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Working in groups and teams
Working in groups and teams

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3 Team roles

Teams are often put together on the basis of the availability and skills of individuals, and managers are often not in a position to select team members. Yet such teams can and do function well. However, Meredith Belbin’s theory (1981) of team roles is popular and influential so it is important that you know about it. What managers really require is an understanding of how people are likely to behave in a team. But note that the behaviour of people is not fixed: it is influenced by context and the behaviour of others.

Box 5 Glenda’s troublesome team

Glenda recalled looking around the meeting room with satisfaction on the first day that her team met, feeling pleased that team members, between them, had the appropriate skills for the task. Three months later, however Matt, who had been chosen for his expert knowledge, never seemed to be able to see the ‘bigger picture’ – the entire task in context. As a result he occupied himself with detail and technicalities, and missed seeing important implications. Rob and Sara were quite the reverse but were argumentative. Jenny seemed uncommitted and Steve seemed to have lost all his initial enthusiasm. Glenda’s initial hopes of delivering high-quality results had turned to worries about whether the task could be done to an acceptable standard.

A team is more than a set of individuals with the appropriate skills. People bring to the team not only their knowledge and skills but also their personal attributes and the ways in which they behave, contribute and relate to others. A popular idea is that these individual characteristics should be taken account of in constructing teams. While we may not be in a position to select team members, according to Belbin we need to consider these behaviours when selecting a team. A person who is known to be confident and enthusiastic is likely to behave in the same way when he or she joins a team. If all team members behave in the same way, then not only is conflict likely but the quality of the task is likely to suffer.

By ensuring a balance of behaviours or ‘roles’ there is a greater likelihood that the team will perform well. Belbin’s research (1981) (developed and slightly amended over the years) identifies nine clusters of behaviours, or roles. He suggests that individuals will be more effective if they are allowed to play the roles they are most skilled in or most inclined to play, although they can adopt roles other than their preferred ones, if necessary.

Each role has both positive and negative aspects. The nine roles are:

  1. The implementer, who turns ideas into practical actions. Implementers may be inflexible, however, and may have difficulty in changing their well-thought-through plans.
  2. The coordinator, who clarifies goals and promotes decision-making. Coordinators often chair a team. They can sometimes be manipulative and delegate too much work to others.
  3. The shaper, who has the drive and courage to overcome obstacles, and ‘shapes’ others to meet the team’s objectives. Shapers may challenge others and may be aggressive at times.
  4. The plant, who solves difficult problems. Often creative and unorthodox, a plant will come up with ideas but may have difficulties communicating them.
  5. The resource investigator, who explores opportunities and develops contacts. However, initial enthusiasm may not be maintained to the end of the project, and detail may be overlooked.
  6. The monitor evaluator, who observes and assesses what is going on and seeks all options. Often working slowly and analytically, monitor evaluators come to the ‘right’ decisions but can be cynical and dampen the enthusiasm of others.
  7. The teamworker, who listens, builds relationships and tries to avoid or reduce conflict between team members. Considered to be the ‘oil’ that keeps the team running smoothly, teamworkers are good listeners and diplomats. They can smooth conflicts but may not be able to take decisive action when necessary.
  8. The completer finisher, who searches out errors and omissions and finishes on time. Often perfectionists, completer finishers are self-motivated and have high standards. They can worry about detail and can be reluctant or refuse to delegate work.
  9. The specialist, who provides knowledge and skill. Specialists can be passionate about gaining knowledge in their field. However, their contribution to the team may be narrow and they may not be interested in matters outside their own field.

The weaknesses of Belbin’s framework are that people’s behaviour and interpersonal styles are influenced by context: that is, the other people in the team, the relationship with them and by the task to be performed. Moreover, research into the validity of Belbin’s nine roles has shown that some are not easily distinguishable from one another and that the roles fit more easily into the more conventional framework of personality traits (Fisher et al., 2001).

However, Belbin’s framework has been very influential on organisational and managerial thinking about team building and development (although it is not the only one). Such frameworks are helpful in guiding the composition of a balanced team. When, as a manager, you have no control over the composition of a team it is important to discuss with team members their strengths and weaknesses and preferred working styles.