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Henry Thornton - Corporate: A discussion of economic, social and political issues NOBODY’S PERFECT - BUT A TEAM CAN BE Date 13/07/2004
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The following exposition of the "Belbin" method of evaluating and optimising teams is presented as a contribution to Australia's corporate excellence - contact Henry if you would like help in introducing it to your corporate culture.
By Anthony Jay Email / Print

The whiz kid, the steady plodder, the knocker of ideas, the loyal company slave ....  We’ve all met them at some time - or worked with them.  Individually they may drive us mad.  But give them a role in a team and they could help to knock the opposition for six.  Anthony Jay, former BBC Television executive and author of the successful books ‘Corporation Man’ and ‘Management and Machiavelli’ has discovered some fascinating facts about the importance of teams.


For too many years the search for successful management has been seen almost exclusively as a search for the right individual.  Corporations have been preoccupied with the qualifications, experience and achievement of individuals.  Yet all of us know in our hearts that the ideal individual for a given job cannot be found.  He cannot be found because he cannot exist.


Any attempt to list the qualities of a good manager demonstrates why he cannot exist:  far too many of the qualities are mutually exclusive.  He must be highly intelligent and he must not be too clever.  He must be highly forceful and he must be sensitive to people’s feelings.  He must be dynamic and he must be patient.  He must be a fluent communicator and a good listener.  He must be decisive and he must be reflective:  and so on.  And if you do find this jewel among managers, this paragon of mutually incompatible characteristics, what will you do when he steps under a bus, or goes to live abroad for the sake of his wife’s health, or leaves to take up a better job with your principal competitor?


But if no individual can combine all these qualities, a team of individuals certainly can - and often does; moreover the whole team is unlikely to step under a bus simultaneously.


It is the enduring characteristics, the team roles, that have been the subject of Dr Belbin’s research.  The results show that he has isolated and identified just eight roles as the only ones available to team members.  He was able to do so by finding the unique human laboratory and being able to work in it for seven years, forming his hypotheses, testing, discarding, revising and re-testing until he was able to produce a remarkable study of the anatomy of teams with a quite unusual volume of experimental evidence to support it.


The unique laboratory was the Administrative Staff College at Henley, Oxon, which runs an internationally famous 10-week course for successful middle managers with board potential.


One part of this course is a business game in which eight syndicates compete against each other and periodically feed their decisions into a computer until finally the winner is declared and each syndicate is placed in order of success from 1 to 8.  In 1969, Dr Belbin was invited to use this business game as a starting point for a study of team behaviour.  He came to it as a highly respected academic/industrialist, chairman and co-founder of ITRU, which was founded by the Manpower Services Commission.


Having an interest in group as well as individual behaviour, but with no particular theories about teams, he enlisted the aid of three other scholars:  Bill Hartston, mathematician and international chess master; Jeanne Fisher, an anthropologist who had studied Kenyan tribes; and Roger Mottram, an occupational psychologist.  Together they began what was to be a seven-year task.  Three business games a year with eight teams in each game, and then in meeting after meeting, observing, categorising and recording all the different kinds of contribution from team members.



On top of that, a seven-year time spread gave ample opportunity to revise hypotheses and re-test them.  But it did more; it enabled Dr Belbin and his colleagues to improve their own psychometric tests so that they could determine before the business game began which team type the different individuals belonged to, and then to make their own predictions of the finishing order of the eight teams on the basis of the different balances of team types and the conclusions they had reached about the building of good teams.  It is their impressive record in prediction that makes their discoveries so unusually convincing, although Dr Belbin maintains that it is far easier to forecast correctly teams that will fail than teams sure to succeed.  In the later stages of his work, Dr Belbin and his team developed the uncanny skill of being able to construct successful teams from test scores without needing to visit an establishment or meet those tested, thus proving the advantage of role theory.  Most managers seem prone to pick a team of all the cleverest and most talented people they can find.  Unfortunately for them, the most disaster-prone team is the one that is exclusively composed of very clever people.


