2 Team roles
In creating a team of people, a useful aspect to consider is the roles people prefer to take on. R. Meredith Belbin (1981, 1988) observed several teams in action and concluded that, to be effective, a number of roles were needed. He further suggested that different people had different preferred roles. Belbin’s categories are still widely used to understand roles in teams and how they relate to each other.
Box 2 Belbin’s team roles
Good at the end of the task at making sure that work is fully polished and of a high quality.
Good at planning a practical, workable strategy and carrying it out efficiently.
Dynamic and thriving on pressure, they tend to provide the necessary drive to ensure that the team keeps motivated and does not lose focus or momentum.
Good at maintaining focus on the team’s objectives, drawing out team members and delegating work appropriately.
Great networkers, they exploit their inside knowledge and connections to secure resources and promote the team’s ideas.
Good at helping the team to ‘gel’ and use their skills to do what is necessary for the team’s success.
Adopts a logical approach and makes impartial judgements where required: they are happy to weigh up the team’s options in a dispassionate way.
Tends to be highly creative and good at solving problems in unconventional ways. It helps to ‘plant’ one in each team.
Specialist [not in the original list, but added later]
Have an in-depth knowledge relevant to a specific task, who may not be needed in general teams but will be vital in other types of team.
However, each of Belbin’s team roles usually has a downside as well as an invaluable contribution to make. For example:
- specialists tend to have a narrow focus
- plants tend to be poor at actually getting something done
- completer–finishers may not be particularly creative.
It is important to bear in mind that Belbin’s roles are preferences rather than inevitable determinants of behaviour. People may also be able to perform more than one role. This means that people can consciously adopt less preferred roles if they realise that there is a ‘gap’ in the team.
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.
Belbin’s theory (1981) of team roles remains popular and influential, but what managers really require is an understanding of how people are likely to behave in a team. It is important to note that people’s behaviour is not fixed: rather, it is influenced by context and the behaviour of others.
Activity 3 Identifying team roles
Look back at your responses to Activity 2 and write notes on the following questions:
- Which of Belbin’s roles would you have expected Marek, the chair of the trustees and of the meeting, to play?
- Which roles were missing?
- If you had been at the meeting, which of these missing roles might you have felt comfortable to take on yourself?
Coordinator is an obvious chairing role – indeed ‘chairman’ was the term Belbin used for this role in his original (1981) list. Resource investigator, team worker and shaper would also be appropriate roles for a team leader. In the case study, Marek didn’t always exhibit expertise in all these roles and, inevitably, not all team leaders or chairs of meeting are comfortable in all these roles. Indeed, they may not have had relevant training to meet the demands of the role.
The missing roles at the meeting perhaps included a monitor–evaluator, completer–finisher and implementer. The case study implies that Kai, who was not present at the meeting, was a specialist in volunteer issues.
Other members can do much to improve the effectiveness of the meeting by quietly taking on one or more of the missing roles. Perhaps a timekeeper is needed. Someone else could focus on keeping other team members motivated by both summarising progress and commenting on the usefulness of particular contributions. Someone could also take on the completer–finisher role if discussion moves on without necessary actions being agreed.
A team is more than a set of individuals with the appropriate skills. People bring to teams 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 into account when constructing teams. 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. However, if all team members behave in the same way, then not only is conflict likely but the quality of the task is also likely to suffer.
The weakness of Belbin’s framework is that people’s behaviour and interpersonal styles are influenced by context: that is, the other people in the team, their relationships with them and by the tasks to be performed.