Belbin Team Roles: what it means to team effectiveness


A powerful explanation of what constitutes an effective team and the various roles that team members may need to take up in various business situations

Teams are often the key step in linking the talents of individuals to the success of the organisation. Antony Jay put this well in the foreword of Management Teams, Why they Succeed or Fail, by Meredith Belbin, as he said, “It is not the individual but the team that is the instrument of sustained and enduring success.”

Well, that makes it important to first understand what a team is and what really constitutes one. Raymond Meredith Belbin, a British researcher and management theorist, and the man behind the famous team roles, says, “Simply putting together a number of people and expecting them to work as a team is not enough.”

What is a team? There are always plenty of articles, books, papers, and news articles that talk about teams and teamwork. They tend to be very general, and don’t always link up to practical business situations. Perhaps a better question to ask is:

What makes up an effective team? There are many points that can be discussed, but the key aspects are as follows: A team must have a purpose. Its purpose should be clear, well communicated and understood. Members are chosen for what they can contribute “Who is in a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.”

Google; Dynamic interaction: This only happens when there is a lack of hierarchy and an agreed purpose. Everyone needs to understand when they need to make their contribution. Shared leadership—this should be rotated, depending on where the team stands in relation to the business objective; Psychological safety is critical—team members must trust one another; small enough to be productive – often overlooked, but critical. “Small teams can deliver results faster, engage people better, and stay closer to their mission.” Ernst and Young, May 2013

This is why, having a language to communicate strengths and weaknesses within a team is so crucial, and this is where Belbin Team Roles come into play.

The team-building process is a sensitive one that needs meticulous planning and integration techniques. In that, the ideal team size and various characteristics members should display, have long been argued. A powerful explanation of what constitutes an effective team and the various roles that team members may need to take up in various business situations, comes from the ‘Team Roles’ as explained by Belbin.

Belbin identified the team roles as part of a study of teams at Henley Business School. He carried out extended observational research in the form of a business simulation game, to determine which factors influenced team failure or success. According to his theory, there are nine kinds of team role behaviours that different members in a team may display and which makes a team effective. Here are the nine team roles:

Resource investigators: They are the ones who give the team a rush of enthusiasm at the start of the project and use their inquisitive nature to find ideas to bring back to the team. Such people vigorously pursue contacts and opportunities and have a finger firmly on the pulse of the outside world. A good resource investigator is a maker of possibilities and an excellent networker, but has a tendency to lose momentum towards the end of a project, and may forget to follow things up.

Plants: Creative, unorthodox and generators of ideas, plants are the much sought-after problem solvers. A good plant will be bright and free-thinking. However, they tend to ignore incidentals. The plants may also be seen as the absent-minded professors/inventors, and often have a hard time communicating ideas to others.

If there are more than one such people in a team, it can be potentially harmful to team dynamics owing to their communication issues. Also, multiple people sharing ideas without mutual willingness to implement them, is no use. Plants may also keep sharing ideas when something is already in the implementation stage, thereby disrupting the process.

Co-ordinators: They are the ones who are more confident, stable, mature and capabe of recognising abilities in others, and hence, good at delegating tasks to the right person for a job. Co-ordinators are likely candidates for the chairperson of a team, since they have a talent for stepping back to see the big picture.

On the other hand, they may be perceived as manipulative and tend to even delegate all of the work, not doing much themselves.

Shapers: They are the navigators, who keep the team on track, providing the necessary drive to ensure that the team keeps moving and does not lose focus or momentum. They have the drive and courage to overcome any obstacles and keep the team motivated. However, in their bid to get things done, they may at times become aggressive.

Monitor evaluators: These people provide a logical eye, making impartial judgements, where required, and are able to weigh the team’s options in a dispassionate way. They are strategic and discerning, but at times may get overly critical and could even slow down decision making.

Teamworkers: The co-operative, perceptive and diplomatic people who are good listeners and try all ways to avert friction, are great teamworkers. Although they may not always be in the limelight, they play a crucial role in binding the team together. Such people can also be indecisive in difficult situations and may tend to avoid confrontations.

Implementers: While some people may be great at ideation, there is always a need for people who can enable implementation. Implementers can take suggestions and carry it out efficiently. They are practical, reliable and excellent at turning ideas into actions, getting things done as expected. The only drawback may be that such people may at times be seen as closed-minded and inflexible since they often have difficulty deviating from their own way of working.

Completer finishers: A perfectionist by heart, these people are painstaking, conscientious, anxious and capable of identifying errors. Completer finishers put in all efforts to polish out and perfect the task done. They have a strong inward sense of the need for accuracy, but may frustrate their teammates by worrying excessively about minor details and by refusing to delegate tasks that they do not trust anyone else with performing.

Specialists: They are subject matter experts, who bring an in-depth knowledge of a key area to the team. Seen as specialists, they enjoy imparting knowledge to others as well, but in doing so, however, they may at times overload people with information. Specialists bring a high level of concentration, ability, and skill in their discipline to the team, but can only contribute on that specialism. They will tend to be uninterested in anything, which lies outside the narrow confines of their discipline.

Having described the nine team roles, it is important to understand how these behaviours impact team performance. Belbin explains that while members in a team can display behaviours congruent with more than one ream roles, one can’t take up all the roles ever, as this will not be unique to their personalities then. This will also dilute the purpose of various behaviours. It is also important to note that the team role behaviours may not depict personality types.

In addition, while each of the ream roles is important and contributes to making a team effective, it is not necessary that a team has all the characteristics. It may also depend on the job context or the cultural environment. Belbin also emphasises that an ideal team size is four, acceptable till six but beyond that it may trespass the boundaries of team dynamics and may start reflecting the characteristics of a group.

The concept can not only help organisations identify regularly occurring group work issues but also provide ways of managing team dynamic issues—balancing out behaviours as per job or team requirement.

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