The current state-of-the art
High performance teams exhibit several interrelated traits, that render them capable of optimal teamwork. Under this light, while a variety of factors influence a team’s performance, we have already highlighted that at the very basis of a high performance team lies a net of attributes that make up the team’s particular culture; namely, trust, transparency, conflict management strategies and team diversity (see previous post on High performance teams). Out of all four, considerable attention has been given to the influence of team member diversity (Aritzeta, Swailes & Senior, 2007). Diversity in teams is a rather burning issue for contemporary, dynamic and especially tech-driven firms and it has been systematically linked to product and service innovation, out of the box problem solving strategies and overall greater performance outcomes. Diversity can be assessed and approached through various lenses and one such lens is exploring diversity in terms of roles played inside a team. Mainly, ‘who is who’, ‘who does what best’ and -most importantly- ‘is there an optimal mix’?
Currently, team roles and team role theory are synonymous with Dr. Meredith Belbin’s team role model (Belbin,1981;1993) and its respective measurement tool. This framework is widely used in practice and in research on teams. Furthermore, the most important contribution of Belbin’s theory in the diversity literature is his ‘role-balance’ hypothesis: teams balanced with respect to the team role composition of its members -or in plain words, teams in which almost all team roles are manifested- are consistently more successful than teams in which this balance is absent. But what constitutes a team role and what types of roles should be manifested in a team to achieve the right mix or else the role-balance?
A little bit of history
Prior to the development of Belbin’s team role model other role conceptualizations were put forward in an attempt to answer two critical questions: how do people take on roles when working in a team and what types of roles do they hold.
Acquiring one’s role
Among theoretical models explaining how team and other social roles are acquired by individuals, a twofold classification can be made (Ilgen and Hollenbeck, 1991). On one hand, there are the ‘role taking’ models that view individuals as passive receivers of the roles assigned to them by others (e.g. ‘role episode model’ by Katz and Kahn, 1978). Here there is always a person who holds a set of beliefs that make up the role (the role sender) and communicates these expectations to another person who seemingly has no option but to perform the role (the focal person).
A key point we need our attentive reader to keep in mind at this point, is the theme of role expectations. We will come back to that later on.
The second classification of role models sees people actively developing and defining their role. These models are called ‘role making’ models because every actor (the focal person) in the team builds a set of activities that are not pre- prescribed but rather they serve the function and goals of the team. By doing so he/she influences the others/role senders (e.g. Graen & Scandura’s (1987) ‘theory of dyadic organizing’).
An additional key point highlighted by this stream of theories, is the theme of role autonomy or commitment; we need our reader to keep in mind this idea, as well.
Types of roles
Since the early ‘40s, a dual distinction between the so-called ‘task roles’ and ‘socio-emotional roles’ emerged. Under this light, Bales and Slater (1955) concluded that in teams there were two types of people; people concerned with solving problems (‘task leaders’) and those concerned with the teammates’ emotional needs (‘maintenance or socio-emotional leaders’). Task-centered roles were concerned with the coordination of group problem solving activities, whereas maintenance roles were concerned with promoting the relational aspect of a team; group-centered behavior. These theoretical antecedents served as the pillars upon which Belbin’s (1981) the team role model was build.
However, in real life organizations there is ‘no road of flowers’ leading to such simple twofold team role categorizations. Especially, in today’s agile market, projects become more complex and then so do the roles to be played by individuals, in their work teams. The lens, hence shifts towards identifying a wider variety of team roles to be manifested inside a team. In this sense, we must note Holland (1997) who proposed one of the first such models classifying team roles into six different families: ‘realistic’, ‘conventional’, ‘entrepreneur’, ‘social’, ‘artistic’ and ‘intellectual’. Each type reflects specific personality related characteristics possessed by individuals. For example, the intellectual type is described as analytical, cautious, independent etc. Belbin’s team role model –as we will see below- derives from this approach and attributes the various roles people tend to take when they work in teams, to their unique personality traits and psychological tendencies.
One last key point we would like our reader to keep in mind is this psychology related idea that team roles are considered to derive from -and directly correlate with- personality.
