What make a good team?

By Ben Fletcher

Ben is Professor of Personal & Organizational Development at the University of Hertfordshire, England.

Teamwork is about team work, not about team players. Sounds simple, but that statement cuts across key research on teams in the workplace. The idea that you need to play to the different strengths of individuals personalities when putting the team together is a way of limiting the potential performance of the team – not of maximizing it, as is often claimed.

What do we mean by the term ‘team’? I use the term to refer to any work situation in which a number of people are organized around a common set of objectives. So it can be large or small, temporary or permanent, fixed or fluid, project-based or functional – it depends on the objectives and how broad theses are in the context of the organization. In some organizations, teamwork is a cure for bureaucracy – the team membership cuts across the normal structures. In some organizations most of the work is done on a project-by-project basis in teams whose membership composition changes depending on the task. Team-based problem solving is also more common as organizations become more complex.

Most organizations believe that team composition – picking the members of the team – is important in team success. It is. But not, I suspect, for the reasons commonly thought.

One major influence in the area of effective teamwork has been the American psychologist, Dr. Meredith Belbin. He identified 9 ‘Team Roles’ that are seen as contributing to team success. According to Belbin, in every organization there are people who will naturally – because of their personality – take on each of the various roles. For Belbin a team should be put together with coverage of these 9 key areas. Many organizations around the globe have taken notice of this approach.

According to Belbin the important mix for the team needs to include:

  • The creative type who generates ideas called the Plant
  • The extrovert who has good networks (the Resource Investigator)
  • The dynamic individual who thrives on the pressure (the Shaper)
  • The person who soberly evaluates the usefulness of ideas (the Monitor-Evaluator)
  • The cooperative team player (the Teamworker)
  • The ones with specialist skills (the Specialist)
  • Those who turn ideas into solutions (the Implementer)
  • The person who get issues completed (the Completer-Finisher)
  • The person who keeps the team together effectively (the Co-ordinator).

Do you know what type of team role you fit? If you do then that should trouble you. You need to become more flexible if you are going to be successful. You should be able to take on any role as necessary, and be able to dispense with your natural tendencies. The Belbin prescription is completely the wrong way to consider teams. By playing it this way you are building-in inherent weaknesses into the team when you should be developing strengths. You are not ‘playing to strengths’ but ‘playing to weaknesses’. You are also accepting and encouraging these weaknesses and building them into the team. If team selection is necessary, then the best or FITtest people should be chosen (i.e. those that are FIT – Flexible-Innovative-Trainable) (see ‘HOW to think, live and work powerfully’). Research has shown that FIT people are able to take the necessary roles and do the necessary tasks as appropriate to the demands of the situation, and not to be a prisoner of their personalities.

Consider the Belbin roles a bit further. Even Belbin admits that each role has weaknesses: the Plant cannot communicate well and ignores incidentals; the Co-ordinator is seen as manipulative, the Monitor Evaluator cannot inspire, the Implementer can be inflexible and slow, the Completer-Finisher poor to delegate, the Resource Investigator loses interest, the Specialist has limited uses and is an anorak, the Teamworker can be indecisive and the Shaper can rub people up the wrong way. Would you want to be in a team with these players (or be one of them)? You should not. You want team players that can be responsive, not rigid.

For Belbin, making a team work is a bit like baking a cake: you need the right ingredients, there are quite a few of them, they cannot be used in many other ways, and there is quite a bit to go wrong because the cocktail can also be a poisonous one. I would recommend a different approach. By all means take a methodical and systematic approach to selection of team members (have a look at FITness at www.fitcorporation.de), but also make sure that the team is properly managed and tasked. Make sure that you know what each person is doing and that you have good communication channels – both formal and informal. If you want a bit of fun in the process of managing a team meeting, you could be a little creative and adopt Edward de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats Approach’.

For each problem or issue get the whole team to ‘wear different hats’:

  • Information (gathering relevant material for all the options)
  • Feelings (explore all the angles emotionally)
  • Caution (look at all the reasons to be cautious)
  • Benefits (all the benefits of different solutions)
  • Creativity (don’t just accept the normal solutions)
  • Managing the Thinking (issues to consider)

At least this approach gets all members to consider all the angles and provides a safe technique for members to raise potentially sensitive issues that for political or other reasons teams they might normally suppress (but which might be critical).

Developing a good team is a simple thing, although most people make it complicated. There is no magic. There are no special ingredients


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