Over the years of his research, first at Henley and subsequently within the real business world extending from Britain to Australia, Dr Belbin and his colleagues learned to recognise individuals who made a crucial difference to teams and to whose team types he gave descriptive names.  The reason for these names is not always obvious, and the names themselves are sometimes a little misleading, but it seems sensible to use them, with the proviso that it is the descriptions, not their labels, that are important.  Not everyone they tested and observed belonged to one of the eight types; about 30 percent did not fall clearly into any category and tended to be little more than makeweights.


Dr Belbin’s psychometric tests were used first to relate observed team behaviour to measured psychological traits, and then - when they had learnt how to identify people’s team roles from their test results - to construct balanced teams and to predict the outcome of the game.  Four principal factors isolated by the tests were:


1. intelligence;
2. dominance;
3. extroversion/introversion;
4. stability/anxiety.


It was the balance of ratings an individual achieved on these four scales, plus scores on a number of subsidiary measures that determined which team role he would best fill.  While everyone had a ‘preferred’ team role, most people had a ‘secondary’ team role they could play if no one else on the team played their ‘preferred’ role better.


Here are the eight team types which Dr Belbin and his colleagues have identified:


Chairman


Traits:  stable, dominant, extrovert.  ‘Chairman’ is one of those slightly misleading titles, since he may well not be the leader of his team; nevertheless, it is team leadership that he is best fitted for.


He is the one who presides over the team and coordinates its efforts to meet external goals and targets.  He is distinguished by his preoccupation with objectives.  You would expect him to be at least normally intelligent, but not in any sense brilliant, and not an outstanding creative thinker; it is rare for any of the good ideas to originate from him.  He is much more remarkable for what used to be called ‘character’; his approach is disciplined, and it is founded on self-discipline.  He often has what is called ‘charisma’, but it is perhaps easier to think of it as authority.  He is dominant, but in a relaxed and unassertive way - he is not domineering.  He has an instinct to trust people unless there is very strong evidence that they are untrustworthy and he is singularly free from jealousy.


He sees most clearly which member of the team is strong or weak in each area of the team’s function and he focuses people on what they do best.  He is conscious of the need to use the team’s combined human resources as effectively as possible.  This means he is the one who establishes the role and work-boundaries of the others and also who sees gaps and takes steps to fill them.


He talks easily and is easy to talk to; a good communicator in the two-way sense, neither a compulsive talker, nor a ‘man of few words’, but certainly a good listener.


It is the Chairman who clarifies the group’s objectives and sets its agenda; he selects the problems for the team’s consideration and establishes priorities, but does not attempt to dominate the discussion.  His own early contributions are more likely to take the forms of questions than assertions or proposals.  He listens, he sums up group feelings and articulates group verdicts, and if a decision has to be taken, he takes it firmly after everyone has had his say.


Shaper


Traits:  anxious, dominant, extrovert.  Some observers of teams in action have suggested that a team needs a ‘social’ leader, who is the permanent head of the group, and a separate ‘task’ leader who is in charge of a specific and defined project - much in the way that a nation needs both a Head of State, who is permanent, and a Head of Government, with a specific job to do.  If so, the Shaper is the task leader and the Chairman is the social leader.  The Shaper is the most likely to be the actual leader of a team both in cases where there is no Chairman, or where the Chairman is not, in fact, the leader.


The Shaper is full of nervous energy; he is outgoing and emotional, impulsive and impatient, sometimes edgy and easily frustrated.  He is quick to challenge, and quick to respond to a challenge (which he enjoys and welcomes).  He often has rows, but they are quickly over and he does not harbour grudges.  Of all the team, he is the most prone to paranoia, quick to sense a slight and the first to feel that there is a conspiracy afoot and he is the object or the victim of it.