Belbin’s typology of team roles
Belbin studied teams with a particular interest in uncovering which factors influence team failure/success, for over 10 years. Extended observations and experimentation led him to the development of his team role theory and team role typology. Belbin uses a very specific, language to describe different roles in teams, deriving from the view that it is not so much the intellect or other types of abilities that shape the role a person may play in a team. Instead it is the psychological nature of the individual, namely their personality characteristics that make them fit for some roles while limiting the likelihood that they will prove successful in others. In plain words, team role is perceived essentially as a specific sub-category of personality characteristics, relevant to the work context. Which personality theory though is used when linking people to team roles? The well-established Five Factor or ‘Big Five’ model serves as the building block of Belbin’s typology describing individual differences in personality. The various team roles described by Belbin include the: Implementer (the effective team organizer); Coordinator (the team controller); Shaper; Plant ( the provider of original solutions) Resource investigator; Monitor evaluator (the analyzer of problems); Team worker; Completer Finisher and lastly the Specialist (Senaratne & Gunawardane, 2015).
Measurement-wise, Belbin developed the Team-Role Self-Perception Inventory (BTRSPI) to capture team role tendencies. This tool is used extensively –especially in the UK- in a variety of industrial settings, and organizational initiatives e.g. selecting and developing management teams (Aritzeta, Swailes & Senior, 2007). Indeed, as one can easily assume from the aforementioned theory, assessment, selection and placement activities are for Belbin the key tools for managers when aiming at improving team effectiveness (Manning, Parker & Pogson, 2006).
There are still a number of unanswered questions relating to Belbin’s theoretical framework. Studies of the psychometric properties of the BTRSPI instrument have showcased mixed results (e.g. Swailes and McIntyre-Bhatty, 2002). Such mixed findings have cast some doubt on the reliability of this framework to act as an indicator of role preference (Furnham et al., 1993;Dulewicz, 1995; Broucek and Randall, 1996). However, Belbin pointed out, that his theory & the instrument should be used predominately for consulting and educating managers rather than serving as an underpinning for ‘raw’ psychometric assessment. Indeed, research may show that the BTRSPI inventory is not sensitive enough, but this does not cancel the idea that team roles do exist (Prichard & Stanton, 1999). So what path should we follow?
A psychosocial integrated view
Now it is time to turn to the three key points we identified earlier; role expectations, role commitment/autonomy and personality. The latter as we showcased, is heavily linked to Belbin’s theory and is one of the strongest aspect of the model. The remaining two themes go beyond Belbin’s approach since they reflect the psychosocial perspective, through which a role is defined in the ‘traditional’ role literature (Biddle, 1979; Katz and Kahn, 1978). Taking everything into consideration, a novel idea arises at this point: what if we treated team roles beyond the constraining influence of personality and focus more on their social aspect? What if we treat them as learned behaviors? Treating team roles as learned social roles –without throwing Personality under the bridge, of course- recognizes the importance of social learning that takes place within work teams –any social context really. According to this notion of a role, how people act within a team is influenced in part at least, on what is expected of them in such positions, the autonomy that they have in that role and their commitment to carry out the responsibilities emerging from the particular role.
This intriguing premise is highlighted by Manning, Parker & Pogson (2006). The authors go beyond the psychological nature of team roles to emphasize their social nature. They form and test a model of three key antecedents of any team role observed within a team. Their research shows there is a relationship between an individual’s team role behavior (i.e. their habitual way of behaving in a particular team) and three key sets of non- interrelated factors. Essentially and overall, team role behavior (the ways in which the person habitually functions within the team) is jointly influenced by Team role expectations relating to the particular position a member holds within the team; Team role orientation, describing both the autonomy a member enjoys within the frame of their job role as well as the person’s commitment towards that role; Personality as related to the Five Factor taxonomy.
What is the focal idea we get out of this approach? In order to achieve the right mix, or else the ‘role-balance’ proposed by Belbin (i.e. ensuring almost all roles are existent within a team, hence the team manifests a high team role diversity) we could rely on Belbin’s role taxonomy but devote less attention on the areas emphasized by him; namely, assessment and selection. Instead when faced with the need to choose between various team building activities perhaps the wisest option for a manger would be to invest resources (time, money, human resources etc.) in L&D tools. Even more so in team building exercises that address leadership, problem solving, work planning, interpersonal skills, as well as team/project specific knowledge. Focusing on such key training activities addresses the role commitment, expectations and autonomy aspects of team roles model and may help produce diverse and balanced teams in terms of role variety and functionality.
Key takeaway: Invest wisely
Create the right role mix within your team. Build a team with a variety of role types, by investing in team building exercises that address problem solving, work planning, interpersonal skills and specific technical knowledge.
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