Why do some teams work well and others with the same abilities do not?

Why does someone excel on one team and not in another?

It was researching these questions that led Dr Meredith Belbin to develop his Belbin team roles. His research, first published in 1981, outlined 8 (and later 9) roles which must be fulfilled for a team to function at its best. Interestingly these roles are universal across all teams no matter what the business (or leisure activity) they are in.

The principle of Belbin’s theory is to do with the way people behave in a team, and it recognises that a team works best when there is a balance of behaviours. There is no right or wrong – just different characteristics in the way people approach their job.

Think for a moment of a dysfunctional team. We’ve all known them. Where there are too many big opinions causing regular shouting matches; or the software team that gets hung up on perfection and nothing ever gets signed off. Then there is the team that talks a lot and never does anything, and the one full of excited creatives whose ideas are always changing giving the production team nightmares.

Belbin noticed all these different behaviours and boiled them down into these characteristics:

  • Coordinator – Goal-orientated listener, draws out each individual’s best contribution
  • Shaper – Dynamic, takes rapid action, drags the team along with him/her
  • Resource Investigator – Inquisitive, plenty of social contacts, up-to-date, idea ‘magpie’
  • Team Worker – Supportive, sensitive to others, manages internal communication
  • Plant – Intuitive, original, generates lots of novel ideas, likes inventing, assertive introvert
  • Monitor Evaluator – Serious, analytical brain, spots flaws and loopholes, shrewd
  • Implementer – Organises, structured, sets deadlines, urge to get things planned and done
  • Completer Finisher – Perfectionist, keen eye for errors and omissions, likes to dot ‘i’s and cross ‘t’s
  • [Specialist – Often a consultant’s role, providing the team with specialist knowledge]

Belbin recognised that individuals tend to have one or two of these as strong characteristics, then two or three others that they can adapt to doing if nobody else in the team is fulfilling it, and others that are completely contrary to their nature. He also realised that a well-functioning team has a balance of all of them.

Looking at these characteristics you can probably identify people in your organisation who are particularly strong in each role. You may have a Completer Finisher who is the person who you always go to if you want a document proof-read; or a Team Worker in the boss’s secretary who is always smoothing the way of any communications. You might have an Implementer who you just know will get a job done; or a Shaper who is easily frustrated but always pushing people to achieve more. Your Monitor Evaluator might be the company “grey hairs” who will spot the catch and warn you about what might go wrong; your Resource Investigator will always know somebody who can help in any circumstances; and your Co-ordinator will make sure every voice gets heard in a meeting. You may even have a Specialist (they might perhaps be a lawyer) who drops in occasionally and provides valuable expertise but doesn’t otherwise contribute to the team dynamic.

And the dysfunctional teams? Well they simply have too many people of the same characteristic and gaps in other areas.

Getting my team to take the Belbin test made a huge difference in my career as a manager. It allowed me to understand what was going on and why certain things weren’t happening. Small shifts became obvious such as giving a communication task to an individual with Resource Investigator characteristics, and this type of insight made the difference between frustration and achievement.

The Belbin test is simply a short questionnaire that staff can complete in 10 minutes.  And the results are powerful.  It gives a huge insight into each person’s behaviour and demonstrates the power of a team when the balance of characteristics is right.

If you want to learn more about using Belbin to develop winning teams come on one of our courses!

Nicky Forsyth