The principal function of the Shaper is to give a shape to the application of the team’s efforts, often supplying more of his own personal input than the Chairman does.  He is always looking for a pattern in discussions, and trying to unite ideas, objectives and practical considerations into a single feasible project, which he seeks to push forward urgently to decision and action.


The Shaper exudes self-confidence, which often belies strong self-doubts.  Only results can reassure him.  His drive, which has a compulsive quality, is always directed at his objectives.  They are usually the team’s objectives too, but then the Shaper, much more than the Chairman sees the team as an extension of his own ego.  He wants action and he wants it now.  He is personally competitive, intolerant of woolliness, vagueness and muddled thinking, and people outside the team are likely to describe him as arrogant and abrasive.  Even people inside the team are in danger of being steamrollered by him on occasions, and he can make the team uncomfortable; but he makes things happen.


Plant


Traits:  dominant, very high IQ, introvert.  The Plant originally received his name when it was found that one of the best ways to improve the performance of an ineffective and uninspired team was to ‘plant’ one of this team type in it.  But you can also think of the Plant as the one who scatters the seeds, which the others nourish until they bear fruit.


The Plant is the team’s source of original ideas, suggestions and proposals; he is the ideas man.  Of course others have ideas too; what distinguishes the Plant’s ideas is their originality and the radical-minded approach he brings to problems and obstacles.  He is the most imaginative as well as the most intelligent member of the team and the most likely to start searching for a completely new approach to a problem if the team starts getting bogged down, or to bring a new insight to a line of action already agreed.  He is much more concerned with major issues and fundamentals than with details, and indeed, he is liable to miss out on details and make careless mistakes.


He is thrustful and uninhibited in a way that is fairly uncharacteristic of an introvert.  He can also be prickly and cause offence to other members of the team, particularly when criticising their ideas.  His criticisms are usually designed to clear the ground for his ideas and are usually followed by his counter-proposals.


The danger with the Plant is that he will devote too much of his creative energy to ideas which may catch his fancy but do not fall in with the team’s needs or contribute to its objectives.  He may be bad at accepting criticism of his own ideas and quick to take offence and sulk if his ideas are dissected or rejected; indeed he may switch off and refuse to make any further contribution.  It can take quite a lot of careful handling and judicious flattery (usually by the Chairman) to get the best out of him.  But for all his faults, it is the Plant who provides the vital spark.


Monitor Evaluator


Traits:  High IQ, stable, introvert.  In a balanced team it is only the Plant and the Monitor Evaluator who need a high IQ, but by contrast with the Plant, the Monitor Evaluator is a bit of a cold fish.  By temperament he is likely to be serious and not very exciting.  His contribution lies in measured and dispassionate analysis rather than creative ideas, and while he is unlikely to come up with an original proposal, he is the most likely to stop the team from committing itself to a misguided project.


Although he is by nature a critic rather than a creator, he does not usually criticise just for the sake of it, but only if he can see a flaw in the plan or the argument.  Curiously enough, he is the least highly motivated of the team; enthusiasm and euphoria simply are not part of his make-up.  This, however, has the compensating advantage that ego-involvement does not cloud or distort his judgement.  He is slow to make up his mind and likes to be given time to mull things over, but his is the most objective mind in the team.


One of his most valuable skills is in assimilating, interpreting and evaluating large volumes of complex written material, analysing problems and assessing the judgements and contributions of others.  Sometimes he can do this tactlessly and disparagingly, which does not raise his popularity and he can lower the team’s morale by being too much of a damper at the wrong time.  Although he is unambitious and has low drive, he can be competitive, especially with those whose skills overlap with his own, which means in most cases either the Chairman or the Plant.


It is important for the Monitor Evaluator to be fair-minded and open to change; there is a danger that he will turn depressingly negative and allow his critical powers to outweigh his receptiveness to new ideas.


Although he is solid and dependable, he lacks jollity, warmth, imagination and spontaneity.  Nevertheless, he has one quality which makes him indispensable to the team; his judgement is hardly ever wrong.


