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Meredith Belbin: Team Roles

Meredith Belbin is the leading management thinker in developing our ideas about team roles. His research in the 1970s led him to develop the team-role theory that bears his name. This is now a widely used model, supported by a range of commercially available tools distrbuted and supported by the company he founded in 1988 with his wife, Eunice, and his son, Nigel Belbin.


Brief Biography

Meredith Belbin was born in 1926, and grew up in the English Home Counties during the Second World War. After the war, he went to Cambridge to read classics, but transferred to study psychology, where he met his wife, and went on to gain a PhD. His early work was focused on the needs of older workers, but it was when working with his wife at the Industrial training research Unit (ITRU) that he did his breakthrough research.

He was invited to conduct research at the Administrative Staff College (now Henley Management College) and set up a long-running programme of studies with co-researchers, Bill Hartston, Jeanne Fisher, and Roger Mottram. Year after year, they observed teams of managers competing in business games, recording the way team members contributed and cross referencing this with results of numerous psychometric tests.

Belbin documented the conclusions of this research in his now classic 1981 book, Management Teams: Why they Succeed and Fail, which is currently in its third edition. Since then, he has written a number of books, perhaps the most successful of which has been Team Roles at Work.

Belbin’s Ideas

We have covered much of the detail of Belbin’s Team Roles model in an earlier blog: Meredith Belbin’s Team Roles Model. The fundamental thesis is simple: management succeeds or fails, not on the strengths of individuals, but on the strengths of the team. Because individuals bring individual strengths, personalities, and thinking skills, the strength of a team depends upon the mix of people in it. The components Belbin particularly looked at were:

  • intelligence
  • extroversion/introversion
  • stability/neuroticism
  • dominance

What Belbin was able to do, was merge the many different psychological and aptitude factors into eight (later extended to nine) archetypes*, which he has carefully noted are not pure personality types. This means that one individual can fulfill more than one of the team roles and, indeed, this is often desirable. Belbin found that the most successful teams had a balance of all of the team roles, but also that teams of around five members are optimal.

Belbin’s later research and writings have been more anthropological and philosophical in nature and have failed to gain much traction. They seem neither as grounded in empirical research as team roles, nor as practical in their application. However, Belbin’s place as a leading thinker is assured. Whilst other models of team roles have emerged – most notably that of Charles Margerison and Dick McCann – Belbin’s core ideas have stood the test of time, and the nine team roles he identified and the tools his company supplies remain the most widely used by management teams.

 


* ‘archetypes’ is my word, not his – and I do not intend it to suggest any particular affinity between Belbin’s work and Jungian archetypes. In fact, the primary psychometric instrument Belbin used in his research was Cattell’s 16PF.

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Meredith Belbin’s Team Roles Model

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


‘What makes a good team and how can I construct one?’

…are questions every manager, supervisor and team leader asks themselves at some stage.

They are also questions that many researchers, thinkers and management commentators have tried to answer in their own way. Two sources of particularly valuable insights that you can read about on the Pocketblog are:

However, one of the most successful researchers into team dynamics was Meredith Belbin. His work has produced a widely used and very helpful set of diagnostic and training tools, that are also reasonably priced.

No interest to declare here; I have just been a user of Belbin tools for many years, since I first encountered them on a training course in the mid 1990s. I have used the tools in my own training and find that participants get a lot from them. Find out more at www.belbin.com

Belbin’s website and books tell the story well, but here it is in a nutshell.

The Origins of the Belbin model.

Belbin and his co-workers observed a great many management teams doing standardised tasks, to try to find what might predict success or failure. Their findings included:

  1. Teams that were too small or too large were less likely to succeed. Five was a good number.
  2. In teams, people seem to play a variety of different roles.
  3. Teams where all of the roles were represented were more likely to succeed than ones with noticeable gaps. (One person could play more than one role).
  4. Teams where two or more people competed to play certain roles were less likely to succeed.

The Team Roles Model

Out of this work came Belbin’s Team Roles Model – a set of identifiable roles that the researchers saw people playing. In the initial research, eight roles emerged. Later, Belbin added a ninth role and changed some of the titles he used.

Belbin observed that we each have preferences for one or more different roles and team success comes when members contribute the full range of roles, without clashes and competition to fulfil some of them. Here are the nine roles, with the names Belbin currently assigns.

Belbin Team Roles

In the illustration of the nine team roles, we can see three families of Roles:

Socially Adept Roles

The Co-ordinator, Team Worker and Resource Investigator roles are all favoured by people with strong social instincts and require good interpersonal skills to deliver effectively. The Co-ordinator seeks the best contributions from the team, while the Team Worker promotes good working relationships, and the Resource Investigator looks outwards to a network of contacts beyond the team.

Task-focused Roles

The Shaper, Implementer and Completer Finisher roles are all strongly focused on getting the job done: the Shaper on getting it started, the Implementer on making progress, and the Completer Finisher on tying up loose ends.

More Cerebral Roles

The Plant, Monitor Evaluator and Specialist all prize thinking carefully above doing. The Plant initiates ideas, the Monitor Evaluator reviews the team’s thinking and outputs, and the Specialist contributes deep expertise.

Some Comments about the Model

My experience, and Belbin’s guidance notes, highlight many factors about this excellent model, which you can use if you buy the materials from www.belbin.com. Here are some key points:

  1. The Belbin evaluation tools are not psychometrics. They are well calibrated and developed over a long time, but they tell you about a person’s preferences now – based on their situation, experiences and how they relate to other team members. Belbin profiles shift over time.
  2. The tool is not suitable for recruitment or advancement selection – it is designed to help understand and address team dynamics.
  3. Some people have one or two strong team role preferences, others have several and are more balanced. Every conceivable profile seems to appear over time.
  4. Team members can adapt their style and therefore active profile, in response to awareness, training and support.

Further Reading 

  1. The Teamworking Pocketbook
  2. Teambuilding Activities Pocketbook
  3. The Belbin Team Roles website
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