‘Everyone should think like me’ No, they shouldn’t Part 2

Imagine a football (soccer) team where every player is a striker. Makes sense, surely, because strikers score the goals? So let’s have a team of strikers. Do that, and the team will lose every match.

The result would be the same if every (American) football team only had quarterbacks, or a cricket team only had fast bowlers, or a baseball team only had pitchers. It would be equally disastrous if an orchestra only had trombone players, or a shipbuilding yard only had welders, or a Formula One team only had drivers, or an army unit only had snipers, or a ship only had navigators.

The obvious point in all these examples is that everyone in a ‘team’ can’t be alike. No matter how wonderful some skills are, a team can’t have only that skill. When everyone is the same, the team won’t succeed.

That was the point made in the last blog.[1] A strong team can’t be homogeneous; it must be heterogeneous. The team can’t consist of lookalikes, but of people with diverse instincts, ideas, and abilities.

In this blog I want to show what that can mean in practice by explaining a system used widely by management experts. It’s not the only system, but this one is known and practised round the world. It is worth our attention.

Before getting into the details, just a short bio about its designer.

Raymond Meredith Belbin – known by his middle name – was born in 1926 in the south east England county of Kent. He might have struggled to get a place at the University of Cambridge in 1945 because World War II had just ended, and universities were swamped with applications from ex-servicemen. But few of those ex-servicemen wanted to study Classics. Meredith did. He was in! But after two years he wearied of ancient Greek and Latin literature, and switched to studying psychology. That had both career and personal consequences – career wise, because he learned to analyse human behaviour; personal, because he met a fellow psychology student called Eunice, and she became his wife. One degree completed, Meredith started another, this time a doctorate focused on the Psychology of Ageing in Industry.

After Cambridge, Meredith got a research fellowship which took him to over a hundred companies, assessing how work patterns change with age. He combined that with work for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, looking at how the talents of underprivileged people were used or wasted. One of Meredith’s key findings was that the underprivileged suffered from low self-esteem in the work place unless put in exactly the right role for their skills. Only then did they have job satisfaction. It was a significant finding for Meredith.

Through connections his wife had in her professional work, Meredith was invited to do more research linked to a college at Henley-on-Thames. Meredith, Eunice and three others studied management teams in action. Business games were used to assess the interactions and contributions of each participant. It was the beginning of Team Role theory. Eventually that became the subject of Meredith’s ground-breaking 1981 book ‘Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail’.[2] Now in its 3rd edition, it was named one of the top 50 management books of all time.

So the mission began. In 1988 Meredith, Eunice and their son Nigel established Belbin Associates to share Belbin Team Roles worldwide. It continues today, with management and individuals around the globe using Belbin’s model to assess the effectiveness of their teams. These days Belbin Associates operate from a base just outside Cambridge. They tell their own story of how Belbin Team Roles came about at: https://www.belbin.com/about/our-story.

Let’s move on now to understand what Belbin’s Team Roles are all about.

The fundamental thesis  Behind Belbin’s team roles lie some fundamental assumptions:[3]

  • Individuals are brilliant, but insufficient on their own
  • Groups are good, but only when working well together. Belbin says: ‘What is needed is not well balanced individuals, but individuals who balance well with each other’. And: ‘Do you want a collection of brilliant minds or a brilliant collection of minds?’
  • Success depends not on the strengths of individuals, but on the strengths of the team.
  • The strongest teams have a diversity of characters and personality types

Belbin sees teams differently from how they all-too-often exist in corporations and not-for-profits where the same group exists from year to year. For Belbin, that model is too static:

‘The classic way for a team to fail is to ignore the context in which they’re working. A team should not be comprised of people who are in it as a matter of entitlement. It should be something that grows, something that’s flexible – people come in and out. Like actors on a stage, there are exits and entrances. Projects are often rolling affairs and you need different people at different stages.’[4]

That last sentence, that you need different people at different stages, is key to his team roles.

Belbin’s Team Roles    Belbin originally identified eight roles, but later added one more. Each team role, he says, is ‘a tendency to behave, contribute and interrelate with others in a particular way’.  He brings these tendencies together in ‘nine clusters of behavioural attributes’. These useful behaviours – ways of thinking and acting – are important for a team’s success.

So, is Belbin saying an ideal team has nine people? He is definitely not saying that. The right people can likely cover two or three team roles each. Belbin favours a team of only about five in number.

Just below I summarise each of the nine team roles. However, you will find these roles presented more fully, clearly and colourfully at https://www.belbin.com/about/belbin-team-roles and, in a different but still very useful form, at: https://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/dmg/tools-and-techniques/belbins-team-roles/

The nine roles are divided into three groups of three. Each role is one which a good team needs, so there’s no ranking of roles, as if some are more important than others. Have a look at the table, and then read my explanatory notes below it.