Company worker


Traits:  stable and controlled.  The Company worker is the practical organiser.  He is the one who turns decisions and strategies into defined and manageable tasks that people can actually get on with.  He is concerned with what is feasible, and his chief contribution is to convert the team’s plans into a feasible form.  He sorts out objectives and pursues them logically.


Like the Chairman, he too has strength of character and a disciplined approach.  He is notable for his sincerity, his integrity and his trust of his colleagues, and he is not easily deflated or discouraged; it is only a sudden change of plan that is likely to upset him, because he is liable to flounder in unstable, quickly changing situations.


Because he needs stable structures, he is always trying to build them.  Give him a decision and he will produce a schedule; give him a group of people and an objective and he will produce an organisation chart.  He works efficiently, systematically and methodically, but sometimes a little inflexibly, and he is unresponsive to speculative ‘airy-fairy’ ideas that do not have visible immediate bearing on the task in hand.  At the same time he is usually perfectly willing to trim and adapt his schedules and proposals to fit into agreed plans and established systems.


The Company Worker can be over-competitive for team status, which can be damaging if it expresses itself in the form of negative, unconstructive criticism of suggestions put forward by other members of the team.  Normally, however, he is close to the team’s point of balance.  If anyone does not know what on earth has been decided and what he is supposed to be doing he will go to the Company Worker first to find out.


Resource Investigator


Traits:  stable, dominant, extrovert.  The Resource Investigator is probably the most immediately likeable member of the team.  He is relaxed, sociable and gregarious, with an interest that is easily aroused.  His responses tend to be positive and enthusiastic, though he is prone to put things down as quickly as he takes them up.


The Resource Investigator is the member of the team who goes outside the group and brings information, ideas and developments back to it.  He makes friends easily and has masses of outside contacts.  He is rarely in his office, and when he is, he’s probably on the phone.  He is the salesman, the diplomat, the liaison officer, always exploring new possibilities in the wider world outside.  His ability to stimulate ideas and encourage innovation by this activity would lead most people to mistake him for an ideas man, but he does not have the radical originality that distinguishes the Plant; for all that, he is quick to see the relevance of new ideas.


Without the stimulus of others, for example in a solitary job, the Resource Investigator can easily become bored, demoralised and ineffective.  Within the team, however, he is a good improviser, active under pressure, but can over-relax when it eases.  He can fail to follow-up tasks he undertook in one of his frequent bursts of short-lived enthusiasm.  His range and variety of outside interests can lead him, like the Plant, to spend too much time on irrelevancies that interest him; nevertheless, his is the most important team role to preserve the team from stagnation, fossilisation and losing touch with reality.


Team Worker


Traits:  stable, extrovert, low in dominance.  The Team Worker is the most sensitive of the team - he is the most aware of an individual’s needs and worries and the one who perceives most clearly the emotional undercurrents within the group.  He also knows most about the private lives and family affairs of the rest of the team.  He is the most active internal communicator; likeable, popular, unassertive, the cement of the team.  He is loyal to the team as a unit (though this does not mean he cannot take sides when there is a split) and supports all the others.  If someone produces an idea, his instinct is to build on it, rather than demolish it or produce a rival idea.


He is a good and willing listener and communicates freely and well within the team, and also helps and encourages others to do the same.  As a promoter of unity and harmony, he counter-balances the friction and discord that can be caused by the Shaper and the Plant, and occasionally by the Monitor Evaluator.  He particularly dislikes personal confrontation and tends to try and avoid it himself and cool it down in others.


When the team is under pressure or in difficulties, the Team Worker’s sympathy, understanding, loyalty and support are especially valued.  His uncompetitiveness and dislike of friction may make him seem a bit soft and indecisive, but they also make him a permanent force operating against division and disruption in the team.  He is an exemplary team member and though in normal times the value of his individual contribution may not be as immediately visible as most of the other team roles, the effect is very noticeable indeed when he is not there, especially in times of stress and pressure.


