The function of team roles in the collaborative process

On every professional work team, each member performs a primary function as defined by their job title. For instance, on our Pumble team, I am a content writer and my primary role is to write content such as this article. 

But, as we have already established, there’s more to collaboration than all individuals simply performing their primary duties. Aside from our primary functions, all members of collaborative teams assume additional team roles, whether knowingly or not. Our psychological traits shape our mode of professional behavior which, through the interaction with other team members, becomes an informal “role” that we perform. These team roles serve as the glue that binds the team together and enables effective collaboration

This article will identify various team roles, describe their distinctive qualities and purposes, and then highlight the importance of achieving the right balance of team roles among collaborators. 

What are team roles

The increasing post-WWII industrialization has required a new perspective on the changing nature of the workforce.  From the second half of the 20th century, researchers have begun looking into the impact of individual psychological characteristics of employees on the success of the group as a whole. These inquiries have yielded a number of different models, theories, and definitions of team roles, but none have been as impactful and influential as the work of English researcher and management consultant Raymond Meredith Belbin

Belbin’s teachings, now most commonly known as the “Belbin Team Inventory”, have been rooted in a 10-year research on the performance of a large number of teams. Belbin initially presumed that high-intellect teams would perform at the highest level, but the results have shown otherwise. It was not the intellect that was the driver of the highest performances, but rather the right balance of different behaviors — i.e. team roles. 

According to Belbin, a team role is “a tendency to behave, contribute and interrelate with others in a particular way.” In other words, team roles represent tasks and functions that team members perform to self-manage the team’s activities. 

Belbin’s team roles

Based on his research, Belbin has identified nine distinct clusters of behavior (the initial number was eight, expanded to nine in a later revision of his research). He translated those clusters into  nine team roles: 

  • Plant
  • Monitor-Evaluator
  • Specialist
  • Shaper
  • Implementer
  • Completer-finisher
  • Coordinator
  • Team Worker
  • Resource Investigator

According to Belbin, the most performant teams are those with the optimal distribution of nine team roles across their ranks. Each role has certain characteristics that are beneficial to the operations of the team. Furthermore, each role possesses certain drawbacks.

We will dedicate the following lines to the characteristics of each of the team roles, divided by Belbin into three groups:

  • Thinking roles
  • Action roles
  • People roles 

Thinking roles

This group of roles provides the innovative, analytical, and expert aspects of the team’s operations. The three roles that make up this group are plant, monitor-evaluator, and specialist.

Plant

People who assume the role of a plant are creative thinkers capable of generating new ideas and coming up with outside-the-box solutions. They are commonly introverted and inclined towards independent work and tend to have difficulties dealing with criticism. They also can be forgetful and absent-minded. The name of the role stems from the fact that Belbin’s collaborators insisted that he “plants” one such participant into every research group. 

Allowable weakness: tendency to disregard incidentals and difficulty in communicating ideas to others.

Monitor-Evaluator

Team members in the role of a monitor-evaluator are logical and impartial thinkers who are good at analyzing and assessing the ideas of others. They are detail-oriented and objective, analytical and capable of viewing the broader picture, accounting for all options, and accurately weighing the pros and cons of any situation. They often may seem cold and detached, overly critical, and they tend to struggle with decision-making. 

Allowable weakness: they tend to be reactionary and rarely initiate action or inspire others. 

Specialist

Specialists are single-mindedly dedicated to their professional area, providing in-depth expertise for the team. They are committed to applying their specialized knowledge and are passionate about expanding it. This commitment often prevents them from contributing to, or even showing interest in anything outside of their immediate scope. They tend to be preoccupied with little details and can overwhelm others with them. The role of specialist was later added to the initial eight team roles, as the original research did not require any specialized knowledge. 

Allowable weakness: limited scope of contributions and over-focus on technicalities.  

Action roles

This group of team roles is in charge of the operational, actionable, task-based aspects of the team’s inner workings. Action-oriented team roles are shaper, implementer, and completer-finisher.

Shaper

Shapers are task-oriented team members who continuously challenge others to perform. They are highly driven, motivated, and capable of pushing others to perform and improve. They possess a can-do attitude and are absolutely focused on achieving the objectives placed before them. They tend to thrive in pressure situations and take pride in overcoming obstacles. 

Allowable weakness: they tend to be confrontational and their drive can make them seem insensitive.

Implementer

Implementers are planners and strategists. They take the ideas of the team and turn them into actionable steps. They are efficient and meticulous, highly reliable and disciplined. They are highly committed to the work of the team and tend to take on the tasks that others avoid. On the other hand, they tend to be slow to adapt to changing circumstances.

Allowable weakness: they are often inflexible and unwilling to change their plans.

