In the New York Times bestselling book, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior,  authors Ori and Rom Brafman explore the value of different roles in group dynamics. The book references a study in which family therapist David Kantor set up cameras throughout many rooms in different family homes. In every family he studied, members traded off playing one of four distinct roles:

  • Initiators: Have new ideas. Highly optimistic about new ideas/projects.
  • Blockers: Likely to question or block new ideas/projects.
  • Supporters: Side with either the initiator or the blocker.
  • Observers: Just observe. They don’t take sides but rather comment on the obvious.

These roles are not just found in families, but in almost every kind of group you can imagine. And as a manager, you may want to stack your team with lots of initiators and very few blockers. As the book finds, though, blockers are a very important part of group dynamics: they often save us from getting into trouble.

Maybe you were an initiator at your last operations meeting and had the brilliant idea to host a skateboarding competition in your garage, only to have the blocker shoot it down due to important safety and security issues. Blockers are so important that some companies pay people to fill the role. In a program designed by NASA, airline crews are trained to block a captain’s decision when he or she might skip certain safety procedures or make questionable decisions.

Early in my career, I managed an on-street operation that was approached by a television production company looking to follow our officers as they wrote tickets and dealt with the public. I was excited about this new idea–a reality show based on our parking operation! A producer and filming crew followed us around for several days filming the pilot. They liked what they saw and proceeded with their pitch to our board of directors. Luckily, blockers on the board shot down the idea.

“It’s a reality show. They’ll only focus on conflict, on the negative,” said one smart board director. He was blocking, and he was correct. We ended up not signing the contract, which I am quite thankful for now.

Be thankful for your blockers. They are an integral part of the decision-making process and often have probably saved you from making a big mistake, like the time you had the idea to let Hollywood blow up your garage for a new summer blockbuster movie (not, of course, that we know anyone who’d do that).