Finisher


Traits:  anxious, introvert.  The Finisher worries about what might go wrong.  He is never at ease until he has personally checked every detail and made sure that everything has been done and nothing has been overlooked.  It is not that he is overtly or irritatingly fussy - his obsession is an expression of anxiety.


The Finisher is not an assertive member of the team, but he maintains a permanent sense of urgency which he communicates to others and strength of character, and is impatient of and intolerant towards the more casual and slaphappy members of the team.


If the Finisher has one major preoccupation, it is order; he is a compulsive meeter of deadlines and fulfiller of schedules.


If he is not careful he can be a morale-lowering worrier with a depressing effect on the rest of the team and he can too easily lose sight of the overall objective by getting bogged down in small details.  Nevertheless, his relentless follow-through is an important asset.


Listing the team types as we have done here gives an impression that they were identified from the start, whereas in fact, of course, they were only discovered and ‘fixed’ after many observations of the same kinds of behaviour and the same type of contribution cropping up again and again in the Henley Management Game.  The theory has been tried out in other courses in Britain and Australia, and a small but increasing number of companies are adopting Dr Belbin’s new science of team skills training.  These further developments and extensions have confirmed all the types, and also confirmed the special advantages of a full and balanced team.  The absence of one of the roles obviously weakens any team but equally the presence of too many of one type produces predictable kinds of failure; for instance, with too many Plants, many good ideas are produced but never taken up; a team composed entirely of Plants and Shapers may look brilliant, but will be beaten by a combination that is properly furnished with the less conspicuous members who help to compose a full and balanced team.


The question obviously arises, what happens if you have fewer than eight people?  The answer seems to be that as people have ‘secondary’ team roles, they can double up when necessary and perform two of the functions instead of just one; in other words, you can operate an effective team with four people if necessary.  This revelation particularly interested me, since I had noticed how in addition to the ‘hunting band’ team of up to 10 people, there seems to be a natural and extremely effective human grouping of four, a sort of ‘Council of Elders’.  And if you look at the eight team types more closely, you see that they divide into four whose preoccupation and orientation is to the world outside the team and four who are principally concerned with the world inside the team.


Outward looking           Inward looking
Chairman                      Company Worker
Plant                             Monitor Evaluator
Resource Investigator    Team Worker
Shaper                          Finisher


It is also particularly interesting to note that it is the outward looking team members who show up as dominant in the psychometric tests, whereas the inward lookers, while not necessarily being submissive, are not especially characterised by dominance.  You can also look at the listing as four inward-outward pairs, taking the Chairman with the Company Worker, the Plant with the Monitor Evaluator and so on.  Each pair comes into its own at a different stage of an operation; the structure is very close to that of, say, an army in the field.


Dr Belbin has started helping companies to apply his theory and it has a growing number of adherents.  Engineering Components Ltd of Slough have no doubts about its importance as a practical tool of management.  They have put some 75 percent of their managers through the team-typing tests.  Michael Norris, their Director of Personnel, points out that you cannot reorganise long-standing management teams overnight.  Introducing team typing into the management of a company can be a slow process, but it can be of immediate value in the creation of project teams or in starting new enterprises.


John Eden, at British Gas, has applied the Belbin team-building techniques as the Welsh Regional Sales Manager and later after his promotion as Domestic Sales Manager, and he reports some outstanding practical success.  He, too, has found that its quickest and most immediate application is to the formation of new project groups.


It ought to be stressed that building teams by balancing team roles is not of the same importance in every kind of operation.  It is far less significant, for instance, for a group whose principal role is to supervise a more or less steady and continuous process without much change over the years and with no great need for alteration or innovation.  On the other hand, when the team operates in areas of rapid change in the workforce, manufacturing techniques, products, markets or costs, where there is competition, pressure and need for quick decision and action, then having all the different team-skills available becomes of paramount importance.

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