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Let’s talk about it: Intra-team communication and role ambiguity

Editor’s note: This article is a continuation of our series focused on communicating findings from peer-reviewed sports psychology research to the masses. At the end of the post, you can find additional information, including a link to the original research article.

Recently, we’ve written a lot about soft things like team chemistry (here and here), psychological safety, and leadership. All of these ideas relate to another soft variable: role definition, or the amount of clarity around players’ roles and responsibilities on a team. As you might expect, research indicates that clearly defined roles are a good thing: Teams whose players know what they should be doing tend to do better than those whose members don’t. The flip side, then, is not so good: Role ambiguity is negatively related to cohesion, satisfaction, and performance.

But what, exactly, dictates the amount of role definition in team sports? Research by Ian J. Cunningham and Mark A. Eys published in Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2007 indicates that one factor is the amount of communication that occurs between team members (or intra-team communication).

To examine the links between the degree to which team members communicated in various forms and their perceptions of how well they understood their role on the team, Cunningham and Eys surveyed 116 intercollegiate athletes from 6 teams (mostly basketball and soccer, but also rugby, volleyball, water polo, and field hockey). The researchers surveyed the players approximately one month into their competitive season, and included starters, nonstarters, and practice roster players; the players ranged in age from 17-27 (average = 21).

The questionnaire measured four dimensions of intra-team communication: 1. Acceptance, 2. Distinctiveness, 3. Positive conflict, and 4. Negative conflict (see Table 1).

Table 1: Dimensions of Intra-team Communication
Examples (follow the stem, Teammates as a whole…”)
“…display mutual respect”
“…trust each other”
“…use nicknames”
“…use gestures that only people on the team would understand”
Positive conflict
“…get all problems out in the open”
“…can clearly express when we are upset”
Negative conflict
“…shout when upset”
“…communicate anger through body language”

The authors also assessed each of four dimensions of role ambiguity twice, once for offense and once for defense: 1. Scope of responsibilities, 2. Behaviors necessary to fulfill responsibilities, 3. Evaluation of role performance, and 4. Consequences of not fulfilling role (see Table 2).

Table 2: Dimensions of Role Ambiguity
Scope of responsibilities
“I understand the extent of my responsibilities”
“I am unclear about the breadth of my responsibilities”
Behaviors necessary to fulfill role
“I understand the behaviors I must perform to carry out my role”
“I am unclear what behaviors are expected of me in order to carry out my role”
Evaluation of role performance
“I understand the criteria by which my role responsibilities are evaluated”
“I am unclear about the way in which my role responsibilities are evaluated”
Consequences of not fulfilling role
“I understand the consequences of unsuccessful role performance”
“I am unclear about the consequences of failing to carry out my role responsibilities”

Overall, the results of Cunningham and Eys’ study indicated that intra-team communication and role ambiguity are negatively related: The less supportive and considerate interactions between teammates, the more ambiguously they perceived their roles. Put another way, greater positivity and support among teammates was associated with greater clarity of roles — something that we know predicts team success.

In addition to this main finding, the authors uncovered some interesting gender differences. First, for males, intra-team communication involving support was related to all dimensions of role ambiguity, on both offense and defense. However, for females, positive intra-team communication was only related to one aspect of role ambiguity (evaluation of responsibilities), only on defense. Cunningham and Eys suggest that supportive intra-team communication may have a greater influence on role definition for male teammates than for females.

Increasing role clarity on your team
Cunningham and Eys argue that supportive and considerate teammate exchanges can “set the stage” for teammates to receive role-relevant information appropriately. For example, if a player thinks that her teammates have her best interests in mind, she may be more likely to listen and digest critical task-related information.

As a result, team-building opportunities aimed at creating trust and support networks within the team (like for psychological safety) could facilitate greater role understanding for teammates in the long-term. The better defined players’ roles are, the more they should flourish — and hopefully win.

The citation for the article on which this post is based is below:

Cunningham, I. J. and Eys, M. A. (2007), Role Ambiguity and Intra-Team Communication in Interdependent Sport Teams. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37, 2220–2237.

You can find the article itself here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2007.00256.x/abstract

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