadership framework can help you to grow.

Once again, we see so many parallels in the world of nature from which to draw inspirations for our leadership. From the ant to the zebra… from the acacia to the zucchini… there are so many lessons that we can learn from animals and plants about growing our character and leadership strengths.

Join us on an amazing journey of discovery and reflection with our Leadership of Nature™ series as we see and hear inspirational stories from nature, as well as put into practice life changing applications for success in our lives!

To learn more about using the Margerison-McCann Team Management System in your workplace, contact us for more information today.

(article by Ling Hua Loon:

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