History

The Belbin Team Role theory was developed during an intense study of teams by Dr. Meredith Belbin at the Administrative Staff College at Henley.

A unique study of teams took place at the Administrative Staff College at Henley (now known as the Henley Business School) which ran an internationally famous 10-week course for successful managers with board potential.

Part of the course involved a business simulation in which the managers were put into competing teams. This simulation contained all the principal variables that typify the problems of decision-making in a business environment. The experiment was designed along scientific lines with careful measurement at each stage.

In 1969, Dr Meredith 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 The Industrial Training Research Unit (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 Hartson, 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 nine-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.

The Business Simulation

Those participating were invited to take psychometric tests plus a test of high level reasoning ability called the Critical Thinking Appraisal (CTA). Teams of various designs were composed on the basis of these individual test scores. Every half-minute, the contribution of the person speaking was recorded and classified into one of seven categories by trained observers. At the end of the exercise, which ran off and on throughout a week, the results of each team (operating as a company) were presented financially, which allowed more effective and less effective “companies” to be compared.

A battery of psychometric tests was assembled, comprising measures of:

  • High level reasoning ability (the Critical Thinking Appraisal)
  • Personality (the 16 scales of the Cattell Personality Inventory or 16PF)
  • Outlook (the Personal Preference Questionnaire or PPQ, developed specifically for the purpose)

Findings

What was at first deemed to be likely was that high-intellect teams would succeed where lower intellect teams would not. However, the outcome of this research was that certain teams, predicted to be excellent based on intellect, failed to fulfil their potential.

In fact, it became apparent by looking at the various combinations that it was not intellect, but balance, which enabled a team to succeed. Successful “companies” were characterised by the compatibility of the roles that their members played while unsuccessful companies were subject to role conflict. Using information from psychometric tests and the CTA, predictions could be made on the roles that individuals played and ultimately on whether the company would be more likely to figure among the winners or losers.

One interesting point to observe from the experiment was that individuals reacted very differently within the same broad situation. It is a common experience that individual differences can cause a group to fall apart. People just don’t fit in. On the other hand, variation in personal characteristics can become a source of strength if they are recognised and taken account of. So understanding the nature of these differences can become an essential first step in the management of people, providing one can recognise what is useful for a given situation and what is not.

The most successful companies tended to be those with a mix of different people, i.e. those with a range of different behaviours. Eight distinct clusters of behaviour turned out to be distinctive and useful. These were called “Team Roles,” and in fact, a ninth based on specialist knowledge was to emerge later. These Team Roles have been used in organisations and teams across the world ever since.

Further Reading

The research carried out at Henley, along with the outcomes, can be found in Dr. Meredith Belbin’s first book

Additional titles by Meredith Belbin that explain the theory and its application in more detail:

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Specialist

It was only after the initial research had been completed that the ninth Team Role, Specialist emerged. In the real world, the value of an individual with in-depth knowledge of a key area came to be recognised as yet another essential team contribution.


Teamworker

Teamworkers helped the team to gel, using their versatility to identify the work required and complete it on behalf of the team.


Shaper

Challenging individuals, known as Shapers, provided the necessary drive to ensure that the team kept moving and did not lose focus or momentum.


Completer Finisher

Completer Finishers were most effectively used at the end of a task, to “polish” and scrutinise the work for errors, subjecting it to the highest standards of quality control.


Resource Investigator

When the team was at risk of becoming isolated and inwardly-focused, Resource Investigators provided inside knowledge on the opposition and made sure that the team’s idea would carry to the world outside the team.


Plant

The first Team Role to be identified was the Plant. The role was so-called because one such individual was “planted” in each team. They tended to be highly creative and good at solving problems in unconventional ways.


Monitor Evaluator

One by one, the other Team Roles began to emerge. The Monitor Evaluator was needed to provide a logical eye, make impartial judgments where required and to weigh up the team’s options in a dispassionate way.


Implementer

Implementers were needed to plan a practical, workable strategy and carry it out as efficiently as possible.


Co-Ordinator

Co-ordinators were needed to focus on the team’s objectives, draw out team members and delegate work appropriately.


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