Completer-Finisher

Team members assuming this role are detail-oriented perfectionists who detect and correct errors until the results of the collective effort are blemish-free. They are highly conscientious and primarily focused on standards and deadlines. Their perfectionism can be overwhelming to their teammates. 

Allowable weakness: they are prone to worrying excessively and have difficulties delegating tasks.  

People roles

Team members from this category are largely concerned with various aspects and dynamics of interpersonal relationships on the team and beyond it. The team roles they assume are coordinator, team worker, and resource investigator

Coordinator

Most commonly (but not necessarily), the team role of the coordinator is assumed by a formal team leader. Coordinators are team members who always have a birds-eye view of the shared work and make sure that everyone is focused on the objectives. They are good at understanding the strengths and weaknesses of other team members and delegate work fairly and effectively. In essence, they serve as team guides. 

Allowable weakness: they may be seen as over-calculated and scheming, and can be prone to delegating their own share of work. 

Team Worker

Team workers prioritize the harmony and the interests of the team and serve as the “glue” that brings people together. They are the negotiators on the team – flexible, cooperative, great at listening and deferring conflict. They are also willing to identify and handle unpopular tasks that help the collective work move along. 

Allowable weakness: team workers avoid confrontation at all costs and are prone to indecision.

Resource Investigator

This type of team member is the networker and the mingler of the group. They are positive and outgoing, excellent at developing relationships, and inquisitive and knowledgeable about the world outside the group. They pursue contacts and opportunities that can benefit the team, researching the work of others for ideas and directions for the group. 

Allowable weakness: they can be overly optimistic and have a tendency to lose enthusiasm in the later stages of the shared work. 

How do I know my team role?

In order to determine one’s behavior in a team setting, Belbin has developed a “Self-perception inventory”, a questionnaire designed to identify one’s preferred team role. The results of this questionnaire can be combined with “observer assessments” (i.e. how others perceive you) for a more objective result. 

It is important to state that Belbin’s self-assessment inventory is not a personality test and it does not determine one’s personality type. Although there is a common correlation between certain team roles and certain personality types from other methodologies (such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, for example), the questionnaire does not so much focus on the individual as much on how the individual interacts with other team members. 

Another important thing to note is that the team roles should not be taken as a strict doctrine but more as an indicator of the team’s balance, in terms of lacking an important team role or having too many team members with the same preferred role. 

Belbin’s proprietary questionnaires can be obtained online and in the author’s books. 

What if my team has less than nine people?

So, if there are nine team roles, does that mean that a team should have at least nine members? The answer is no. Even Belbin considers four team members the optimal number, with more than that constituting a group rather than a team. 

On smaller teams, certain team members can assume multiple complementary team roles. For instance, a coordinator can also be an implementer. Additionally, depending on the unique circumstances of the team’s work, some team roles may be less important or entirely redundant. Therefore, it is important to properly assess the nature of the team’s work and its operational priorities to determine which team roles are necessary, and which are perhaps less important. 

Why are team roles important?

If we all instinctively assume team roles towards which we are naturally inclined, then why is it important to understand what roles team members perform? The answer is in the balance. 

As Belbin’s research has shown, the most performative teams turned out to be those that strike the right balance between different team roles to address the variety of professional scenarios. 

Understanding the individual team roles helps us assess the overall team structure and identify any weaknesses or pain points. The key objective is to achieve the right distribution of team roles, where all relevant functions are covered and where different team members do not assume the same role. 

The duplication of roles may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it depends on the role. For instance, there is nothing wrong with having more than one team worker, but problems may arise if two or more people wish to assume the role of a coordinator. 

The self-assessment inventory (and other accompanying questionnaires) provide an insight into the distribution of working styles and helps us make adjustments to address any disbalance.

Conclusion

As much as the formal team structure is important to the success of team collaboration, the balance of working styles plays just as important of a part. One is ordered by expertise, and the other by the personalities of collaborators and their interactions. Understanding the team roles towards which team members are inclined and their specific functions helps us achieve the right balance that turns differences into strengths that span the totality of the team’s activities. 

References:

  • Belbin, R.M. (1981). Management Teams. London, UK: Heinemann
  • Belbin, R.M. (1993). Team roles at work. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann
  • Van Heelden D.R. (1999). The application of Belbin’s team role theory in information service enterprises. Rand Afrikaans University
  • Belbin team roles (University of Cambridge)
  • Lupuleac S. et.al. (2012). Problems of assessing team roles balance – team design. Procedia Economics and Finance
  • A Bottom Up Perspective to Understanding the Dynamics of Team Roles in Mission Critical Teams
  • Method, reliability & validity, statistics & research: A comprehensive review of Belbin team roles

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