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Groups and teamwork
Groups and teamwork

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3.2.4 Functional and team roles

When individuals are being selected for membership of a team, the choice is usually made on the basis of task-related issues, such as their prior skills, knowledge, and experience. However, team effectiveness is equally dependent on the personal qualities and attributes of individual team members. It is just as important to select for these as well.

When we work with other people in a group or team we each bring two types of role to that relationship. The first, and more obvious, is our functional role, which relies on the skills and experiences that we bring to the project or problem in hand. The second, and often overlooked, contribution is our team role, which tends to be based on our personality or preferred style of action. To a large extent, our team role can be said to determine how we apply the skills and experiences that comprise our functional role.

Belbin (1981 and 1993) researched the functional role/team role distinction and its implications for teams. He found that, while there are a few people who do not function well in any team role, most of us have perhaps two or three roles that we feel comfortable in (our so-called 'preferred roles') and others in which we feel less at ease (our so-called 'non-preferred roles'). In fact, Belbin and his associates identified nine such team roles. Some of the non-preferred roles are ones we can cope with if we have to. However, there are also likely to be others in which we are both uncomfortable and ineffective.

Belbin's nine team roles are listed in Table 3. It is worth noting that all nine are equally important to team effectiveness, provided that they are used by the team at the right times and in an appropriate manner.

When a team first addresses a problem or kicks off a project, the basic requirement is usually for innovative ideas (the need for a 'plant'), closely followed by the requirement to appreciate how these ideas can be turned into practical actions and manageable tasks (the 'implementer'). These steps stand most chance of being achieved if the team has a good chairperson (the 'coordinator') who ensures that the appropriate team members contribute at the right times. Drive and impetus are brought to the team's activities by the energetic 'shaper'. When delicate negotiations with contacts outside the team are called for, it is the personality of the 'resource investigator' that comes into its own. To stop the team becoming over-enthusiastic and missing key points, the 'monitor/evaluator' must be allowed to play a part. Any sources of friction or misunderstanding within the team are diffused by the 'teamworker', whilst the 'specialist' is used for skills or knowledge that are in short supply and not used regularly. The 'completer/finisher' ensures that proper attention is paid to the details of any solutions or follow-up actions.

It is essential that team members share details of their team roles with their colleagues if the team is to gain the full benefit from its range of roles; the team can then see if any of the nine team roles are missing. If this is the case, those team members whose non-preferred roles match the missing roles need to make the effort required to fill the gap. If not it may be necessary to bring in additional team members. Clearly, this sharing calls for a degree of openness and trust, which should exist in a well-organised, well-led team. Unfortunately, in teams that have not yet developed mutual trust and openness, some people who may be quite open about the details of their functional roles tend to be somewhat coy about sharing personality details. A competent leader will handle this situation in a sensitive manner.

Table 3 Belbin team roles
Team roleTeam strengthsAllowable weaknesses
PlantCreative, imaginative, unorthodoxWeak in communication skills
An innovatorEasily upset
Team's source of original ideasCan dwell on 'interesting ideas'
ImplementerTurns ideas into practical actionsSomewhat inflexible
Turns decisions into manageable tasksDoes not like 'airy-fairy' ideas
Brings method to the team's activitiesUpset by frequent changes of plan
Completer-finisherPainstaking and conscientiousAnxious introvert; inclined to worry
Sees tasks through to completionReluctant to delegate
Delivers on timeDislikes casual approach by others
Monitor-evaluatorOffers dispassionate, critical analysisLacks drive and inspiration
Has a strategic, discerning viewLacks warmth and imagination
Judges accurately; sees all optionsCan lower morale by being a damper
Resource investigatorDiplomat with many contactsLoses interest as enthusiasm wanes
Improviser; explores opportunitiesJumps from one task to another
Enthusiastic and communicativeThrives on pressure
ShaperTask minded; brings drive to the teamEasily provoked or frustrated
Makes things happen; pressurisesImpulsive and impatient
Dynamic, outgoing and challengingIntolerant of woolliness or vagueness
TeamworkerPromotes team harmony; diffuses frictionIndecisive in crunch situations
Listens; builds on the ideas of othersMay avoid confrontation situations
Sensitive but gently assertiveMay avoid commitment at decision time
CoordinatorClarifies goals; good chairpersonCan be seen as manipulative
Promotes decision makingInclined to let others do the work
Good communicator; social leaderMay take credit for the team's work
SpecialistProvides rare skills and knowledgeContributes only on a narrow front
Single-minded and focusedCommunication skills are often weak
Self-starting and dedicatedOften cannot see the 'big picture'

Managers sometimes try to rationalise having teams that are unbalanced in a team-role sense by claiming that they have been assigned a group of people as their team and they must live with it. In most of today's workplaces there is a steady and regular movement of staff in and out of management groups and departments. When selecting or accepting new people into their groups or departments, managers with an understanding of team-role concepts will look for team-role strengths in addition to functional-role strengths.

Each team role brings valuable strengths to the overall team (team strength), but each also has a downside. Belbin has coined the phrase 'an allowable weakness' for what is the converse of a team strength. The tendency is for a manager to try to correct perceived weaknesses in an employee. But by doing this with allowable weaknesses we face the possibility of not only failing to eradicate what is after all a natural weakness, but also risking undermining the strength that goes with it. This is not to suggest that weaknesses should not be addressed. The point is that any attempts at improvement should be kept in balance and we should be prepared to manage and work around the weaknesses of our team colleagues and ourselves. Many people put on an act in an attempt to hide their weaknesses. Once they see that they can admit to them without prejudice, they feel a sense of relief and are ready to play their part in the team in a more open manner.

Activity 4

Consider a recent meeting you have attended. Identify two or three of Belbin's team roles that best fit your perception of your role in the meeting.

Try asking a colleague you know well who also attended the meeting for his or her perception of your team role(s).

What are your 'allowable weaknesses'? What could you do in a meeting to compensate for them?