Of personalities, interpersonal relationships and management.

I know when it’s time to go on vacation; this blog starts to dry up. It’s a great indicator because I write how I feel on this website, and when I’m too busy to think about that, I’m already past my best. And so from the 9th September until the 18th November, this column was barren.

It may be useful for you to consider your own life/work balance and see what the triggers are to take some time off. The earlier the trigger you can spot, the better you can deal with it. I bet there’s a much earlier trigger than waking up at 6am with a banging headache. Did you start eating out too much, or start skipping the visits to the gym? Maybe a tick in your hand? Spotting early triggers to burnouts are a really useful coping mechanism to the myriad of stress in our lives.

I also know when I’m healed and nearly ready to come back from vacation. It happened when I woke up at 4.30am today and lay there thinking about the Belbin Team Inventory, and what it means on the 30th anniversary of his writing about it, to our personal and business lives? Is it still relevant? Was it ever? Can we learn anything? And my catharsis is to write about it here.

What’s Belbin all about?

For those that haven’t read about Belbin, Wikipedia does a much better job than I do about explaining it, but the basics are that a chap called Belbin spent a lot of time in the 1970s researching and observing successful and failed teams, and trying to draw conclusions in the statistics. He wrote it up in a book called Management Teams: why they succeed or fail.

The principle is that there are 8 distinct roles in a team:

  • Plant: The creative person, solving the tough problems who loves to come back and present their fantastic ideas.
  • Resource Investigator: The networker, who always knows someone who can help, where to get it from and how to get it.
  • Co-ordinator: Makes sure that everyone contributes and participates, ensuring fairness. Allocates roles and responsibilities.
  • Shaper: Dynamic, loves a challenge and pressure. Has drive and courage; pushes and challenges the group.
  • Monitor-Evaluator: A strategist, looking at all options and choosing carefully. Stops the team wasting time and prevents mistakes.
  • Team Worker: Ensures that the team interpersonal relationships are maintained. Sensitive to undertones, gives personal support and resolves conflict. Ensures long-term cohesion.
  • implementor: The practical thinker that creates systems and processes that deliver. Strongly rooted in the real world.
  • Completer Finisher: Eye for the details, flaws and gaps. Monitors schedules and makes sure work is on-time and to-budget.
  • Specialist: Provides rare expertise and skills, single-minded and dedicated.

Recognise yourself in here?

I know I do. The role I play depends on the team I am in, but it’s usually the plant or the specialist. So there I was, considering my interpersonal relationship with a friend, who is a classic completer-finisher. It’s interesting because sometimes we simply can’t see eye-to-eye. My friend can’t understand why I don’t always have attention to detail, and the answer is easy: detail does not come naturally to me. I can do it if absolutely necessary, but it requires effort.

Belbin theorizes that an optimal team size is 4, and each person in the team should know their roles within the team role inventory. Roles can be combined, but for instance a plant is unlikely to also be a completer-finisher.

So is Belbin really relevant today?

I’m not sure. There are far better management books out there now. If you’re interested in this stuff then try Marcus Buckingham’s First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. I think it’s as good as any place to start to learn about how to be a great manager and leader.

But on the other hand, the Belbin roles do sort of fit and it’s a really simple theory. What’s more I believe it’s important to recognise your strengths and weaknesses and employ people around you – or organise a team – in such a way that you can play to your strengths, and someone else can fill your weaknesses in.

A great example of this was when I employed someone to do an aspect of what my work role contained. A few people commented to him “so I hear you’ve been employed to be John’s b***h!”. They chose to notice that I employed someone to take some work off my plate, but also conveniently chose not to notice that he does it so much better than I do – because he plays the Implementor and Completer-Finisher roles better than I do. As such, we are complementary.

How do you build cohesion between team roles?

And this is really the guts of it. Can a plant and a completer-finisher really ever see eye-to-eye? I think so, and I think Belbin can be useful in this respect. Because, by considering which roles we can fit into – trying on clothes for size, if you like, we can recognise some of our strengths and weaknesses.

And when we recognise those, we can both avoid to some extent doing the roles that we’re not good at – and also, perhaps, empathise with people who have different strengths to ourselves.

If you really want to try this out in a more analytical manner – try Tom Rath’s Strengths Finder 2.0. It’s a pretty excellent read and may help you define who you are. And I’m pretty certain that without Belbin, there wouldn’t have been Buckingham or Rath.

Final Words

If you take one thing from this: please try to empathise with people with different strengths and weaknesses to yourself. We all bring different things to the party and if we were all the same, the world would be a pretty dull place.

From a practical point of view: if you’re not a completer-finisher, you need to make sure you find someone who is! As for me, I’m glad I’m refreshed and ready to get back to work next week.

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3 Responses to Of personalities, interpersonal relationships and management.

  1. I agree completely with that last bit – understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and that other people’s may be different but equally valuable, goes a long, long way to making teams work better. Having people with complementary skills is more than important, it is essential if you want teams to work well.

    Like you I’m primarily a plant, and absolutely not a completer-finisher. Once I’ve solved a problem, it loses its interest. An actual implementation is left as an exercise for the reader (completer-finisher)! I can do prototypes and pilots at a push. I really, really appreciate people who care about the detail and actively enjoy what I consider the boring stuff of making something work in the real world. The desk next to me is occupied by just such a person and we’d be in trouble without him…

    I also love to play with new toys and get excited about the possibilities, the new things we’d be able to do if we adopted new technologies now. I need somebody with a more realistic world-view to rein me back and stop me wasting time on fun things that aren’t actually useful. I need a monitor-evaluator. Oddly, I think I play that role fairly well for others – I just can’t do it for myself.

  2. Cheryl Coulby says:

    Interesting topic and I do worry about you waking up at 4:30 thinking about Belbins Team Inventory!
    I agree with a lot of what you are saying but I think we need to be careful not to pigeon hole ourselves, I know we all come with certain personality traits that would make us a mixture of a plant (he he, always makes me laugh being a plant, makes me think of the adventure game with the talking aspidistras, showing my age there) or a finisher, however remember we are all individuals and are all made up of different amounts of the distinct types, which is unique. This is what makes life interesting and managing people and teams interesting. Also do not underestimate the affect of the environment and others on behaviour too.
    I also agree with concentrate on your strengths as these will always be strengths and you will do some of your most satisfying, interesting and successful work using them. Bare in mind that strengths may alter over time as you mature.
    I also wanted to add my thoughts on team dynamics. Tuckman (1965) discovered that teams normally go through five steps of growth, Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning. I must admit when I just looked this up I did not rememeber the fifth one. So be aware when you introduce a new member to the team you may turn a performing team back into a storming team again.

    • John Appleby says:

      Nice comments and thanks for the input. I’d better point out that I was in bed at 8 and due to get up for a run at 5.30, so it’s not quite as bad as it sounds although still slightly disturbing 🙂

      I’m not sure I got that point over well enough in the original article, but I think that’s the major danger with Belbin, and other tests like Myers-Briggs too – pigeonholing. I think there is some use in thinking about the team inventories but I’m not so sure about using them as a hard and fast rule in terms of how we build our teams. But as a soft thought in terms of what’s missing in a team, I think that Belbin could be a useful indicator. For example, there are major risks if no one in a team is focussed on the detail.

      As usual Wikipedia has a great article on Tuckman’s stages of group development. The fifth one was added at a later stage which may be why you don’t remember it – both Belbin and Tuckman later refined their research. The relationship between group dynamics and development sounds like a topic for a later blog!

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