CoordinatorMature, confident, focuses on team’s objectives, involves everyone, delegates wellManipulative, offloads work
Resource investigatorEnthusiastic, explores opportunities, makes contactsMay be over-optimistic, can lose interest
TeamworkerCooperative, listener, diminishes frictionIndecisive, avoids confrontation
PlantCreative, idea generator, problem solverCan ignore details, forget to communicate
Monitor evaluatorSober, strategic, weighs optionsMay be overly critical, uninspiring to others
SpecialistSpecialist knowledge / skills, single-mindedNarrow focus, may dwell on details
ShaperMoves group forward, loves pressure, dynamic, overcomes obstaclesCan provoke and offend others
ImplementerMakes strategy workable and efficient in delivery, practical, turns ideas into actionMay resist changes to their plans
Completer FinisherPainstaking. Near the end, scrutinises for errors, polishes and perfects proposalsMay worry unduly. Does not readily delegate

As you can see, there are three columns in the table. The left hand column has the role titles. The middle column combines qualities and skills. The right column details (what Belbin calls) ‘allowable weaknesses’ for the person in that role.

As mentioned earlier, there are three groups of three. That’s how Belbin sets out these roles. Others name the first three ‘people-oriented roles’, the middle three ‘cerebral roles’ and the last three ‘action-oriented roles’. Personally I don’t find these group titles helpful. Surely every role is people-oriented, involves thinking and leads to action.  

My thoughts on some of these roles:

  • The ‘coordinator’ is very likely the chairperson of the group. This person directs the agenda, and largely enables all the other roles to happen.
  • I hope everyone has ideas, but I also recognise that a ‘resource investigator’ kind of person is needed. Someone who sees possibilities others don’t is an asset. In my experience super-confidence of success is hard-wired into these people, so they tend to disbelieve when told ‘that won’t work’. They can also be impatient with the painstaking work of transforming ideas into workable solutions.
  • The ‘implementer’ is the person who can make new ideas workable within an organisation or business. That’s especially important when the team includes ‘outsiders’ who have great theories but which can’t work unless adjusted to fit the required context.
  • The ‘completer finisher’ role was missing in many of the teams I’ve led. It’s the person who can bring everything the team has decided into a manageable and attractive form, whether it’s to present to a board of directors, to a staff gathering, or to volunteers and supporters. Often it’s assumed the chairperson will do that, but the coordinator role involves different skills from the completer finisher.

Almost lastly, some more general thoughts about this system:

First, what I like about Belbin is his identification of the key roles that need to be covered within a team. Most of us could likely think of other roles, but those I can imagine could fit under one of Belbin’s headings. Also, I respect that Belbin’s system has been around for a long time now, and these nine roles gel with the thinking of thousands of leaders.

Second, I’ve been part of many groups which didn’t cover all these roles. That’s bound to happen. Even if we can’t remedy the gaps, it’s very necessary that we recognise what we’re lacking. For example, I watched a group recommend wholesale changes to the way an organisation was run. Significantly, not a single member of that group worked for the organisation. That was a strength because they could bring a fresh perspective. It was also a weakness because their fresh perspective wasn’t feasible. If they had recognised their lack of an implementer, and brought in such a person before finalising their recommendations, a lot of trouble would have been avoided.

Third, it’s important to repeat that nine roles doesn’t mean nine people on a committee or team. Nine is only the number of roles that should be covered, but some people can be effective in two or even three areas.

Fourth, Belbin’s tool can be used to educate team members about their particular role(s). And, as important, to help team members know what is not their role. In my experience, most people asked to join a team think they can contribute to every part of the team’s work. Certainly, every person matters equally but every opinion is not equally right. I’ve listened to group members argue dogmatically about subjects they know nothing about. I learned to stop them. They could influence views unwisely or simply waste the group’s time. Far better is to help people understand where their contribution is most needed, and how to listen while those with different expertise speak in other areas.

Fifth, just as psychometric tests don’t define exact personality types but tendencies, so there’s flexibility in respect of who is suitable for these roles. Someone who doesn’t naturally incline to a role may be open to learning how to fulfil it. That may not be ideal, but it may be a very good second best.

Sixth, what if a group is formed and almost no-one at all has any of the skills necessary for these roles? Unfortunately, that’s not uncommon. It’s particularly a danger when a large group is asked ‘Who’s willing to serve on the new team we’re setting up?’ Perhaps eight volunteer, so they become the team. But no-one vetted those eight. Maybe the main reason they’re free to participate is because no-one deemed them suitable for any other team. So, my advice is: a) Don’t ask for volunteers – appoint people to teams; b) Do your best to ensure that what that group exists to do isn’t vital for the organisation’s success; c) The leaders who allowed such a group to come into existence need to rethink their own leadership skills.

I’ll finish with three other details about Belbin and Belbin Associates.

  • At the time of writing Meredith Belbin is 96 and continues to live in the south of England.
  • He is a visiting professor and Honorary Fellow of Henley Management College in Oxfordshire, England.
  • If you go to the ‘Contact’ page at www.belbin.com, you’ll find this: 1) A promise that if you call them, you won’t hear an automated menu of options because an actual person will answer the phone; 2) You can make contact by calling, emailing, using social media, or by sending a letter to Belbin Associates, and the address for your letter is given. I have never before seen a website with an invite to write an actual letter!

That last point – about sending a letter – is utterly charming. It has lifted Belbin Associates even higher in my estimation.

[1] https://occasionallywise.com/2022/07/23/

[2] ‘Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail’, published by Routledge, 208 pages. ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1856178072

[3] I’m mostly using my own words and summary, but sometimes adopting phrases from Belbin.

[4] From an interview with Meredith Belbin c.2004 by Jane Lewis: https://www.belbin.com/media/1391/belbin-edgemagazinearticle.pdf